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Classroom Management, Education Trends, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 16, 2017

Hacking project-based learning: tips for management, assessment, & more from Ross Cooper & Erin Murphy

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Hacking project-based learning: tips for management, assessment, & more from Ross Cooper & Erin Murphy

By Angela Watson

I have two guests on the show today–they are the co-authors of the new book Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom. You’ll hear from Erin Murphy, who is an assistant principal and certified literacy specialist in the East Penn School District in Pennsylvania, and Ross Cooper, who is the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Erin and Ross are passionate about inquiry-based learning and have supported countless teachers in implementing it, through not only their school-based work but also through the PD and workshops they conduct. I’m really excited to have them here to help us move past the jargon and buzzwords, and talk about the realities on doing PBL with kids.

For many teachers, it’s a very different way of facilitating learning, where kids are identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. It’s an incredibly powerful, effective, and cross-curricular way for kids to learn. But it’s not always simple to plan, and manage, and assess, so we’re going to talk about some practical teaching strategies today.

We’re also going to look at how to address some of the pitfalls that students face. PBL is incredibly rigorous, or should be, and we all know that kids aren’t always excited about rigor and working hard–they can’t just pass a test at the end of the unit and be done. With PBL, kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, interact with its lessons, collaborate with each other, and assess themselves and each other. It’s pretty complex stuff. It’s a tough juxtaposition with the “fill in the bubble” standardized testing mentality that most are expected to juggle simultaneously.

So, let me hand this over to Erin and Ross, and have them address some of the most common questions and issues that teachers are facing around PBL.

1. How can a teacher make time for project-based learning? A lot of teachers would love to incorporate more PBL but have prescribed curriculum/pacing guides to follow. So I’m wondering, how many hours a day/week are teachers doing PBL? I’m assuming it’s very different for elementary than secondary.

Erin: I’m going to let Ross jump in in a second, but I just want to address here the piece about the secondary versus the elementary. And certainly those two things look different, and I think that we’ll talk about that at multiple times throughout this podcast, but I think that the good thing about secondary is that I see less scripted programs at the secondary level, which is obviously a positive.

But what I do know is that secondary teachers tend to be very content-driven in that they feel very passionately about their particular content, and don’t always look for cross-curricular opportunities, which is obviously ideal for project-based learning. That’s definitely something at the secondary level we want to look for: those cross-curricular activities and opportunities to show students the connections between their subjects, and that they’re not living in these silos, being ushered between the silos each day.

Ross: Erin said a lot and she pretty much answered the question, but I’m going to add two things real quick. One, focusing at the elementary level, typically this is where students are learning to read rather than reading to learn. So there’s this whole idea that, OK, you want me to do this, but my kids can barely read. And I think that if we dumb things down because they’re learning to read, then we’re doing them a disservice by not exposing them to all of this great, engaging, relevant content and learning experiences that are out there.

So to kill two birds with one stone, you could take that reading comprehension, whether it’s fiction, but in particular nonfiction reading comprehension, look at the topics on which the project is focusing and weave that into the project itself. So they’re actually learning to read through the greater context of the project-based learning experience, because you can tie nonfiction reading comprehension into pretty much anything. So that’s one.

And No. 2 is a lot of times teachers will look at a chapter, let’s take math, for example, because I think with the work that I’ve done at the elementary level, a lot of teachers, if you’re going to follow the series for anything it’s usually math — you go chapter by chapter. So if you’re teaching a chapter, let’s say Chapter 15 is on fractions. Rather than just going lesson by lesson, it’s looking at the chapter as a whole and asking yourself what you want students to understand. And what are those big high impact takeaways you want them to walk away with at the conclusion of this chapter. Then really teaching with those in mind rather than the lessons in mind. And then when we have to focus on the learning and those understandings rather than the lessons that are in the textbook, that shift is really powerful.

So in a sense, you’re really taking what’s in that chapter and deconstructing it based on understandings and not by the lessons. And then once you have those understandings, then it’s easier to then supplement with outside resources that are more engaging and relevant to the learners.

Erin: There was a really terrific idea that one of our eighth-grade math teachers came up with to approach this issue that you outlined, Angela, in a secondary classroom. The way she has worked this into her room, is she had kicked off a project where the students were using triangles and their knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem to design structures and bridges.

