Posted by: shineonali | March 12, 2010

Project Based Learners?

We’ve been asked to read and think about project based learning this week. (Well, okay, last week–I’m a little behind.)

As I’m in the middle of a project right now with my class, it’s on my mind anyway.  The project going on in my room was actually designed by the first COETAIL cohort.  We were looking for a final cycle (including a performance assessment) for our integrated social studies and science unit on sustainabilty.  The students are creating public service announcements to teach the causes and effects of a particular environmental problem, and promoting action that can be taken to improve the situation.

  • Even though I am very excited to about this project, I’m a little wary of PBL when it gets portrayed as the one best way to learn.  I think there’s a time and a place for projects–and for our unit, the time is now.  My ideal would be a cycle of whole class, small group, and individual experiences to create awareness and background knowledge, to generate discussion and enthusiasm,  followed by a project cycle in which students apply and extend on what they have been learning, creating something new with it.  For elementary students, a bigger project would be heavily scaffolded, with clear, manageable steps and expectations.  “Strategies for Discovery” from Reinventing PBL has great advice for avoiding pitfalls and designing solid, inquiry based projects.
  • All of my students are super excited about their projects.  They’ve “helped” me make a couple of imovies recently, and had some time a couple of weeks ago to mess around with the program.  They had enough experience with sustainability issues that they easily thought of topics.  We watched and discussed a number of public service announcements to get a feel for the genre.  And so far, even though they wanted to rush right into creating their movies and I’ve made them research and plan first, the enthusiasm is still there!
  • I’m noticing that while we might have fantastic plans for project based learning, our Grade 5 students might not yet be project based learners.  This is probably a combination of their age and their previous experiences.  Despite all the scaffolds and careful planning, there may be some students who just don’t manage to put the pieces together to produce a satisfactorily finished public service announcement, and there will be those who are “done” on the second day because they are super task-oriented and won’t take the time to go deeper.
  • On a related note, classroom management takes on a whole new meaning when we go into project mode.  Some students will do a fine job with little to no teacher guidance, while for others it will feel like we are walking them (sometimes painfully) through every single step.  Some students will help themselves and each other, or can focus on a different part of their project when they need to wait for teacher input, but not all 10 and 11 year-olds are so independent and pro-active.  (Honestly, a lot of adult I know aren’t!)
  • It does feel a little like organized chaos for an hour or so every day.  Sometimes it’s that electric “buzz” of everyone working purposefully on different things, and I float from pair to pair, conferring and answering questions. Other times, it feels like I spend my time putting out one fire only to turn around and find there are two more burning!   I know that this is all part of the learning process, part of the excitement of meeting students’ needs “just in time” and being their guide on the side…however, it would drive me nuts to work this way all day every day!
  • Which reminds me…who came up with the “just in time” versus “just in case” terms anyway?  They arise in a lot of technology discussions (and Jeff’s blog) regarding teaching how to use certain programs or tools.  I totally get the motivational advantage of learning what you need, when you need it.  However, I think the idea of “just in case” gets a bad rap in the comparison.  Think of traveling.  Packing a jacket just in case it’s colder than you expect is a smart thing.   Nearly missing your plane because you arrived just in time is not so smart…  If I had to learn every single skill to complete a complex project just as the need arose, I’d reach frustration level pretty quickly.  And I’m an adult learner who has the information literacy and reading level to be able to teach myself most of those skills!  I’m just inherently skeptical of catchphrases, I guess.  It feels like they can oversimplify complicated ideas.
  • Everybody is learning something.  Whether it’s how to negotiate with a partner, how to search for images and information about a specific topic, or how to write and speak persuasively.   The project has been designed to meet a number of learning outcomes, but many others are incidental and individual.


  1. Fantastic post….you’re making my head hurt…which is a good thing. You bring up some great concerns and ideas. It’s gonna take me awhile to respond to this in a coherent matter.

  2. some good thoughtful points on your blog post.

    I think you are misunderstanding the “just in time” “just in case” thing. Using your analogy, “just in case” would be packing a jacket just in case it is cold (as you said), but “just in time” would be going out and buying that jacket on your holiday when it got cold.

    there may not be a need to teach all students a bunch of tech skills “just in case” they may need to know how to do something to complete their project but kids are taught the skills they need to complete their project when they need it and it is taught in context, more meaningful for the student.

    As you said, it can be a bit crazy and hectic but you start to develop a group of “experts” in your class that can help other students when they need to learn how to understand diff skills and all your students become teachers and learners.

  3. it’s nice to see active reflection like this. thanks for sharing your thoughts. How do the students’ products get shared? Do they have an audience for their work?

  4. I, too, am a fifth grade teacher and I work in a PBL classroom. You have some great insight into what a PBL classroom is like. There is a need for some teacher directed, whole class instruction prior to beginning, or sometimes even in the middle of a project. There is also, what we call “controlled chaos.” It looks messy and noisy and chaotic. But the children do learn how to work more independently and each project gets easier than the one before. So now, in March, the children just get to work. No long lines in front of the teacher, hardly any fires to put out. And they feel empowered and proud and smart. And that’s amazing for any 10 year old!

    Keep up the work! It is worth it.

  5. I have to say that I am so excited to be working with you and the Gr. 5 team next year. I am also excited about working with Gr. 5 students who can really sink their teeth into something they are interested in.
    Integrating IT and exploring the complexities of a social issue seems like an ideal chance to construct, evaluate, synthesize and communicate understanding. I am looking forward to seeing what your students are able to do and am curious about the planning that is inherent for this project, both for the students and teachers.
    Our very own (though sadly not for long) Kim Cofino writes about the MYP Technology Design Cycle which “helps formalize the natural process that we go through when creating a product: Investigate, Plan, Create, and Evaluate.” I would love to look more closely at this with the Gr. 5 team.

    Check it out at:

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