Bayard Nielsen is an award-winning Spanish teacher and department chair at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, CA, with over 10 years experience in education. He is also a Google-certified trainer, MERIT educator, and edtech consultant.
Both cars can go 124 mph. One can get there in 7.2 seconds. And the other, if it’s lucky, can do it in 12 seconds - provided the duct tape holds. That’s pretty much the only difference between my 1991 740 Volvo station wagon and a Porsche 918 Spyder. Well, that and the Porsche only has one cup holder.
We all know our students can achieve this 124 mph level of creativity (call it Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow”), but for some it takes a while to get there. One way to speed up the process is using Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL accelerates creativity through sufficiently structuring learning goals and requirements while allowing students to choose between differentiated options. This dual-axle approach then provides students with the necessary framework to be creative in ways that are meaningful to them and purposeful to the project. Here’s your very own PBL test drive (or tune-up, if you’ve already taken it out for a spin) along with a few common repairs and turbochargers.
Axle I: Structuring learning goals and requirements
Many teachers (including myself, when I began) wrongfully believe that the quickest route to creative thinking is a blank sheet of paper. While that may be the case for some, in order for most to get comfortable in the driver’s seat, we need to slow down and show them a map so they know where they’re headed first. Your map needs:
Purpose: Using projects as formative and/or summative assessments is a fantastic alternative to tests, because they allow students to complete work in steps and reflect on the process.
Pro tip: Have students explain why they are doing a project this unit instead of taking a test, and what the advantages are.
Direction: Essential questions activate student learning. The unit is called “reptiles,” but what are we talking about? Anatomy? What reptiles eat? Are we becoming reptiles? Preview the chapter to pique student interest: “What would happen if there were no reptiles?”
Pro tip: Don’t use a yes or no question or a question with a simple, short answer.
Model steps & provide examples: Before beginning each step, gather all students into “storytime” seating (everyone sitting close together in front of the projector). All students read the steps, you clarify, and have one student actually complete the steps in front of the class. In addition, provide digital instructions with an exemplar student example or make an example yourself.
Pro tip: If you have a student who misbehaves, let them show the perfect “wrong” example, then ask the class what was done wrong and how to correct it. This reinforces the correct procedure, and gives the student both a leadership role and positive attention.
Mini classes (<10 min): Students may need information given through a lecture, or may need a new technology tool explained to them. If flipped lessons or rotation stations are not possible, mini-classes definitely are. Reduce the lecture to the least amount of information possible, gather students in “storytime” seating, and rely heavily on checks for understanding to see what still needs to be explained.
Pro tip: If more time is needed, let students work on the project with what they learned during the first mini class for a bit before lecturing again.
Scope: Take the time in your requirements to think through what specifically you need to see in order to know that students have mastered the learning objectives. This is perhaps the second most important piece for accelerating creativity from the teacher’s perspective.
Pro tip: Don’t add tedious requirements that you aren’t going to enforce anyway (eg “use 4 colours on the title page,” “have exactly 8 examples of ‘ar verbs.’).
Rubric: This is the most important element. Including a rubric when the project is explained (not as it is turned in) lets students know where to focus their energy. The rubric becomes even more useful if a teacher walks through several example projects with their rubric scores.
Pro tip: See if there is already a proven, standardised rubric for what you are grading. And before adding vague statements like “very creative,” “creative,” “somewhat creative,” imagine explaining this to a student’s parents. Are you clear on what the differences are yourself? Make sure your students are too and give them examples. Does “creativity” even need to be a criterion? Hint: probably not.
Axle II. choose between differentiated options
Now that students have a map, let them choose the route. What you see as scenic, others see as long. Some like curves, others like straightaways. You will notice increased student interest right away, especially if your course was previously linear. You may wish to let students choose all of the options themselves or to choose some for them. Options can include:
What/how students learn: Let’s say the project involves explaining the main idea in Animal Farm through authoring the neighbouring city’s weekly newspaper. By giving students a placement test, the teacher might realise some students have already read the novel and assign those students a different book covering the same topic; why make students read the same book again if they can already convey the main idea?
