PBL: What and Why?

As a teacher, I’m always trying to connect the “WHAT” of a lesson or unit to the “WHY” – I want those connections to be really explicit for my students, and therefore I have to be sure to make those connections really explicit for myself. I’ve used the principles of backwards design for my whole career (which has only been about 5 years so far, to be fair) not only because it’s what I learned as a graduate student, but because it seems to me to be the most logical way to plan units and lessons.

Backward Design GraphicBecause I’m always designing with an end goal in mind (the WHY), PBL works really well in my classroom (I mean, the one time I tried it went well). In thinking about the result first, I’m able to design projects that meet those needs (the WHAT), while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that teachers naturally dread with big projects.

As a student, I actually hated projects of any kind – I’m not especially artistic (though I draw great stick figures), and I feel like I spent a lot of time making posters for school as a kid. I also didn’t love working in groups because I always felt like I was doing all of the work (I’ve apparently been pretty type-A since elementary school). For those reasons, among others, I was always really hesitant to assign projects to my students. I worried about whether or not they were rigorous enough as assessments, whether group work would stress students out, and whether or not they were truly achieving the educational goals that I set.

My mindset shifted when I attended a PBL workshop this September, because I realized that a good PBL reflects the backward design process perfectly – it forces you to start with the real world questions that your students will be answering, and the real world skills they’ll acquire in the process. The project is no longer the focus, it’s the vehicle. The additional layer that PBLs build in is one of genuine audience and authentic purpose – The Story Project achieves that in having you (tell your friends!) as a reader.

The process of blogging this experience before the kids “get here” (so to speak) is a sort of PBL for myself – I’m looking to build an authentic audience to with whom to discuss education, best practices, and exciting classroom innovations. I’m also looking to give my students a starting point from which to build their own audience – it’s Internet age modeling!

So there’s my WHAT and WHY in a nutshell: I’m using PBL (more on my first attempt next time) because it helps kids develop the real world skills they’ll need when they leave my classroom. And I’m hoping that, in the process, they find something they’re passionate about, and that they find their voices.

Until next time,

Mrs. K

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