5 Tools For Supporting Project-Based Learning

This article was originally published in Digital Learning Magazine in my Column, “The Tech Savvy Classroom”


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What Skills and Behaviors Does Your Classroom Environment Value?

There are many things that educators are called upon to teach that aren’t in the curriculum. These range from the norms of speaking, to the norms of appropriate dress and basic manners.  In recent years digital citizenships skills have been added to that list as schools address safe and healthy online behavior. This pattern often repeats itself; a new societal need appears and, willingly or not, teachers are thrust into the breach.  For example, before there were societal norms for cell phone use, teachers were some of the first to face the dilemma of “when is it appropriate to use your cell phone.”

For the classroom teacher this can be difficult because training is very rarely available to teachers in a timely manner.  This lack of training results in teachers having to do their best, acting in good faith to address pressing issues. 

So when I first saw the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report listing the top 10 skills many years ago, I truly struggled with how I could provide my students with these skills.  

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None of the skills on the list were things easily provided to students via lectures, PowerPoint presentations , or by simply disseminating information. The skills presented on the WEF list are best learned through experience.  Much like riding a bike, swimming, or learning to walk, direct instruction is not the most effective way to teach these skills. An environment that teaches these abilities in context – through first-hand experience is the key.   

Each environment, be it a jungle or a classroom, values certain behaviors and skills over others.  So what does the classroom environment that effectively teaches these skills look like? For many, the answer is a classroom built upon the principles of Project Based Learning.  A lecture on “creativity, originality, and initiative” might give students information, but a long term project aimed at solving a real-world, authentic problem will give students the opportunity to actually DO these things.  

Here it might be helpful to ask, “What skills and behaviors does a lecture-based classroom value?” Not that lecture is completely without value, but lectures and direct instruction don’t foster the skills that will be valued in the future world of work.  In the UK and the US, it’s estimated that nearly 70% of professionals work remotely at least one day of the week. The communication, problem solving and self management skills that are necessary to be successful when working from home or working remotely are natural to a PBL classroom. 

Adapting To This New Environment

Asking,  “What skills and behaviors does your classroom environment value and promote?”  can help teachers to reflect upon the type of activities they value. For many teachers, this increasingly leads them to the creation Project Based Learning opportunities for students.

Initially, when making the shift, it can be a struggle to redefine classroom rules and procedures.  Students will be doing more independent work and should have the agency to choose their focus. As they get more comfortable, it begins to feel less necessary to tightly control each moment in the classroom. With time,  as students get more comfortable with the increased independence they have gained new classroom norms begin to emerge. 

One difference is how “on task behavior” is redefined. At any given moment, a student could be doing a variety of learning activities and still be on-task.  It might take a while to get used to the fact that on task behavior does not mean 30 students all performing the same task, and that a classroom is focused and orderly even when students work looks different from student to student.  

At times, the work of sustained inquiry can be frustrating and involve multiple attempts and repeated failures.  Many teachers are forced to reconsider some basic classroom procedures. Many teachers who make this transition describe doing more to empower kids to take care of their needs.  If their stress levels ever got higher than 3 on a scale of 0 to 5, they had the right to step away collect themselves until they were ready to learn, and then get back to their work. Other discuss the need to force themselves to sit back and let the kids wrestle with ideas, rather than jumping in to provide an immediate solution when kids begin to struggle.  That can take some effort since it can go against our natural instincts.   

Schools who are looking to work on Project Based Learning might want to start by asking a pretty basic and seemingly silly question. “What is the policy for students who want to use the bathroom?” While it may seem ridiculous at first, it is actually a good way to learn how much freedom students in the building have  to make decisions for themselves. If a school is strict about bathroom procedures (which is the ability of the students to address their most basic biological needs), how comfortable will they be handing the students a measure of control over their learning needs? This freedom may vary depending on grade level obviously, but on the whole if students are not empowered to make real decisions about their learning, if they have to run every possible decision past the teacher to be sure that it is “okay,” PBL is going to struggle at your school.  

Aside from these and a variety of other procedural changes, teachers have to figure out new ways of doing things that used to be very easy in a highly structured classroom. In a more loosely structured classroom where individuals and groups of students might be pursuing different topics, along different paths and using a variety of strategies, teachers have to change up their game. 

Technology That Supports the Environment of PBL  

Technology is only one way of granting freedom to students in their learning while still offering them support while still keeping aware of their successes and challenges.  Rather than a daily quiz, create a formative assessment that can be submitted asynchronously when a student finishes a component of the assignment. In place of collecting work at the end of class, create collection points where they can submit their work and reflect on the work of others.  In time teachers who switch to PBL often feel that they have a better understanding of where students are in their learning than they ever did before. Here are just a few ways that teachers can use tech tools to create an effective environment for PBL in their classrooms. 

Flipgrid: Flipgrid (and Recap before that, RIP Recap) allows teachers to have students record brief video summaries of their progress. Because teachers can share links to Flipgrid assignments, they can be posted to Google Classroom, placed at the end of readings and documents, or added as a  pop up at the end of a Google Form. By using Flipgrid in this way, teachers are able to hear students explain. Video feedback has the advantage of letting teachers hear confidence, excitement or trepidation in the student’s voice as they answer. Beyond knowing if a student answer is right or wrong, teachers can understand what the learning experience cost the student.  Was it easy or hard? Did it cause them anxiety or cause confusion? 

Google Forms: Because Google Forms can notify a teacher when someone submits a form, it is a great way for teachers to monitor the progress of students who were working at different paces.  Using the notifications feature on the results spreadsheet, an email is sent with each new form submission. This means that a teacher can quickly respond and give feedback when student work is received. The Google Forms Branching feature also allowed me to pre-position differentiated support for my classes.  In this way, student needs can be identified and support can be offered for common misunderstandings and mistakes.  

Seesaw: Seesaw is a powerful tool for sharing class successes and failures.  Students may be working on a variety of topics, but by having students share their learning, their work and their questions to Seesaw, a teacher can connect all of that learning together, share victories, and provide meaningful support. Through Seesaw, students could share sources, ask questions and respond to each other.  Rather than needing the teacher to solve their problems, Seesaw puts students in the role of becoming experts and sharing that expertise with the class. Seesaw’s activities allow the teacher to structure learning and guide the class through difficult parts of the process. Seesaw also functions as a great tool to collect formative assessment ands includes the ability to record and share video reponses. It provides the flexibility to track progress, share successes, and celebrate the work that students are doing. 

EdPuzzle:  EdPuzzle allows teachers to create structure around online videos. (Example) It is an effective  way to point out key parts of the video, explain concepts and ask questions, as well as to check for understanding.  In this way, teachers can make sure that though they may be working independently, students never unsupported. EdPuzzle results are downloadable as a spreadsheet which helps teachers to keep track of learning or mastery of learning standards.

Padlet: Padlet is a flexible tool for sharing. Students like it because it was easy to use, easy to organize and it can hold all different types of media. Many students like to use it as notecards for research because it allows them to visually organize their work and include links or pictures.  Groups can share their working Padlet wall with the whole class so that it can be referenced and benefit others. Teachers can create an organizing template that students can copy which lets a teacher who knows that a topic is challenging to provide a variety of sources, videos, or guidelines to support students in advance.  Padlet walls are also a good way to collect and organize resources and materials that students may need.

Keep in mind that these tools are not what creates the right environment in the room, but teachers can use them to build their vision.  A first step is to consider the values at the heart of your classroom and at the heart of the work that you ask students to do. What experiences can you create to develop important skills in context?

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