Transitioning to Project-Based Learning

Classrooms are like a speedboat. They are responsive, nimble, and fun. Teachers have the unique privilege of being able to bias toward action, examine their impact, and try again. Classrooms and speedboats are ideal for quick steering. Change can happen in a day. Excellent professional development offers teachers something they can do in their classroom tomorrow. If it works, the results are immediate and invigorating. If it doesn’t, the changing course takes minimal investment; a readjustment can be just as swift. But for the boat to stay on its new course, actions need repetition. New behaviors must stick.

Large organizations, on the other hand, can feel like a slow-moving barge. Moving a school district in any direction with fidelity and results takes time. To build clarity of vision with teachers, families, and leaders, it takes pages on the calendar for changes to be actualized. The good news is that, yes, the barge actually can move. And when it does, it is worth every minute of coaching, learning, experimenting, and re-aligning. Barges, after all, aren’t meant to just sit on the water. They are meant to go places.

Habits, over time, move the barge. They also steer the speedboat.

Author James Clear writes extensively about habits and the myth of radical change. He argues that changes that are too extreme and too fast will lead to burnout. Think of the new meal plan that fizzles out after a month or the commitment to exercise that withers with the morning alarm. In the era of rampant teacher burnout, Clear’s reasoning resonates. Nature craves equilibrium; gradual changes over time are more likely to make an impact and prevent an injury than an abrupt reversal of behaviors. In classrooms and school districts, making small adjustments daily is more likely to stick than a rapid overhaul. Good teaching habits need time and repetition to become a natural part of what teachers and students do together. In schools and districts, the precedent is the same. One step at a time sounds cliche… until those steps add up to miles.

Group of diverse students sitting at a table working on class projects with teacher interacting

Traditional vs. Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning is a prime example of pedagogy steeped in radical change. Transitioning from traditional teaching and learning to PBL can be an exhilarating course redirection. It can also be exhausting. Consider a few dramatic changes proposed by a PBL methodology:

  • From Lessons determined by a textbook to Lessons structured to address a real-world problem
  • From Predictable routines follow I-do, we-do, you-do to We do is fluid, as teachers and students co-construct learning
  • From Feedback given to correct mistakes to Feedback to and from both teachers and peers
  • From Frontload with facts and end with meaning-making to Launch with a real-life application and then teach surface, deep, and transfer

Any one of these pedagogical shifts can have a dramatic impact on classroom culture. If they are already in practice, they take time to refine. Going after all of them at once is a dramatic change that pushes against what experts have long known about developing long-lasting habits: small change is sustainable change. Barges need a slow steer to redirect; speedboats need consistency to maintain a new course. It takes time to build a habit.

Getting Started with PBL

Instead of an all-or-nothing PBL approach, consider a reframe. Practices that have the highest impact on learning may be developed with or without the context of a PBL unit. If they work, they work. Focusing on 1-2 high-impact strategies that comprise a rigorous PBL classroom can be all it takes to start steering the vessel in a new direction.

In our forthcoming book, The Project Habit: Making Rigorous PBL Doable, Michael McDowell and I outline 15 habits worth developing in the classroom. Any one of them can be pursued on its own, or they can be stacked together to refine a rigorous PBL unit. Teacher teams can implement these habits immediately, and school systems can support them in taking action. Here are three habits to start with:

  1. See it everywhere. Sketch out 3-5 situations where the concept or skill students are learning could be applied. Give students multiple opportunities to practice applying their learning and analyze the differences between situations. This is a highly effective way to teach transfer.
  2. Question everything, together. Classroom discussion is an excellent tool for moving students into meaning-making and deep learning. This list of discussion protocols from Harvard’s teaching and learning lab has plenty of ways to structure class talk. Choose one or two and commit to making them routine.
  3. Sprint. To know what’s working for students, gather your own evidence. Choose one practice and stick to it for a few weeks; gather the evidence before and after to see what kind of an impact it makes. You can call it a data cycle or PLC inquiry, but whatever the name, make it short, small, and doable.

Whether you’re navigating a school system or a classroom, habits are what it takes to make sustainable improvements over time. A rigorous PBL pedagogy makes room for shifts that are grounded in research and doable for both the short and long term. Build or improve just a few habits at a time; it may be the start of a more comprehensive shift toward a system of surface, deep, and transfer learning. The radical change we want to see may well get underway once we add up our commitment to goals that are small enough to act on daily. It’s good for the speedboat. It’s good for the barge.

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