by Eric White
Originally posted at P21.org.
Ben Franklin once famously said, "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." As a PBL teacher, I’d like to add one more item to his short list: projects last longer than expected. One of the biggest challenges PBL teachers face is staying on track with time. Obstacles like pep rallies, snow days, reteaching, inexperience with PBL planning—and the list goes on—can quickly turn your project calendar into a traffic jam. When this occurs, Project Based Learning becomes the dreaded PBL: Project Based Lag. We’ve all been there, including me. Below are some lessons learned and tips to prevent your next project from dragging on past its prime.
Tip #1: Embrace a High Stakes Deadline
This can be a frightening prospect, but it can also help you prioritize and maintain a focus on your project’s core. I learned this when I helped facilitate a project that involved students writing and performing a murder mystery. Students were ecstatic about this work, and they drafted a “Most Wanted List” that included over 400 community stakeholders to fill the venue to capacity for the big night. My students were fired up, but I was freaking out as the invitations were sent. The date was final, and my mind was swimming with anxious thoughts. What if we are not prepared? Will I really be able to manage this?
The good news is that the kids were ready and pulled off a wonderful experience for everyone that night. As I reflect on the project, I am grateful we sent those invitations and actually committed to an unflinching date in advance. That productive tension forced me to force me to persistently track student progress and respond by the minute.
The bottom line is that a project takes as long as you say it takes, so go ahead and set that date!
Tip #2: Kill your Darlings
This is age-old advice for writers. To preserve integrity and move the story forward, an author must sometimes cut their most prized and self-indulgent passages. Just like writers, we can sometimes grow overly attached to our activities and lessons. They may be interesting and even fun for students, but some may stray from the main focus of the project. To stay on track, these “darlings” must be cut.
I recall a time when my students called me out on one of my “darlings.” After a summer visit to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, I was inspired to do a project that mirrored the plaques I spent hours viewing. I had my students an individual in world history to be inducted into our school’s “History Department Hall of Fame.” Students wrote biographies and delivered speeches to honor the inductees. To take it to the next level, I had students paint portraits of their selected figures for our hallway exhibit. Cool addition, right? Well, that ended up being my “darling.” Those portraits ended up delaying my project weeks over my anticipated due date, and students began asking what all the messy painting had to do with history class. They were right. In my efforts to have a pretty showcase of student work, I lost my way.
Remember, every movie has deleted scenes to keep it coherent; your project may need the same. If your something strays from your project’s essence, be courageous enough to give it the ax.
Tip #3: Don't Step in the PBL Quicksand
In my initial zeal to jump in and “go big” with PBL, I often found myself sinking. I felt the need to have fully-integrated, semester-long projects. These behemoths became an endless horizon I continued to chase. Some of them were eventually abandoned and never completed as planned.
To avoid sinking in the “PBL Quicksand,” start with a smaller project to set yourself up for success. Include the major elements of PBL (authenticity, inquiry, public audience, 21st century skills, etc.), but stay a bit modest in your approach. Also, think about how long it would traditionally take for students to learn the academic standards in your project. This will give you helpful baseline data. A project will obviously take longer, but standards that normally take 2 weeks to learn don’t deserve a 5-week project. Stay in the ballpark.
The Final Word
Keeping to your calendar is a constant challenge, so don't get down on yourself if you go a bit long with your first few attempts. When trying new and unfamiliar things, our first is often our worst and PBL is no exception. Being a great PBL teacher doesn't take perfection; it takes reflection. You get more efficient as you progress with the practice, so continue to iterate and learn.
What do you do to keep the pace with PBL? Please enter a comment below.