Maybe a student with a learning difference has an accommodation to listen to the audiobook. If one of the requirements is to summarise each page in the margin, maybe this student creates a podcast based on every five minutes of the audiobook. Perhaps this then becomes an option for all students as well.
What students do: In a mixed-ability classroom, students can complete the same project but have different requirements. For example, if the activity for Spanish students is to design a menu and include full sentences with ser, estar, and three adjectives, high-achieving students could have the additional requirement of adding a biography of the chef that includes the preterite and imperfect.
How the student does it (story, worksheet, video, interview): Perhaps the overall goal of your project is to compare and contrast the history, culture and government of two countries. Allowing students to choose how they do this project might result in an infographic, a mock UN debate between the two countries, interviewing citizens (whether real or classmates) from the countries who describe the issues, or making a slide deck.
The result: purposeful & meaningful creativity
Now that students have a map and have chosen their route, get out of the way while they open the throttle. Let them work during class if possible, or at least work on each step for 10-15 minutes during class to troubleshoot with each other and check in with you. This is your time to ensure everyone successfully crosses the finish line. If a student isn’t on track, maybe it’s time to help them select a different option. You can also prevent overheating (creativity being used where not purposeful to the project - eg spending 20+ minutes on the title page).
Pro tip: Don’t waste time rotating to see if students are complying with the instructions to work. Engage with students. Constantly be checking-off where each student is in the work process.
Hot Rod Examples
Student & Sample
Find out where gum originated, the science behind it, and its health effects in this video!
Project description: Make a five-minute video about something that interests you.
What is yodelling? Find out about its history and learn how to yodel in Spanish with this video.
Project description: Five-to-seven minute student videos in Spanish modelling how to be curious for viewers of Sesame Street.
Michael Alvarenga, Shruti Sridhar
Por el Mismo Sueño (pdf)
Bilingual narratives and superhero comics of day labourers describing their family histories, culture and daily lives. 100% written and edited by students.
Project description: Demonstrate that you are an upstanding citizen through advocating on behalf of a Spanish-speaking community, using the skills you have improved through taking this class.
Feel like you’re already doing this, but it’s not working? Let’s check under the hood. Maybe you have a loose gasket that’s holding students back.
Taking points off for late work: Are you taking off 10% for each day something is late? Here’s what can happen when you give your students extra time to work on a project they are passionate about. Hot Rod Clara M’s PBL YouTube video was supposed to be 3-5 minutes long. After asking for an extension, her final video was 10 minutes long. It has over 100,000 views!
Giving 0’s for incomplete work: Let’s say a student hasn’t completed his solar system PBL assignment either because he was absent, he didn’t understand the assignment, or he was playing FortNite. Giving him a zero (or hopefully a 50, if you have a 50% floor) lets him off the hook. It signals that you and he are moving on from this assignment and that it is acceptable to not master all of the curriculum in class.
Pro tip: Replace this with an “incomplete.” Explain that it is not possible to measure the student’s mastery of the learning goals for this unit, or for class, until the project is done.
Not letting students shift out of 1st gear: “Be as creative as you want... Using PowerPoint 2003!” No! Just because that’s what you know, doesn’t mean students should be stuck with this option. Let your students surprise and delight you. Explain the requirements (Axle I), offer them options (Axle II), and get out of the way. If a student is a Prezi expert or wants to learn how to use Adobe Spark, let them! They will be that much more motivated when applying creativity to your material.
Turbocharger (warning: may void warranty)
So you’re a PBL pro looking for some extra tips. Your Porsche 918 Spyder is running just fine, thank you. Here are a few creativity turbochargers.
Design thinking: What every method of brainstorming wants to be when it grows up. This will help your students come up with dozens of ideas, instead of three or four. If it’s good enough for Stanford’s d.School, it’s good enough for me.
Makerspace: Before class starts, bring in art supplies. Let students colour, create with pipe cleaners, cut things out; let them know today will be different from other days.
The Tuning Protocol: This unique method of peer feedback will change how you have students comment on each other's work in progress forever.
Time to get on the road and take PBL out for a spin! You have the basics, and your students will welcome the learner-centred change from the “sage on the stage.”
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