We know it happens, both to our students and in our own lives—we forget. There are whole days we can’t remember (quick—what were you doing on February 4, 2018? See!), whole books we don’t remember reading, and names of individuals we have met but can’t call to mind. We have taught our students particular skills or concepts, but they act like it’s new content when they get to the next grade level. Of course, it’s obvious that our minds can’t retain everything, and that in the onslaught of news, memes, and social-media-scrolling, we shouldn’t. But in a classroom setting where the main goal is to help students gain new skills and concepts, it’s our job to be sure they do. So what’s going on, and how can we change this?
In 2017, Edutopia featured an article called “Why Students Forget and What You Can Do About It,” which introduced me to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, a graph of how much of something we forget each day. It’s discouraging. Take a look:
For those of us in the education world, this is especially disconcerting. It feels like our time and effort in the classroom is being poured down the drain! Why do students forget, and what can we do when we want to ensure our students remember key skills, content, and knowledge?
Think of a memory like a pathway created in a dense jungle. Learning a new skill or new content is like creating a trail through the vegetation with a machete. If you don’t use that path and clear it often, the vines, bushes, and lush plant life will reclaim that path, just like your brain makes space for new memories by forgetting.
Our job as teachers is to keep the skills and content pathways clear for students to help them retain more of what we teach them. We want to intervene as much as possible so that the 25% retained after 6 days ends up being a much higher number. Fortunately, this can be done. By repeatedly accessing a memory, we clear the path—we strengthen the neural networks—and remember something longer than if we don’t access it again.
So what does this have to do with PBL, and what practical strategies can we use?
The Edutopia article I mentioned earlier suggests using these 5 strategies to increase student memory:
These strategies work especially well in a PBL context because project-based learning units often utilize cooperative learning and collaboration and rely on formative assessment. PBL units can use interleaving and reviewing of concepts, and the best PBL units also utilize readings (preferably image-rich texts). More importantly, however, PBL units give the content a storyline—a reason for the content to exist that matters to students. By enhancing the meaning and relevance of content for students, PBL gives students a reason to remember the content.
In addition to added meaning, repetition matters. Just like classic family stories that get retold at holidays and gatherings, project-based learning unit content gets revisited throughout the unit and across units, helping students retain knowledge and understanding.
Other features of memorable moments, from Chip and Dan Heath's The Power of Moments (2017), are that they have:
These are all key elements in PBL units, from the launch day (which can be a moment of elevation), through the project work (which should be full of insights from meaning-making and connection from collaboration) to the final presentation day (certainly a moment of pride).
If I may, then, add the following strategies to Edutopia's list through my PBL lens, we can have more tools in our toolkit for boosting memory:
With this combination of strategies, you now have multiple ways to change the forgetting curve, as you have given students multiple reasons to remember. So, if we want to increase students’ memories and ensure that our teaching is not in vain, let’s polish our PBL neural pathway-clearing “machetes” and get to work!
You've probably heard the term “PBL” at conferences, professional development sessions, and maybe even on Twitter. But what is PBL, and why are teachers drawn to using it with students? What makes something a project-based learning unit and not just a project? And how do you get started with PBL in your district, building, or classroom? We'll discuss these topics in this post so you can better understand project-based learning and how it can make a difference for students in your context.
What is PBL?
Project-based learning (PBL) is a type of instruction in which students learn important skills, concepts and knowledge while working together to complete a meaningful, authentic project. Let's unpack that definition and elaborate on each piece while addressing some questions.
Creativity, collaboration, deeper learning, meaningful work, engagement, problem solving…this all sounds like the outcomes we ultimately want for our students, right? So why aren't all teachers using PBL? Sometimes it's that buildings already have adopted textbooks or curriculum and they aren't sure how PBL would fit in, or maybe it's just dismissed immediately as impossible. Often there are multiple competing demands for teachers' time and a lack of PBL training in most teacher education programs. In all cases, PBL requires support, time, resources, and training. This can seem daunting for teachers and leaders, but with planning and creativity, schools that I have worked with have found a way to make PBL successful for their teachers and students.
How Do We Get Started With PBL in our School, District, or Classroom?
You've done your research. You know what PBL is and you've seen multiple examples of excellent PBL in action. So how do you get started? As in most cases, it depends. To help individuals and schools navigate their PBL journey, I have developed a PBL Roadmap for teachers as well as one for school leaders. I also use PBL Readiness Discussion Questions when discussing Project-Based Learning with teachers and leaders. If you want to move forward with PBL in your site, join the PBL network and you'll have access to other educators' ideas and our content. You can also contact me and we'll discuss your site's next steps for PBL.
