5 Powerful Teaching Strategies For Project-Based Learning

by Jill Ackers-Clayton and Dayna Laur, TeachThought PD Workshop Facilitators

*Find out how you can be a part of Dayna and Jill ‘s session at TeachThought PBL #Grow17

Have you ever been sitting at your table thinking about how to start planning for your first, second, or twenty-second project and thought to yourself, “where do I begin?”

From the novice to the seasoned planner, this is a common dilemma. Whether you are just starting out on your journey to a more constructivist approach to student learning or you are already invested in an authentic inquiry based pedagogy, our new series of books will be a support as you continue to deepen your own practice. We have started with the PreK-3 version of the book. However, the strategies are applied at any grade level and for any content area.

Designing authentic challenges with our district or school’s curriculum or our pacing guides requires us to have a flexible planning process. We simplified the process for developing the natural curiosity of kids as it helped us to plan for our students and for the teachers with whom we work and coach. Here’s a preview of the strategies. In the book, they are explored, in detail, with accompanying project examples.

Strategy One: Map Standards to the Project Challenge

How much is too much standards-based support when designing an authentic challenge? How many standards do I have to include in my design?

High quality authentic project design is about helping our students learn by experiencing real challenges and seeing their creative, relevant solutions come to life in the products they construct. If we want ownership and buy-in, even in the youngest of thinkers, we need the creativity to start at the onset of the project in the first or second day.

This allows us to scaffold the content from the very beginning of the project using their ideas, because our learners still need to have support and scaffolding through this process. Our role as teachers is to make sure these building blocks of learning and content are there for them when they need it. Strategy One is all about ensuring our learners use the standards as a way to exhibit their thinking from the lowest to the highest levels of thinking as they find their own answers to authentic challenges.

Strategy Two: Build a Classroom Community

What does my day look like? Does the project have to last the entire day? What will I have to eliminate in my curriculum? Do I have the time to do a project?

Authentic learning experiences permeate the day and the classroom, involving many different curricular areas and skills. These foster a young child’s love for learning and exploring. However, when you design authentic projects for your classroom, it does not mean your kids receive the challenge and then have free rein to do what they want or that you relinquish control.

Rather, you have command of the learning process. We mentor our learners through this process to ensure certain skills are mastered along the way. These supports might occur during whole group or small group instruction and throughout various times of the day. A good mentor creates a community ecosystem that allows for both independent work and teamwork. These components vary based upon grade level, but two core items run through every classroom community: routines and schedules. Strategy Two embraces the establishment of routines and schedules to build a classroom community.

Strategy Three: Make Reading & Writing Authentic

How does project work make my students better readers and writers? How do I do this if my students read and write at different levels?

We want our kids to love reading! We want them to be fluent enough to comprehend everything they read. Levels of literacy achievement set the stage for success or struggle throughout life. The connection between projects and literacy runs deep and one cannot occur without the other. Our text selections, our primary sources, classroom libraries, literature choices, and book bins spark solutions, ignite ideas, and generate growth-producing dialogue.

The greater the foundations for reading and writing, the more prepared our learners are for the world ahead. Real world challenges provide the purposeful and authentic reasons for kids to represent how they think and feel. Strategy Three, make reading and writing authentic, for our learners, builds their ability to explore, uncover, and solve challenges while, at the same time, developing their reading and writing ability.

Strategy Four: Maximize Formative Assessment

How do I make the time to continuously assess where my students are in their learning? What do I do with the formative assessment data that I collect? Why is it important to use formative assessment for my planning purposes?

An authentic challenge is derived from our standards and their connection to the real world. This strategy gives us the opportunity to connect our learners’ prior knowledge to their impact on their present world. The formative assessments we choose to use throughout the project need to be authentic to the challenge. Our standards then become the backdrop for formative assessment when our project is aligned to our standards.

As our kids foreshadow how the future may look, they are able to innovate and design solutions based on what they already know. This ensures the action of linking a real-world challenge to what is relevant to our learners, as we pique their natural curiosity. The continual assessment of our learners enables us to support each learner where they are and helps us to design differentiated instruction as needed throughout the project process. Strategy Four is to maximize our use of formative assessments throughout the project to monitor our learners as they master the standards.

Strategy Five: Activate Intrinsic Motivation

How do I motivate my students to want to learn? How do I maintain student motivation throughout the learning process? How do I get buy-in from kids?

To achieve intrinsic motivation, ultimately, no matter what the activity, there is something deep inside of us that pushes us to try just a little harder, work just a little longer, and create just a little more. Whatever that something is, we classify it as what satisfies and motivates us. It is intrinsic motivation. This is the ideal, but we all know those few students that no matter what we do, say, or present are not engaged.

The key to authentic project design is to understand that our learners are not unmotivated. Similarly to you and us, they are just motivated by different things. An authentic challenge, grounded in what is relevant for learners, helps to activate their intrinsic motivation. Strategy Five, activate intrinsic motivation, promotes the social and emotional development of children who are eager and willing to learn, as they contribute to their own success. This is in lieu of a teacher who tells them they are successful.

The next time you are sitting at your table trying to plan your project, keep these five strategies in mind. If this work is relevant to you, whether you are starting on your journey or you have already invested quite a bit of time in your exploration, the Developing Natural Curiosity series is a good complement for your planning process.

We look forward to the release of the first book, Developing Natural Curiosity: 5 Strategies for the PreK-3 Classroom on March 8, 2017. Stay tuned for the 4-8, 9-12, and higher ed versions in the series!

5 Powerful Teaching Strategies For Project-Based Learning; image attribution: Laurie Sullivan

image attribution: Laurie Sullivan

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