So she kicked off this project, and the kids enter her room each day. She does a mini lesson related to their content based on where she’s supposed to be on the pacing guide, but then the kids get started on their project, and they’re working at their own pace, working on their project in their groups or individually. And she pulls the students in small groups or independently to check for understanding, and then provides follow-up content or follow-up lessons.

So she’s sort of using the PBL experience as a center-based model, so the students are working on their PBL unless she’s doing a mini lesson or pulling them for individualized instruction on the content that she’s teaching through her pacing guide. So I thought that that was a really unique way to work PBL into a secondary classroom model.

2) I want to talk more specifically about elementary grades, particularly K-3. So many of the resources for PBL are geared toward older kids, and it’s really hard to figure out what this is supposed to look like with, say, five, six, or seven year olds. How does PBL work in the primary grades?

Erin: We’ve actually been contacted by several kindergarten teachers. In fact, there was a group of kindergarten teachers that were doing a book study using “Hacking Project Based Learning,” and they contacted us to find out, how do kids do research? How do they create models?

I would say, through a few different avenues, and as Ross said, these kids are learning to read, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t also read to learn. So using your shared reading opportunities and your guided reading opportunities, that’s when students can be doing their research. You can be teaching them research literacy skills at the same time that you’re doing a read-aloud, pulling a website or an article or something up onto the big screen in your room. Or if it’s something that you printed out in maybe a big text, and instead of using a big book that day, you’re reading text off your computer screen and using organic, informational texts for your students to read.

The other piece to there is that a lot of times we rely on a kid’s literacy skills to show what they know also, and then if a student isn’t able to write out or explain in writing or what they had learned in their experience, then we kind of look at it like, well maybe they didn’t master that skill. I’ve seen some really great primary teachers harness the use of a video blog for students to show what they know. So at the end of each lesson or the end of the week or a certain amount of lessons, the students get to sit down with the computer and do a little mini briefing on what they did that week or what they’ve done recently.

They love it, and that’s something that you get to post and show to their parents, and parents eat that up, because it’s like their sneak peek inside their child’s classroom. And then obviously kids in kindergarten, first, second grade, they can certainly prototype and build models in small groups with a little teacher instruction, and that could be one of your centers. You’re going to your writing center, you’re going to have your guided reading center, and then it’s your prototyping center. Depending on what you’re working on, students can certainly be building and playing with rubber bands and casters and wheels and trying to design something during a work station.

Cooper: That was the teacher out of North Carolina, her name was Aubrey. It was #PBLclouds, and she did a couple of blog posts about it.

It was really powerful, the things that she was doing with her kindergarten students. We actually tweeted it out. “Think kindergarteners can’t do PBL? Take a look at this.” I think a lot of times, this whole idea that primary students, or just students in general can’t do PBL. That’s more so the mindset of the teachers than it really is of the students. If we let them go and we get out of their way, in general they’re going to do pretty amazing things. A lot of these skills and strategies that we’re already teaching students, such as how to think critically, and how to effectively collaborate, and how to work well with each other, that’s really being done in kindergarten. But now rather than doing it so they can comply and so that they pay attention doing more direct instruction, it’s doing within, once again, that context of PBL so it serves a greater purpose.

Erin: Yeah. I really like something you said there, Ross. This idea that I’ve been sort of thinking about recently as I watch my 3-year-old explore her world is that kids really think that they can do anything until someone tells them that they can’t. The kids that are in our classrooms, they think they can do PBL. They think they can do anything. As long as we’re willing to let them try, I think that good things are going to happen.

3) A lot of times PBL gets derailed because kids are getting into fights, arguing over trivial things, and being mean to one another. I’ve heard from a lot of teachers who felt like they had to pull back on PBL or were too nervous to start because of the collaborative aspects. I’d like to talk first about this issue at the elementary level with very young kids, and then consider it from a middle/high school perspective. Can you talk a little bit about what teachers should do for the kids who don’t have the interpersonal skills to be successful with PBL?

Cooper: Just like with any type of activity, whether it’s STEM, whether it’s project-based learning, whether it’s robotics. I think our attitude should be, how can we make it work for the students that are in front of us rather than blaming the students and getting frustrated, giving them less of a learning experience.

