It’s May, How Can I Start Doing PBL in my Classroom?




Every year it’s the same question: “I have all of these math standards to wrap up. Is there a way to put them into a project?” We have certainly helped teachers get their head around this question and, usually, there are geometry related standards that can, kind of, be put together to create something that can live within the framework of project based learning. But my mind has shifted on this over the years, and I now look to encourage teachers to incorporate parts of the High Quality Project Based Learning framework (HQPBL). And, I tell them to prepare their teaching for using HQPBL next school year by trying things out now.

HQPBL, after all, is just “Great Teaching:” Use Challenging Problems that take time to solve; Find, as authentic as possible, problems from the real world; Allow/Encourage collaborative work; Require reflection from each person; Require someone from each group to present their findings/solution to the class.  All of these things are parts of the HQPBL Framework. And, all of these things will help your students go deeper within the content.

If I were starting today (in May), I would read Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, by Peter Liljedahl, and would spend the rest of the school year setting up my version of that. Then I would start next school year, day one, with a thinking classroom environment. Then I would look for content standards that my students can spend 2 or 3 weeks on, 4 to 8 weeks into the school year, and I would create a project around those standards. 

The beauty of this way of starting your year is that the students know the expectation is to work together to solve a problem, present how they solved it, and then reflect on what they did (individually and as a group) to find the solution. And when you give them the challenging project idea, they are ready to get to work on finding a solution.

May is a great time to plan your projects for the upcoming school year. As I think about planning “projects,” you will notice that I never differentiate between what people call Problem-Based Learning (PrBL) and Project Based Learning (PBL). Instead I think about the time I can spend on the standards that are the heart of my “project.” If I know I can spend 2 or 3 weeks with the standards that I have chosen, then I will create a PBL Unit and I will incorporate all of the parts of the HQPBL Framework. If, on the other hand, there is no way I would spend more that a few days on certain standards then I would use as much of the HQPBL Framework as possible and I would create a PBL Task.

When looking at the school year, it is rare to find more that 3 or 4 times when there are standards that are strong enough to be a basis for a PBL Unit. And, there are some standards that don’t even do much to help out on a PBL Task. But whether you are doing a Task or a Unit, you can always have students working on their math skills. Like a basketball coach, you have them work as a team on the plays you want to run in the next game, and then you make sure they practice their foul shots so they can be ready to answer the call when they are needed. So set up your calendar with blocks of time you want to use for PBL Units and list the one or two standards that you intend to use as the foundation for each of those units.

At all times you should endeavor to utilize the HQPBL Framework (in its entirety or in parts) in your classroom because, as I stated earlier, that is Great Teaching.

About the author, Chris Fancher

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