Anyone who has planned a PBL unit knows that it takes a tremendous amount of time to write it well. I'm currently in the process of writing a 7th grade science unit, and the background research and initial planning stages alone take a significant amount of time. Add to that the everyday teacher duties of lesson planning, grading, contacting parents, and more, and there's not a lot of time left for big-picture PBL planning.
In emails I've received from teachers, as well as in webinars, I hear the same refrain: “We love PBL and we want to do more. We just don't have the time!”
Unfortunately for myself as well as the rest of the teachers I work with, I've not been able to add more hours to the day! However, I do have 5 ways you can seemingly “make time” to add more PBL to your year.
The Five “S”s: Making Time for PBL Planning
Whether it means making peace with starting small and building as you go, or finding coverage for your class for an hour or two, or splitting up duties, there are ways we can make time for PBL in our settings. How have you and your colleagues made time for PBL in your buildings? Let us know in the comments!
Over the course of a year, I experience many takeoffs and landings in airplanes ranging from CRJs to Boeing 737s. Sometimes, I come across nervous passengers who hold their breath through the ascent and tightly grip the armrest during the occasional turbulence. They aren't quite sure about this whole “flying” thing, and it's not until the captain comes on the intercom and (unintelligibly) announces that we've reached a comfortable cruising altitude that everyone relaxes and settles in to work on their laptops, read, nap, or start their movies. Even though everyone's on the plane together, the trust, comfort, and speed comes when we reach a cruising altitude. It's time to get going!
Those of you who are teachers and building leaders will know that the same is true of professional learning and new initiatives. At first, there's a huge learning curve and possibly some resistance to overcome. Some folks are nervous and aren't quite sure about where this whole thing is headed. When we as leaders (teacher leaders, building or district administrators, PD providers, and coaches) provide enough time, support, and resources to see teachers through to “cruising altitude”–proficient and mostly independent implementation of the strategy or initiative–the teachers who are along for the ride will be confident in their ability to move ahead and make progress. However, not every site that introduces a new initiative or strategy reaches “cruising altitude” before ending training, support, or collaboration time, and that is often a recipe for disaster.
As the calendar year draws to a close and teachers here in the U.S. begin to wrap up their first semester, I have been reflecting on the success of various cohorts of teachers I've worked with this year as a Project-Based Learning consultant. Thankfully, many sites I work with have the long range in view. Leaders at every level plan to see teachers through the initial stages of learning about and experiencing PBL, planning and refining units, and implementing units over a long period of time. By investing in that critical “takeoff” and “ascent” period and seeing teachers through to their “cruising altitude,” leaders gain teachers' trust as well as ensure that they are confident in their abilities to enact their newly-honed skills with students.
Leaders, when we provide an initial training, we're taxiing.
Leaders, when we provide a follow-up training, we're contributing to take-off.
Leaders, when we have teachers collaborate, write and design PBL units, refine their work in peer reviews, and see multiple examples of PBLs in action, we're ascending.
We need all of these components over a long period of time to reach “cruising altitude;” otherwise, we are in danger of teachers stalling out before they experience success.
Leaders, how can you support your staff to reach “cruising altitude” in the initiatives you are asking teachers to enact?
If you'd like to discuss your site's plans for implementation of PBL, feel free to set up a call by emailing me at email@example.com.
I live in a beautiful area of the Arkansas Ozarks in a lake and river town with natural mineral springs. Heber Springs, my hometown, was once named Sugar Loaf Springs after this rocky hill that locals call “Sugar Loaf Mountain.” After living in Seattle, which is surrounded by the Cascades and the Olympics, I know that this feature called Sugar Loaf is not, in fact, a mountain. But if you haven't seen anything higher, you might call it a mountain, too.
Image from http://www.cleburnecountyar.com/
In her book Mastermind, Maria Konnikova (2013) explains this phenomenon known as the “Lucretius Underestimation” (named such by author and mathematician Nassim Taleb). Lucretius, a Roman poet and philosopher, stated that, (translated from Latin), “a little river seems to him, who has never seen a larger river, a mighty stream; and so with other things—a tree, a man—anything appears greatest to him that never knew a greater.” In other words, a person is a fool if he or she believes the tallest mountain he or she has ever seen and the tallest mountain in the world are one in the same.
So what does all of this talk about mountains have to do with teaching? What, exactly, is being underestimated?
As soon as I read this paragraph in Mastermind, I realized that in order to pursue excellent teaching, we must be observing (and having our colleagues observe) excellent teaching early and often. We should underestimate great practice no longer.
