Monday, 12 May 2014

How to plan for project-based learning

Setting up your first project-based learning unit can be an intimidating task – especially for first-timers. There’s just so much to consider!

The first blog post in this series provided an overview of the 8 elements that must be incorporated into your project for it to be successful. Each of these elements require planning for – but how?

There are 2 broad areas you’ll need to take into consideration. The first is the exciting part – the project itself. This is all about planning the learning experience and making the project interesting but educational.

The second is the not-so-exciting practical stuff – time scale, funding, resources needed etc. It’s what you’ll need to think about to make sure the learning experience runs smoothly and students get the most out of it that they can.

This blog post will consider both of these areas.

Planning the learning experience
First off, you’ll need to identify the curriculum content you want to cover, as well as the 21st century skills you want your students to develop.

Then you need to decide how you’re going to go about covering the content and developing your students' skills. You will need to consider:

1. The driving question
This is the stimulus that leads the entire project. For advice on creating your DQ, see the previous post in this series.

2. The final, publicly-presented product
What your students are working towards will shape the entire project, so you need to settle on this early on. There are endless possibilities for their final product depending on the skills you want them to develop – a film, a museum exhibition, a sales pitch, a blueprint, a sculpture, possibly even a garden.

The public presentation aspect of this is also very important. You’ll need to decide who your audience is. It could comprise of:
  • Other students in the school
  • Other adults in the school
  • Other adults who visit the school (parents, experts, teachers from local schools etc. who come into the school to view the final product)
  • People in the community or online (requires displaying students’ final products off site).
Or a combination of all four!

3. Structured activities
You should now consider what activities your students need to undertake in order to complete their product. Obviously, the whole point of PBL is to let students take the lead in directing their own learning, so some fluidity is necessary. However, it's also important to expose students to new experiences and give them the knowledge and skills they need to fulfil their brief. 

Structured activities can include presentations by guest speakers, educational visits, critiquing sessions (see 'Assessment and reflection' below), mini-research tasks, skills workshops and more.

4. Assessment and reflection
The next thing to decide is how you will assess your students’ work and development. You will need to consider both formative assessment (during the project) and summative assessment (after the project).

Formative assessment will involve assessing and providing feedback on the students’ work-in-progress. Students will need to complete multiple drafts of their work (or rehearsals in the case of an orally presented product) and learn how to produce formal critiques of each other’s work. Regular formal critiquing sessions throughout the project are vital, as critiquing involves a range of skills and concepts that students will need to be taught and practise.

Summative assessment will involve the assessment of the students’ product and how well they've answered the question/fulfilled the brief and how fully they understand the curriculum content covered. However, you’ll also need to assess the extent to which they’ve improved their product since the first draft and how well they’ve taken feedback on board.

You’ll also need to find a way to assess the 21st century skills you identified at the outset. Self and peer evaluation, as well as whole-class discussion and focus groups, will be useful for this. Students will need to demonstrate they’ve understood the enquiry process – getting them to complete a learning log during the project, culminating in a final write-up of knowledge gained/skills developed, will make this easier to assess.

5. Entry event
Now you know where the project is headed and how you’re hoping the students will get there, you can consider how to introduce them to the project. According to the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), an entry event has two basic purposes:
  • To spark students’ interest and curiosity
  • to begin the inquiry process by leading students to ask questions
You’ve got to make this a day to remember – so bigger is better! The more dramatic your entry event, the more excited and intrigued your students are going to be to get on with the project and answer that juicy driving question.

Examples of entry events include:
  • a film clip
  • a dramatic performance (adult-in-role, though you could use older students)
  • guest speaker
  • presentation of a puzzling problem
  • an activity or simulation
The possibilities are endless!

And if you need anywhere to store all this information, the BIE provides this brilliant interactive project planner tool. Definitely worth a look - even if only for inspiration.

Making sure it all runs smoothly
This is all about ensuring the project is sustainable and minimising the risk of things going hugely wrong i.e. nowhere to hold your final exhibition.

You will need to think about:

1. Resources
This area can be split into 3 sub-sections:
  • Facilities – Where will students work during the project? Where will the final product be presented? Are there any other events which might clash? Will we need off-site facilities? How much will these cost? Can we make a deal with these off-site resources to reduce costs? How will students get there?
  • Materials and equipment – What will students need to make the products? What technology will we need? Do we have enough or will we need to buy more in? Are any specialist resources needed? What safety measures do we need to consider?
  • Human resources – Who will be involved in school? Do we need the help/input of anyone outside of the school? The BIE provides a list of potential human resources to consider:
    • Older students
    • Parents with special expertise, interests, hobbies, or skills that connect to your project
    • Other teachers, administrators or staff members with special expertise
    • School or local specialists in art, music, drama, technology, physical education
    • Experts from local (or distant, reached online) non-profit organisations
    • People from local businesses and industry
    • Local government officials and agency representatives, police and fire departments
    • Technical school, college and university faculties
Running a project doesn’t have to require a huge amount of resources, but it can do. Planning beforehand will minimise the costs.


2. Time scale
Make sure to plan and allocate time for your project. Projects can be run across consecutive weeks with a suspended timetable; however, an alternative is to run the same project throughout the school year in dedicated curriculum slots. Both options have benefits and drawbacks – decide what’s right for you. You can always try a different approach next time!

You will also need to schedule time to train staff to become more prepared to deal with the type of learning taking place and the philosophy behind PBL - especially if this is your school's first PBL project!

To help with your time management, you might like to download this brilliant project calendar from the BIE. This can be used to plan your project events, but may also come in handy during the project, as a record of activities and events for later scrutiny.

3. Funding
Ensure the project is supported by some allocated funding. The budget doesn’t have to be big but some money helps – especially for buying resources for the exhibition and facilitating trips for students whose families can’t afford it.

Make contact with people and organisations outside the school to sponsor the project or get involved in some way. The more high profile your project is, the more likely they are to invest in you! Use your connections in the community and promote the benefits to the students and local businesses/organisations should they get involved.

And if you can’t get it for free, see if you can negotiate a deal. The Innovation Unit’s guide to PBL reveals that one teacher held a premier of student-produced films in a local cinema by guaranteeing that the audience would spend at least £250 on food and drink.

Of course, convincing people to get involved, planning time off timetables and sourcing adequate funding is going to require the cooperation and consent of other teachers, the headteacher and students’ parents.

Getting people on board will be the theme of our next post in this series. Stick around – it’s due out next week!

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Even more advice on planning for PBL from our archives...

Busting the myths of project-based learning - Bob Lenz
A longer version of the blog post cited in this post, in which Bob tackles three major myths about PBL, proving them wrong with his own school's successful PBL unit.

PBL for beginners - Alyson Boustead
Plenty of advice in here, as Alyson explains everything she needed to think about when preparing and implementing her first project-based learning unit.

Project inspire - Geraldine Norman
Lots in this one about planning PBL - Geraldine explains the process she and other members of staff went through before coming to the conclusion that PBL was the best way forward!

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