I think it’s a very slippery slope when we start to blame our students and say, “Oh, the kids that I have couldn’t do this.” I think it’s a very slippery slope. To be honest, I was that teacher who said that earlier on in my career, but once I let the students go, I was really amazed at some of the things that they were able to do when I put my trust in them.

But I think a lot of times, just like with adults, we put a lot of people from diverse backgrounds in the same room or in the same group, and we just magically expect them to start talking and collaborate. I used to tell my students, “I don’t even get along with some of the teachers in this building.” Erin was down the hallway from me, and we didn’t get along all the time either!

But letting them know that it’s not just them, that this whole idea that you’re not getting along with the person across from you, but that’s not just you. These are skills that you could build, and the whole idea of growth mindset. To be honest, I’m mindsetted out. I’m kind of sick of hearing about growth mindset. But it’s this whole idea that it is a learned skill rather than something you should be able to do because I said so. And maybe Erin can talk about how we go about that, teaching that skill.

Erin: I think that last thing that Ross just said is the biggest thing. We think that because we tell kids to do group work, that suddenly they know how to collaborate. And collaboration, as Ross was alluding to that even as adults as we struggle to collaborate — collaboration is a really complex experience. And so is algebra, right? And we don’t just put algebra in front of them and do algebra. We teach them how to do algebra. We model it for them. We show them different strategies, we have them take notes on algebra.

And essentially what we need to do is we need to model and explicitly teach strategies for students to collaborate. Even when I’m working with middle schoolers: Guys, when I’m collaborating with someone, I lean up on the desk, I lean closer to them. Notice my body language. My arms are down. I don’t have my hands folded. I’m not looking at my phone. I’m not snickering at them. And I model these things with them.

We do fishbowl routines, so we have a group of students sit in the middle, and actually start their conversation, and then we as the outside circle around their conversation talk about what was effective and how they collaborated or spoke to each other, and what was ineffective, what might need changed. And then when I am having a conversation with another adult, I might be modeling or I might take the time to go back and say, “Do you see how when I had a question about what that person shared with me, I phrased my question like this, because I wanted them to know that I was open … ”

Again, we want to do think-alouds, we want to model for our students how we can challenge each other, because I think that’s the other thing too. I think that kids think that when they collaborate, it means that we never disagree, and that’s not necessarily the case either. I think that truly teaching kids how to collaborate has to do with teaching them how to disagree, so that they can create a better product.

4) How do you keep PBL from becoming a management nightmare, where the teacher’s trying to oversee all the projects and keep everyone on track? Obviously we want to give as much ownership of this to the kids, but how do you keep students on a timeline and help them manage their time with PBL?

Erin: I’m going to kind of piggyback that question with something else that we get asked a lot, which is about assessment in project-based learning. And I think that Ross and I really approach both of those things, so keeping kids on track, on time and on task, and then also it’s a way that we sort of shift ownership of assessment.

We use something called a progress assessment tool, it’s a three-column organizer, and in the first column, we list our learning objectives, and this is very transparent, this is what we want all students to be able to do, and the students have this organizer with them. The middle column then is what the students are going to do to prove or show that they have that understanding, that they’ve mastered that objective.

Once you get really comfortable with the PBL experience, you would actually create those expectations with your students by examining exemplars, and we can talk about that a little bit more later, but the reason I’m taking the time to explain this now is students use then that third empty column in the progress assessment tool to track and reflect on how they’re moving throughout the project.

And then as a teacher, I’ve found that using a tool like this really helped me stay in touch with where each group was and where each student was. As I would do my sort of “daily conferences” or check-ins with each group, I would have them take their progress assessment tool out, I would check in on where students were on reaching each of their objectives, and it really helped me target my feedback that I was giving the students, so that I kept moving everyone forward.

You can picture the group in your class where you went to them every day and you were like, “Hey guys. You still haven’t gotten a roof on that structure that you’re designing. What are we doing about that roof?” And then suddenly our conversation becomes more about the roof and less about the fact that we’re using right triangles to design the roof, and that we need to make sure that we’re integrating something that’s going to keep the residents of our home dry, because that’s a basic need in life. We move away from the objective, and we’re having a conversation about a roof instead.

Ross: Basically when you think about rubrics, they’re messy, and nobody likes rubrics. I mean, people definitely shudder at the idea of rubrics, and a question we always get is how do you grade project-based learning. We think that if you’re talking about how to grade something to get a grade in a grade book, then the conversation is in the wrong place, because if we want to put the emphasis on the learning and not the grading, then it’s all about feedback, feedback, feedback.

