Teacher Reflections

PBL in Social Studies Classes

One of the best resources on project based learning is from the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) who, through years of research and experience, have established the gold standard for project based learning (PBL).  In this post, I will compare the characteristics of effective PBL from the BIE  with the projects my students and I have completed in order to share ideas for effective PBL and highlight areas where I hope to improve. While the examples I provide here are from various projects, as I gain more experience with PBL, I hope to create projects that include all of the traits in each project students complete.

SOURCE: Buck Institute of Education






Challenging Problem or Question The heart of a project is a problem to investigate and solve, or a question to explore and answer. Students in  ELL World Cultures class try to answer questions like “Is geography destiny?” and “How can we alleviate poverty?”
Sustained Inquiry Inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, students ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask deeper questions – and the process repeats until a satisfactory solution or answer is developed. Students use their overall research questions for their passion projects to craft sub-questions which are modified over time as they learn more about their topic.
  1. Authentic context, such as when students solve problems like those faced by people in the world outside of school  
  2. Real-world processes, tasks and tools, and performance standards
  3. Real impact on others or create something that will be used or experienced by others
  4. Personal authenticity when it speaks to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives.
To create an audience outside of the classroom, in the past we have invited  parents & community members to watch World Cultures presentations. In economics, students publish their editorials on minimum wage in the local newspaper.
Student Voice & Choice Having a say in a project creates a sense of ownership in students; they care more about the project and work harder. If students aren’t able to use their judgment when solving a problem and answering a driving question, the project just feels like doing an exercise or following a set of directions. For students’ passion projects, they select a topic that appeals to them but is also aligned with a core theme in the course.
Reflection Throughout a project, students – and the teacher – should reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. This is an area I want to improve by using the questions/prompts suggested by BIE to allow for quick reflection individually, with peers or during conferences with the teacher.
Critique & Revision Students should be taught how to give and receive constructive peer feedback that will improve project processes and products, guided by rubrics, models, and formal feedback/critique protocols. In addition to peers and teachers, outside adults and experts can also contribute to the critique process, bringing an authentic, real-world point of view. During the passion project, we review previous students’ sample essays, annotated lists and compare & contrast posts, use a checklist to ensure they have necessary parts of project and are assessed using a rubric.
Public Product First, a public product adds greatly to PBL’s motivating power and encourages high-quality work. Second, by creating a product, students make what they have learned tangible and thus, when shared publicly, discussable. Finally, making student work public is an effective way to communicate with parents, community members, and the wider world about what PBL is and what it does for students. Students publish their work on public blogs or websites.  I would like to find other avenues for students to share their work with wider audiences, perhaps by utilizing social media.

NOTE: This post was inspired by  coursework from the New Learning program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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