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by Angela Marzilli
National Faculty

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Topic tags: Project Based Teaching Practice: Scaffold Student Learning, PB Teaching: Scaffold Student learning


October 10, 2018
Making Project Based Learning a Gift for the Gifted

by Angela Marzilli
National Faculty

If you’ve participated in a PBL 101 workshop with BIE, think back to the end of Day One. How did you feel? Chances are you felt somewhat unsettled: unsure about whether or not your project would be completed on time, whether it would be feasible to do with students, whether it contained all the essential elements… basically, whether it was “right.” When confronted with a project for the first time, many gifted students feel the same way.

One of the persistent need-to-know questions I’m asked by teachers in workshops is, “What about the students who won’t do the work?” While this can be a challenge, often these students are invigorated by the authenticity and choice inherent in PBL, and they surprise us all. But frequently it’s also the gifted students in our classes who struggle in projects; students who have not been adequately challenged in the past are accustomed to getting the correct answer quickly and, even more importantly, knowing immediately that they are correct. Faced with a project that requires extended, higher-level thinking and leads to an ambiguous solution, gifted students often struggle with retaining their self-confidence (how can I still be smart if this is challenging for me?) and may push back on the concept of products that don’t have a clearly defined right or wrong answer.

This seems counter-intuitive; as educators, we know our gifted students should shine in situations where they are asked to use their critical thinking and creativity to its fullest extent. We often don’t think about how to specifically scaffold projects for gifted students. While the scaffolds they need to be successful doing project based learning can benefit all students, gifted students need certain things in place to reach their potential within a PBL classroom.

Scaffolding PBL for Gifted Students

1. Write a detailed rubric—and give it to students early in the project. This is important for all students, and it is a critical component to helping gifted students feel safe within the looser confines of a project. Used to getting being sure of their answers and the “doneness” of their work, gifted students need very clear guidelines for what will show their teachers that their project is finished and correct. As you facilitate more projects with your students, you can help gifted students, and really, all students, to be more comfortable with the choice and ambiguity that accompany some projects.

2. Make your “exceeds the standard” rubric column about depth of knowledge, not aesthetics. We want gifted students to challenge their thinking, not their coloring skills. And even though sometimes at BIE we advocate leaving that last rubric column open so students will be encouraged to use their creativity and “outside-the-box” thinking, being a little bit more specific can help gifted students (and, again, all our students) rise to the occasion. Be sure that your rubric’s “exceeds” column raises the bar in depth of knowledge: taking it from explaining why something happens to determining its impact, for example. It will give students something concrete toward which to stretch their thinking.

3. Leave room for students to have ideas you didn’t have. Giving students a list of options from which to choose a topic or product is a good way to incorporate more voice and choice in your project design. With gifted students it’s important to also include a “teacher conference” option, where they can pitch their different, often whacky, idea to you for your consideration. This allows gifted students to make connections to their sometimes fervent passions and to let their creativity have its day in the classroom. But don’t worry—you still reserve the right to deny or tweak an idea that doesn’t fit with what you need to accomplish in the project.

4. Consider grouping like academic abilities.  A common go-to grouping strategy for teachers is to place struggling students with more capable students, thinking that the latter can help the former. However, sometimes it’s useful to group students with comparable academic abilities. In my high school physics class, for example, my teacher grouped us in like-ability teams and assigned us an experiment to design. He then differentiated the project by what materials we were allowed to use. The whole class was calculating the acceleration due to gravity, but some teams had very straightforward materials and some had materials that were more challenging to use. Grouping like abilities some of the time can help you be sure everyone in your classroom is challenged in their thinking, not just their peer tutoring and collaboration skills.

As is often true in education, what’s critical for one sub-group of students can be beneficial for all. Putting some of these scaffolds in place for the gifted students in your classroom can benefit your other students, and they will definitely help your gifted students develop the deepest understanding they can gain from Project Based Learning.


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