If we want to put the emphasis on learning and not grading, then it’s all about feedback. Click To Tweet

So rethinking the rubric from the ground up, the progress assessment tool, it starts at those learning targets. And when students have that clear picture of what they have to hit, then they’re able to drive their own learning through that constant feedback and through knowing what those learning targets look like within the context of the project, and that’s really what the progress assessment tool does.

The other big piece of that too is this idea of looking at feedback as a learned skill. In a lot of classrooms, feedback might just come from the teacher. But we, ideally, want feedback to be peer feedback as well as students working with each other, but also this whole idea of student agency and awareness of students knowing themselves without having to consult outside people. And knowing where they are on the continuum of where they are and where they need to go in order to hit those learning targets, and being able to have that awareness on their own, rather than talking to the teacher and/or other students.

And one of the ways that I taught feedback in my classroom was actually through student blogging, and this whole idea of … I was really big on blogging, I still am big on blogging, whether it’s having my fourth-graders on WordPress or Kidblog. I left the classroom before Seesaw became big, but my students generally used WordPress.com or Kidblog. And this whole idea of explicitly teaching them how to leave quality comments on each other’s work, this whole idea of analyzing comments, incorporating what’s a good comment, what’s a bad comment, creating a list of what constitutes an effective comment, and that goes in line with giving effective feedback. They were then able to make that transfer between quality commenting on blogs to effective feedback to provide one another and to then to provide for themselves as they were going through the project.

I think it starts with the learning targets, but I think it’s also that idea of being able to get feedback, starting with the teacher, going to peer feedback, and then ultimately having that “with-it-ness” to know where you are on the continuum of where you need to be.

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5) A lot of teachers have a hard time coming up with the “problems” or questions to drive inquiry projects. Are there any good databases or collections online of already created PBLs to pull from, or other resources would you recommend to help them?

Erin: Sure. So some of the go-to tools that we like to recommend, first of all there’s this really great book called Hacking Project Based Learning where we do give you some ideas in our book–hah!

But then the Buck Institute for Education has a ton of free resources. “Getting Smart,” which is a blog that focuses on problem-based, project-based, place-based education, and they have a lot of really great examples there. Edutopia has a PBL page. And then there are databases, like Learn21 is one that pops out in my head.

But the one thing that I would say about grabbing a sort of pre-packaged or pre-planned project is that the beauty of project-based learning is that it really should be differentiated for your classroom. So sometimes when you download one of these packages, these project packages, it ends up looking like a whole bunch of worksheets that you then just give to your students. Obviously that’s not what project-based learning is about, and nobody gets excited about a 32-page packet. That’s just not true.

So I think that that’s my warning when it comes to looking for something that’s already completely created for you is just make sure it’s quality, and make sure it’s going to be engaging, and if there’s more than three pieces of paper, it’s probably too much.

Ross: I think it’s this whole idea too that just like when you’re teaching out of a dreaded Basal reader that promotes direct instruction, you want to really still be able to be thinking for yourself, rather than just regurgitating what’s out there. So you don’t just take something, implement it, it doesn’t work, and then you blame the resource, you know? That doesn’t just go with project-based learning, that goes with anything that we teach or anything that we do.

So ultimately it’s having the skills and the abilities to really know what project-based learning is all about before we start searching for all of those cool ideas. And a lot of times people ask, where can we get ideas, where can we get ideas, where can we get ideas? I think it’s OK. Ideas are fun. Eventually you’re going to need ideas, but there’s more to it than that.

There’s having that background in regards to what PBL looks like in the classroom. As Erin said, it’s also knowing your students and your community and maybe even your administration and your fellow teachers, and also making sure that it matches the standards that you have to teach to as well, so it’s not just something that you’re doing on top of what’s already taking place. That’s how we kind of perpetuate the myth that project-based learning is fluff. So you really want to make sure that it matches your curriculum, what you need to be teaching.

6) If someone’s just starting out with PBL, what should be their focus, their number one priority, when doing a project with kids for the first time?

Ross: If you look at the book, there’s actually 10 different hacks that we go through. And in going through those hacks, we talk everything about from student publishing, to giving effective feedback, to the progress assessment tool, to classroom redesign, to effective collaboration. So there’s 10 different hacks, and one of the things that we talk about in the introduction, or one of the things we talk about in general, not just in the book, is that all of these are best practices, all of these could be implemented with or without full-blown PBL.

