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7 Steps to Success with Project-Based Learning

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 9/18/2017

If you have been thinking about exploring project-based learning (PBL) but are unsure of where to start, here are seven steps you can take in your current classroom before jumping in. 
1. Develop a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck has cornered the market on the idea of “growth mindset” connected to lifelong learning. Start with her TedTalk and on the concept of growth mindset. The general idea is we can all be good at math or piano if we have the right mindset. We just might not be there yet. Growth mindset is an important first step in the PBL journey for both teachers and students because PBL is a process that you and your students grow into. We are creating great problem solvers, not just good test takers.
2. Know your standards.
With PBL, we strive to make connections to real-world problems. As you walk through the real world every day, it helps to know how your standards are grouped so you that can make connections. Coleman Marshall, a middle school teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, made a connection to his US history class while watching Good Morning America. Because Coleman knows his standards well, he connected a story concerning city flags to his class, and by the end of the project, his students were in front of the Lexington City Council proposing a new city flag. By the way, Lexington did adopt a new flag thanks to his students’ presentations.
3. Listen to your students.
PBL isn’t about handing the helm over to students and letting the ship run into the rocks. It’s about empowering students by asking for feedback and giving them choices. An easy entry point is to ask students how your last unit went. Ask them to give you “likes” and “wonders.” Act on their wonders in your next unit. When students see that you are listening, they will be empowered to be involved and engaged. As a side benefit, you get feedback to improve your practice.
4. Invite a community partner.
At Magnify Learning, we believe authenticity turns apathy into aspiration! A project with community partners can bring students to life. Bringing in an outside expert adds a sense of reality to a project that we as educators can’t replicate. You get to see your learners 180+ days a year, which is great for building relationships, but a community partner adds a unique measure of engagement and authenticity to a project. A community partner is likely closer than you think. One of our facilitators found a law enforcement partner in line at McDonalds! People are happy to give their time, and it can revolutionize your classroom environment.
5. Provide differentiated workshops.
Workshops might be a stretch if you haven’t totally adopted PBL, but they are such a valuable practice to personalize learning. In PBL, it helps to have the larger overarching project for students to work on while you are holding smaller workshops. Otherwise, differentiation can be tricky. What else are your students doing while you are holding smaller workshops? If 40 percent of your students bomb their quiz, what do you do? Review with everyone? Move on and hope they catch up? One of the strengths of PBL is the ability to differentiate and personalize the learning. For example, while the 40 percent of students who bombed your compound sentence quiz are reviewing with you, the other 60 percent have the long-term goal of completing their project to keep them engaged. If you haven’t converted to PBL yet, have someone co-teach with you, so you can hold a workshop.
6. Attend professional development.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been teaching in rows. Changing your practice isn’t easy. Read blogs, visit a PBL school, and then sign up for training. Find a training that mirrors the PBL process, so you can feel the different flow of learning. We like to utilize current PBL teachers as trainers so that you can ask the boots-on-the-ground questions of how it works in actual classrooms with real kids.
7. Jump in.
After you try some of these steps in your current classroom and get some training, you need to make the leap. We find PBL gets teachers back to their sweet spot. You got into education because you want to show kids the possibilities in the world. Nobody gets into teaching because they want to move test scores. Try PBL because you believe teaching makes a difference in the lives of your students. It’s not the easiest road to relearn school, but it is worth it!
Ryan Steuer is the executive director of Magnify Learning, a nonprofit PBL professional learning organization. Magnify Learning utilizes PBL teachers from the classroom to customize PBL trainings around the country. Ryan Steuer speaks and writes with the goal of helping educators find their sweet spots. Ryan started his career as an industrial engineer, made the switch to eighth-grade English, and created a PBL school within a school in Indianapolis.
For more information on PBL, see Ryan Steuer’s course “Making Project-Based Learning Work in the Middle Grades” on the ATPE Professional Learning Portal.
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