What happens when you send a premier PBL expert some novice lesson plans and ask for advice? He gets up at zero-dark-thirty his time, 2,000 miles away, to chat with you about the craft.  Pretty cool, I’d say.

John Larmer, Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit in on a Skype session with John Larmer, editor and chief at Buck Institute for Education and Brandon Cohen, national faculty for the Buck Institute.  Pre-service teachers in the teaching methods classes here at William & Mary read Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning as part of their collaborative PBL curriculum design projects.  They had some questions to ask the experts about designing successful and authentic deeper learning opportunities for students through PBL.   

Brandon Cohen, National Faculty at the Buck Institute for Education

As a former teacher, writer, and advocate for PBL at the Buck Institute, Larmer began the session by stating that he was not surprised that many of the students had questions: “Many of you may not have grown up with PBL.  Or if you did, maybe it didn’t work, or perhaps it wasn’t authentic.”

Recently, project based learning has gained momentum in public schools as a way for students to develop the 21st century skills necessary to solve future unknown complex global problems.  Larmer suggested that PBL is only going to continue to grow in popularity: “It is going to continue to expand because it fits so well within the 21st century workplace.  It is important for citizens of a democracy to think critically and be contributors to society.  The joy of teaching is there because it is so much more engaging.  The key is to make sure PBL is done well.”

A key component of PBL that can determine the success of a project is collaborative problem solving.  Collaboration can be hard to teach when students aren’t used to working together.  Brandon Cohen, former High Tech High teacher and now PBL consultant, was able to provide insight regarding students who don’t work well in groups:  “A great activity to start with is a peer critique, or to follow a protocol.  Ensure that products are individual based. Research, inquiry, and critical thinking should be group based. Products that are group work should be pieces of a puzzle.  Roles are also useful in group work, but ensure that roles are delegator roles and not doer roles…For example, the art director does not do all of the art, but rather delegates the responsibilities.”

Larmer added the importance of team builder activities like the Marshmallow Challenge: “Teach collaboration skills. A team contract is a powerful tool.  When problems come up students should try to address the problems themselves rather than turn to the teacher.  Teachers sometimes grade on collaboration skills.  The role of reflection in PBL is huge, so group work is never going to improve if students aren’t reflecting on it.  Unfortunately, a lot of PBL teachers skip over it.  It should be happening daily because that’s where real growth is going to happen.”  

VA Principals take on the Marshmallow Challenge during the School Retool Workshop hosted at the William and Mary School of Education.

Another component that adds to the efficacy of PBL is authenticity.  Larmer highlighted the importance of projects meeting a real purpose.  He encouraged teachers to think about how students can create a public product and how that final product can “live beyond the project”.  He offered an example of PBL in an English classroom: “Use the literature as case studies that then get applied to the life of the student which makes it more authentic…For example, for Romeo and Juliet, go out and collect a story of tragedy.  Then compare that to the different elements of Romeo and Juliet like character, setting, plot, and theme, so that students can then write their own story.”  

Larmer’s advice to teachers trying PBL on their own for the first time was: “Don’t do a super ambitious project at the start.  Try a simple project for one or two weeks.”

We thank John Larmer and Brandon Cohen for taking the time to guide pre-service teachers through the muddy waters of PBL.  Perhaps through experiences like this in their teacher training, new teachers will take these kinds of innovations into their schools with the excitement of what is possible rather than a fear of the unknown.   

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Katalin Wargo is a doctoral student in the Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership: Curriculum and Educational Technology program at William and Mary. She holds a Masters in Education from the University of Washington and taught high school English for a decade before deciding to venture into academia. Her latest position was as the English department chair at Warhill High School in Williamsburg, where she worked as part of the innovation team to design the Pathways Program.

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