So even if I’m this very traditional teacher, and I’m used to teaching out of the textbook, and I’m kind of scared to get away from it, as Erin would say, I just want to dip my toe in the pool, I could look at those 10 hacks, and I could say, “OK, this year I’m going to focus on redesigning my classroom and giving better feedback to my students.”

And yes, it’s not full-blown PBL, but it’s definitely steps in the right direction for the benefit of my students. If I know that, OK, I get the bigger picture, I’m going to choose these new steps, and then once I’m comfortable with them, I am then going to move onto something else.

I think that’s OK, because if you’re a traditional teacher, and you’re starting to give effective feedback, and you’re redesigning your learning space, that’s pretty huge. So I think naturally this framework allows for all of these. There’s no one answer. It definitely allows for multiple entry points, which naturally differentiates based on a teacher’s comfort level.

That’s one of my favorite things about the book, is that you don’t have to have all of this formal training in project-based learning and be implementing it exactly in this perfect way. I think teachers want to do the best job for kids, and they hear that this is a great thing. Their district is sort of pushing them to do that, but they don’t necessarily have the resources and support, and I love the idea of them being able to just jump into this book, learn more about the principles behind it, as you’re saying, because it’s not formulaic. It’s something that you need to understand sort of the theory and how inquiry-based learning works, and then go slowly and just try pieces of it. What’s one thing you wish every teacher knew about project-based learning?

Erin: I think many people feel like there’s this “pie in the sky” answer to what project-based learning is or they feel like the people who make project-based learning happen have some sort of magic wand.

Why do we want to have project-based learning? We want to have project-based learning, because we want student-centered classrooms that are preparing our kids to be problem solvers, critical thinkers, and ready for the world outside of our classroom. That’s why we want project-based learning.

Take a step forward. You don't have to jump in the deep end to do something good for kids. Click To Tweet

So if you’ve taken the time like Ross said to redesign your classrooms so that students are more comfortable and feel more open in your space, then that’s an awesome thing, and let that be your win for the year. If you’ve taken the time to get kids blogging and give each other feedback, then that might not be full-blown project-based learning, but it’s a huge step in the right direction, so good for you. Let that be your win for the year.

I think that that’s the thing we want teachers to know. Find the thing that you can change for this year or for starting next year and let that be your step. Don’t feel like you have to do everything all at one time.

Ross: That’s kind of like what I said before, that it’s not black and white. There’s definitely shades of gray, and you don’t have to jump all the way in in order to really get started with it. I think one way to promote that, if we’re doing project-based learning professional development, for instance, we would present the entire framework, so people are learning with that bigger picture in mind, and then it’s, OK, all right, now pick one. OK, I want to do feedback, I want to do blogging, I want to do student publishing, I want to do student reflection.

And I think a lot of times we forget those short-term wins and how powerful they can be, because as people who live and breathe project-based learning, we just expect people to be able to naturally jump to where we are. And this whole idea of being empathetic to where people are and realizing that we shouldn’t compare where we are at year six, we shouldn’t be comparing it to their year one. It’s a completely different place.

So it’s having empathy for where people are, and celebrating those short-term wins, and letting them know, hey, maybe this isn’t full-blown PBL, but this is benefitting your students, this is steps in the right direction. And then naturally I think as people start to implement those little steps, it will naturally start to transition to more and more … whether it’s PBL or not, just better inquiry-based instruction for their students, that there are shades of gray.

And honestly, I think that’s not just with PBL, I think that’s with a lot of things within education. And I think a lot of times we have this idea, and I blogged about this not too long ago, that there’s one right way to do it, and if you’re not doing it that right way, then you’re doing it wrong. We have some people who read our book that said, “Man, this whole time, I didn’t realize I was doing it the wrong way.”

It’s like, no, no, you weren’t doing it the wrong way. You were just doing it differently. And that’s OK, and we should celebrate that. And there are some rights and wrongs within education, but there aren’t as many as we would think. I think it’s important to respect where people are coming from and celebrate their short-term wins as they continually move in the right direction.

You weren’t wrong, just different. There aren't as many rights/wrongs in education as we think. Click To Tweet

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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