classroom structure PBL projects technology

Project-Based Pitfalls

Those of you who follow me on twitter or read this blog regularly know I have been struggling to implement wide scale Project-based Learning (PBL) into my Workplace and Apprenticeship mathematics courses. This strand of classes is probably unfamiliar to those outside of Western Canada. I have included a link to our provincial curriculum below. You can skip to the outcomes and indicators to view which topics need to be addressed. (Page 33)

Let me start out by saying that I think this is an excellent direction for high school mathematics. Some powers-that-be in Saskatchewan would like to see this pathway die out or become analogous with a modified course. I disagree strongly on both counts. This course is an exercise in teacher flexibility. (That’s probably why it is hated so much).

I designed my class around an infusion of technology, a large amount of responsibility, peer collaboration, and large-scale projects. I was very happy how it went (for the most part) but there were a few glaring problems that need to be addressed.

You may read this post as a warning if you are planning to implement projects into math class. You can also see it as an encouragement. It has been done, students did learn, and the teacher didn’t collapse from administrative stresses.

The Three Biggest Struggles: A Rookie’s Guide
1)     Using Technology as an Enabler
I was graciously given numerous supports to set-out on my journey. First, and foremost, I was given a schedule where three of my four classes were Workplace and Apprenticeship classes. (Two Gr.10 and one Gr.11). This allowed me to focus on the institution of PBL. My principal bought me new tables to make over the physical appearance of the room. This made peer collaboration more accessible. I was given a document scanner to create digital archives, as well as sixteen laptops. The laptops ran Microsoft Office 2003. That puts them in perspective. Throughout the semester, they became more of a hindrance than a support. I was grateful to have them, but they soon started to crash, lose work, and even lose keys!
After the fact, I reflected upon my use of a wiki-centered class. I wanted the class to seem modern. I wanted the website to be our central hub of communication. The fact was, students rarely accessed the wiki outside of class and the computers acted as a barrier to the central hub. I have been denied new laptops for next year, but am choosing to see it as a blessing. (after an initial period of rage). The re-designed course will be organized in binders with more focus on neat construction. In this case, the technology I needed came in the three-ringed variety.
Make sure to ask yourself, “What does this technology enable my students to do that they could not do before?” Scanners, graphing software, and collaborative structures all proved useful. Archaic laptops became a barrier.
2)      Creating Continuous Assessment
I was in constant communication with my students. The beginning of the year was scaffolded to acclimatize them to a system filled with freedom and creativity. As I weened them off of smaller projects onto ones with larger scope, I noticed a drop in commitment. The class evaluations revealed that numerous students felt lost or confused. They became directionless.
Projects that resulted in a creative product were not the problem. Students knew that the creativity of design unlocked diversity. I found that I lacked assessment (and subsequent guidance) on large projects where the product was designated, but pathway was not. For example, one class was designing a moving out plan complete with budget, housing and employment plans, a expense chart, and tax assessment. They knew what they were to hand in, but didn’t grasp the possible pathways to get there.
To combat this, I am going to use a series of project checkpoints–flexible due-dates to keep groups on task. Each one includes a self-assessment, a teacher progress report, and a face-to-face meeting. It will keep both students and teacher accountable. In PBL, confusion is your biggest opponent. Students will shut down if they feel like they are on the wrong path. There needs to be scheduled times of encouragement and, if necessary, re-direction throughout larger project phases.
3)      Group Accountability
This is every teacher’s biggest fear with group work. One student does it all while others play ‘Draw Something’ with each other. Again, I felt this happening with the larger scope projects. The new assessment plan will help, but students will always have a natural tendency to wander intellectually. Not all off-task time has malicious intent.
At the beginning of the semester, I had students keep a log of what they did each day. The technology limitations halted the process. Having students create a group road map (so to speak) will cut down on time off task. One student realized he needed to get to work when his daily log included:
March 15th
-Filled out my bracket for March Madness. It’s the winner, I can tell. Banting’s has nothing on mine, he’s gonna lose!
March 14th
-Sick, couldn’t come into work.
March 13th
-Finished comparisons and graphs.
-Started making PowerPoint
March 12th
-Made all of my bar graphs and started putting them into a presentation.
-Put up my Andre Iguodala poster in my cubical.
This student has obvious interests that distract him from his work. A quick review of his log revealed a lot to him. This brings me full-circle to the technology piece I began with. I didn’t have adequate means of self-tracking. The teacher needs to provide students the technologies to learn this important skill.
It is worth noting that I placed 3rd in the school pool–handily beating this student.
I have begun to re-work my classes with these three important reflections in mind. I want to develop step-by-step project binders for the students to keep them on pace. As the project descriptions, rubrics, and exemplars are created, I will post them (in full) on my personal wiki page.
It is ironic how much of a project designing a project-based class has become for myself.

6 replies on “Project-Based Pitfalls”

What you describe here are things that all of us (with normal students) have experienced in a PBL classroom. You make changes each year. My old rule of thumb was "3 years to get it right." I now have a new rule for PBL: "It should be close in 3 years but you will always be adjusting for the following year."
Great post!

Thanks for this post! Your thoughts about daily activity logs and project checkpoints give me some new tools to think with. How did the digital archiving of student work go for you? What were the successes and obstacles? With what frequency did it happen? Thanks again!

The digital archiving was used by me for exemplar creation as well as group assessment. With the smaller projects (or tasks as I called them) students often completed work on handouts. We then scanned, named, and filed them. I ended up projecting several on the IWB for class critique. This really helped center the class.
Again, I moved away from this with larger projects. Because they enabled more diversification, I found group-assessment tough. In hind sight, weekly peer-reviews would only help in progress tracking.
The activity logs and progress reports are all going to be filed in their project binder next year. That way we can look through their work, show parents and administrators, and co-costruct evaluation.
Thanks for reading. I will try and get a completed binder framework up ASAP. I am excited about the possibilities.

Thanks, Nat, for your reflections and suggestions. I am going to a school in the fall that is focusing on PBL from K-9 and it will be a big shift for all of us. Infusing PBL will probably look different in the elementary grades from the junior high grades. It will be an interesting journey but I feel that it is the right direction to head.

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