It may seem daunting to start, but here are a few tips I’ve learned while creating a problem-based learning classroom:
- Ask big, meaningful questions – Creating a high-quality essential question is key in PBL. Ideally, your driving question will make classroom content relevant for students. When studying the Crusades during the Middle Ages, I ask students how religion and other cultural characteristics influence or cause conflict. This can lead to investigating various cultural conflicts, even those we see on the news today. Writing driving questions can be difficult, but the Buck Institute for Education has numerous resources to help you begin. To offset any potential obstacles, ensure you have plenty of time to plan. Check your calendar and map out days. Don’t worry if it feels like your PBL is taking longer than expected; use that time as an opportunity to integrate more standards. Remember, key phrase is big, meaningful question(s), not one project per standard. For example, the driving question for the Crusades opened our study to incorporate standards discussing the Catholic Church, feudalism, and other cultural characteristic of medieval Europe, while also reviewing southeast Asian civilizations.
- Let students lead the way – As an educator, I sometimes struggle with letting students exert more control within the classroom. It can be difficult to let go and allow students to drive the learning experience. Student choice plays a large role in PBL and means that students need to be leading their own learning. Some strategies I use to teach responsible leadership include student-created group contracts, inquiry brainstorming, modeling planning meetings and time management, and incorporating frequent reflection and goal-setting. Additionally, many of my students take over teaching responsibilities at least once during the year. Occasionally the topic is assigned by me, but more frequently students propose their own topic and connect to our seventh-grade social studies standards. Through encouraging student choice, students have expanded standards to learn about things like Renaissance fashion, and even allowed us to travel along on a family trip to Colombia over the winter break. Their excitement to learn and lead makes class more fun for everyone.
- Don’t be afraid to fail – Not all of your projects will work perfectly at first. There have been numerous times when my students and I have revised our learning mid-project. Being honest with students about when we fail, as well as how we dealt with that failure, is an important lesson. If we’re ashamed and give up, that teaches students to do the same. Failure can be reframed as our First Attempt In Learning (FAIL). Teach resilience by modeling resilience, and let students know that failure isn’t the end. Allow students to suggest modifications or improvements. It’s their class, so use their input.
- Encourage community involvement – If we want to connect classroom learning to real-world context, then we need to be open to frequently hosting visitors in our classrooms. Throughout the year, I reach out to parents, legislators, and other community members and invite them to come learn with us as we explore history. Our visitors have served as project supervisors, experts to provide feedback, guest speakers, or even students for a day. One of my proudest teaching moments happened because of an interaction on Twitter. I saw an article referencing a bill that had been introduced by our state representative. The bill happened to connect with what we were learning at the time, so I took a chance and asked Representative Sheila Butt if she’d be willing to visit and learn more about food deserts with us. She graciously accepted and spent the morning teaching students about her role, as well as listening to seventh graders explain the impact of food deserts on communities. It was incredibly inspiring to hear them share ideas, and make content real for students.
Project-based learning has revolutionized my teaching. It is no longer “my” classroom, but instead it is a place for all students to grow, take risks, and have fun while learning. When completing our end-of-year survey, my students reported a positive change in how they felt about social studies from August to May, and they often cited PBL as the reason for that change. Let’s keep the momentum going, connect learning to the world, and inspire students to dream big.
This article was originally published on Classroom Chronicles.
Mary-Owen Holmes has served as a seventh grade Social Studies teacher in Maury County Public Schools for the last five years. While at Spring Hill Middle School, Mary-Owen has served as Department Chair, Instructional Coach for Project-Based Learning, Teacher Liaison for the MCPS Tennessee Teacher Leader Network, cheerleading coach and on the school leadership team. Mary-Owen was a 2016-2017 SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellow and is passionate about the impacts of technology, diversity, and cultural education within schools. Mary-Owen serves on the steering committee for the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance, as well as one of the co-moderators for Social Studies Chat (#sschat) on Twitter. She is a member of the Tennessee Council for Social Studies and the National Council for Social Studies and has participated in both range finding and item review for TNReady. Mary-Owen holds a B.A. in Political Science and Communications, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching, Learning and Leading from Lipscomb University. In August 2017, Mary-Owen will complete an Ed.S. focusing on Technology Integration, also from Lipscomb. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.