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So Your Kids’ PBL Work Sucks? 8 Ways to Improve It!

So Your Kids’ PBL Work Sucks? 8 Ways to Improve It!

So you’re using Project/Problem-Based Learning in your classroom now and you’re a little disappointed with what the kids are turning in to you. You don’t want to tell them exactly what to make/build/design/develop, but apparently they need some help because their work is just … well … for lack of a better term, their work is shoddy.

Sure, they worked hard(ish). Yes, they learned a lot … you think. But you’re just not sure they’re learning all they could be, according to the promises that PBL is supposed to deliver. 

So what do you do? 

Some teachers throw up their hands, blame the kids or the supposed lack of structure of PBL and go back to their lecture/worksheet, teacher-directed ways. 

But you…you know there’s gotta be more, right? Right?! 

Yes. There’s more. 

Every month I get to go into classrooms around the US and I see teachers who are working hard on practicing their PBL approaches. But they’re not satisfied with the final results. So what can we do right now to help move our kids forward in the quality of their work?

  1. Be clear in your expectations. Be careful! We’re not telling them what to do, but instead, share with them — or better yet, help them develop a plan for — what the end result/impact will be. What is the challenge? How will you KNOW the work is to top-quality? And at first, we might need to guide them on what top quality is. Help them research something similar out there in the world. How do you create something of that quality. Because if the learning experience matters, then we want to be looking out to the world for our exemplars and models — not just “getting done.” And kids will fight us on this, particularly bright high school students who had years to perfect their intellectual laziness. Love them through the struggle. Be kind, but keep the pressure and encouragement to look beyond the next assignment for the purpose of school. 
  2. Have them answer a big question as a driving force to their presentation. The launch is the ‘first date impression’ to a challenge. It had better be interesting and it had better be pretty obvious what they’re doing. “How would you stop the rise of Hitler?”  “Reimagine the airplane as if the Wright brothers had never built theirs.” And so in their final work, they would be expected to be pointing all their work and learning back to the original question or challenge. And it helps them refocus on the job at hand when it’s very possible to get spun deeply into tangents of adjacent learning.
  3. Have them use the KWL chart (either as a class or as a group). Have them show you the plan before they are approved to start researching. And when I say KWL, I don’t mean the standard “Know, Want to Know, Learned” chart. I mean something a bit different. This helps keep them focused on the smaller steps each day without us having to remind them. It’s a great group-organizer that carries over to adult life, managing small to larger problems.
  4. Research together as a whole class (when everyone’s looking at same topic). Sometimes kids will dilly-dally on the research. Remember the old days of going to the library to research? Nowadays we can spend a fraction of the time learning the basics of any topic with the Internet and quickly keep moving forward. So when you have 25 hands on keyboards, researching and dropping information into a Google Doc, you can suss out a TON of information quickly. The teacher’s job then is to keep prompting with bigger questions (that kids will get better asking themselves by using this process regularly), help keep them organizing the growing info in the GDoc, and making sure they’re citing their sources. This is a quick n dirty form of initial research so then they can dig slower and deeper into finite portions of information later. I’ve seen too many classrooms where the kids mess around individually, Googling and calling it ‘research’ and literally wasting days of time picking up only surface-level info.When time is wasted, kids get to the deadline and turn in half-quality work. This is simply unacceptable. But more importantly than turning in shoddy schoolwork, in today’s information age, the ability to search, filter, and use information must come at speeds never before experienced. And the only way our kids will get there is by practicing. THAT is the skill we’re looking to develop. 
  5. Before they start building their product, ie a video, they have to have a storyboard, an outline, or a plan. Pre-planning. It’s an essential in a PBL classroom. Otherwise, time is wasted and when time is wasted, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, kids rush at the end and turn in a shoddy product. So we must have a plan and kids must have it seen and checked off  before beginning the product. And this check-off procedure doesn’t have to be graded or be a big deal. Can they show you they have thought about what they’re doing and why? And how? And by when? Then let ’em go! Raise your expectations for complexity as they get more experience. Sometimes, for some kids, just having ANY plan is a win. Don’t overburden your win with too much curricular luggage. Get them in the habit of planning first, then raise expectations. And it helps many of them from waiting until the last nite to start to build. Get them to pre-plan; to think ahead. As my hillbilly dad used to say, “Those who think ahead do so because they have one.” I hated that statement then, but only because I wasn’t a pre-planner. I was one of the intellectually lazy ones!
  6. Be sure they’re working well with others and using their time wisely throughout. We can use contracts they’ve created for themselves to hold one another accountable for their work/actions. I don’t do a lot of crowd control other than reminding them of deadlines and sitting next to and visiting with each group regularly. Want to know how to use contracts effectively in a PBL classroom
  7. Do a side-workshop to help them learn how to present, or build a great presentation, or any other finite right/wrong skill practice they need. Pull kids aside for 10-15 minutes for a mini-workshop about that skill. Do it in small groups or as a whole group. Be sure you’ve created a situation where they realize they need that info from you. But it doesn’t have to be you. It could be a short video. Or a tutorial from a fellow student. Or another teacher. Or someone else. Just keep it short, keep it to the point, and be sure they know they need it. Sometimes kids need discrete instruction. That’s where YouTube or Instructables, or expert advice is awesome in real life too! 
  8. Lastly, make sure their challenges are meaningful to them. That what they’re doing is happening for a purpose. And that having high quality results actually matters — to them! If the work we’re asking them to do doesn’t resonate with why it’s important to them, what are we doing? And simply telling them it’s important isn’t enough. They have to know it. And they know if you’re trying to pull a fast one. If it doesn’t matter to their lives, then why are you pushing it? Seriously. And “to pass the next class” is about the least genuine thing I think you can tell a student.

There are so many complexities of what a great PBL teacher is doing constantly to be sure that her students are working to optimal quality without just handing them everything. And the skills the kids develop will carry them though whatever path they choose to seek for their futures, I promise!

Ginger Lewman shares her 10+ years of PBL experience with educators across the US and beyond. She connects heart to heart with teachers who are in the trenches, making it happen for kids every single day. And she can do the same for your school

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Written by GingerLewman

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