This is the hard part about project-based learning for many people. The very best part, the most exciting learning â€“ the â€œMagicâ€ of project-based learning is often what just happens spontaneously â€“ the messy part. Yes, you go through the standards and design your project to fit standards â€“ all the standards you need it to address. However, what you learn to look forward toâ€¦ AND be just a bit anxious about is what you donâ€™t plan.
The issues that spring up between members of a group that you, and they, have to work through. The days that donâ€™t go well lend themselves to discussion about what that was like and how to make it go more smoothly. The great days are even more important to discuss â€“ note with students how fast time went by because they were SO on task. Have students share HOW they discussed things â€“ usually positively â€“ youâ€™ll hear them comment about the student they were at odds with before and how they WERE able to put issues aside and get along and have a great time getting things done that they are excited about and proud of â€“ this is key because you can remind them of that experience and even quote back to them what they said the next time things arenâ€™t going well. You can stop the class for 15 seconds and have them reflect on whether or not time is going by quickly and they feel that â€œfeelingâ€ they felt before â€“ that often gets an antsy class back on track. THAT feeling is like a narcoticâ€¦Iâ€™m not kidding â€¦ kids will remember that and try to achieve it again. Yeah, it doesnâ€™t work every time, but it works often.
There are times that things get ugly. Sometimes, real ugly. Anger, frustration, silliness â€“ students that want to just give upâ€¦they donâ€™t care anymore. That never happens in real life â€¦right? Meeting a deadline or producing a play or any other real life project never gets frustrating and adults never blow-up at one another or get into disagreements, right? (How did your wedding planning go?) But arenâ€™t those also the times you end up finally getting something done that you and those you are working with end up the most proud about, and talk about the hard times and how you fought through them? How many students have done much REAL project-based work? From my experience, usually very little to none, so no wonder they are inexperienced and rough.
When things go well, which happens more the more often and the more practiced kids get at dealing with each other. They start to notice strengths and weaknesses of the kids in their groupâ€¦ and one of the great experiences for you the teacher is how you hear them start talking to each otherâ€¦ â€œYouâ€™re better at doing that than I am and while youâ€™re doing that Iâ€™ll work on this for you.â€ â€œWow you really did a nice job on that, how did you do that!?â€ Sometimes they get more done in an hour than they usually get done in a whole day. Students are FOCUSED that usually canâ€™t seem to focus.
As a teacher you have to observe and take notes â€“ written when you can, mental notes otherwise. You have to note the gaps in student understanding and ability – thatâ€™s assessment â€“ assessment on the run. Sometimes you find yourself gathering a student, a group, sometimes the whole class, on the spur of the moment to deal with an obvious confusion or total misconception or gap or something you noticed one group just learned that you want them to share with the class. You need to note as many neat things you saw individual students do as you can, including that Tommy didnâ€™t get mad at anybody for a whole hour today, did anyone else notice that? The more you do that, the more the magic happens.
The other big assessment piece I do at the end of each work period is that the students self assess themselves. I have a form that asks them questions about what they personally did that period and they end up assigning themselves a grade and explain why that is the grade they deserve.
Students in my class learn however, that the biggest part of their grade is based on how they worked together in their group. The whole group is getting a D or F if EVERYONE isnâ€™t on task. If one student is off task the rest of the group MUST work in a positive way to find out why they are off track, make sure they know and understand all the tasks they need to accomplish and which ones they are counting on them to get done. If they have done that, and can explain to me that they have done that, and this person in their group is still fooling around or off task, then I get involved with that student and remove them from the group and usually the classroom at that point (this rarely happens if a class is well trained). Note that we have role played how that looks as a class and in groups so everyone knows their roles and how to do that.
Well this has turned into a longer post than I planned, so Iâ€™ll continue it at another time.
Learning is messy!