Konnikova states, “simply put, we let our own personal past experience guide what we perceive to be possible.” In teaching, this is known as the “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975). We tend to teach how we were taught, unless specific steps are taken to guide us differently. Konnikova goes on to explain, “our repertoire becomes an anchor of sorts; it is our reasoning starting point, our place of departure for any further thoughts.” When we or our teachers have a vision of teaching and learning that is a “Sugar Loaf” instead of a “Mount Everest,” we will be anchored in the repertoire of the Sugar Loaf. (No offense, dear hill of mine! You're being used as a metaphor.)
So where can we find excellent examples of curriculum, teaching strategies, school systems, and programs.
By expanding your repertoire and opening up what's possible, you'll no longer underestimate what greatness looks like. But you will be striving for it.
This week, my husband and I spoke in our eldest daughter's first grade classroom as guest speakers for their “Community Helpers” unit. We enjoyed explaining our work to her classmates and providing them with examples of new and different kinds of careers. We were grateful to her teacher for involving us, as it's not simple to schedule adults to speak or easy to find meaningful ways to connect parents to the curriculum.
Whether you are an elementary school teacher or a secondary teacher (or one of those amazing people teaching middle school), you can also embed experts and community members in your classroom, especially in your project-based learning units, in 5 powerful ways.
If you're just getting started with the process of using experts, I recommend starting with “Consult and Brainstorm” and “Panel and Audience Members.” You could also start with Guest Speakers, but the other two are a bit more high-leverage ways to utilize community members. Project Mentors and Feedback are tough to pull off, but after you get them implemented, your students' projects will be richer and more high-quality as a result.
Ready to get started? Start making a list of places in your unit that would benefit from community involvement. Then, research or list out who you might recruit to help you. Happy connecting! Your students will thank you for it in the long run.
Our classrooms can be vulnerable places for us to share with other people. Fear that our lessons, classroom, or students aren't perfect might keep us from involving parents, experts, and others in the community. Or maybe it's not fear, but time. How does a busy teacher make the time to find a community member that might enhance the lesson? Will having someone else come in to the classroom take away from time already devoted to teaching specific skills or content? Whatever the obstacle keeping us from more fully integrating our classrooms with what's happening outside our four walls, the benefits of involving community members and experts are worth finding a way around what's holding us back.
There are ways to involve community members, especially in a project-based learning (PBL) unit, from the beginning to the end of the unit. You could get ideas for your project by discussing real-world problems with subject-area experts before the unit begins, and have community members serve as audience members for the final project presentations.
Who are these community members, anyway? They can be:
Before delving into HOW this can be done (I'll do this in Part II in another post), let's start by considering WHY involving community members is so important, especially in a PBL classroom.
It takes time to build up a network of ready and willing community members. It takes time to train them to engage with your students, and you must also prepare your students to interact with the community members. It takes time for you to find places in your curriculum where experts, community members, and other adults would have a beneficial connection and role. Non-profits like Seattle-based Educurious have considered the role of experts as they have designed their PBL units, and they have built an expert database for teachers to consult.
Now that you can see the benefits of involving the community, think about your upcoming unit. How might you consult with someone from the field? Where might students benefit from connecting with an expert? What audience will view their final products? Start small, prepare the students and the community members, and build your network and community involvement from there. You'll see an increase in student engagement and motivation, and you'll be benefitting your students in the long run.
When I work with teachers to design their PBL units, some talk about having a video for a “hook” or discuss reading client letters in the “launch.” Both seem to connect to the first day of the unit, and both are important elements to include in a PBL unit. But is there a difference between a hook and a launch? Can you have one without the other? What are the components of each that make them useful or even necessary to include?
First, let's take a look at the “hook” and my understanding of the term:
A hook then, in a sense, is like an appetizer, or like the smell of waffle cones baking at an ice cream shop. It's meant to draw us in, but if there's not more to it, we might leave feeling empty or disappointed.
That takes us to the launch, which is an often-overlooked aspect of instruction within a unit. Because our time is so limited, we often start a unit by giving a pretest, providing some sort of hook, and then dive right in to the learning. However, by doing so, we miss an important opportunity to frame the unit in a way that involves all learners, intrigues all learners, and honors all learners. Let's break down the elements of a launch of a PBL unit:
Notice that both hooks and launches are highly engaging and that both increase motivation. Launches have the added layer of getting students into the work of the problem and/or uncovering students' prior knowledge in a social setting. Launches also zero in on the problem students will work on, and help students consider the learning that needs to take place for students to complete the project. Finally, just as a ship launches and everyone who is on board is in that voyage together, fully launching a project gives the students the sense that “we're all in this together.” It brings about a cohesiveness that a pretest kickoff won't.
As you plan your PBL units, consider how you'll build out a full launch. Think about where to embed hooks and how to expand your repertoire for both hooks and launches. Once you begin a unit with a full launch, you'll find the final product will reflect the intentionality with which you started the unit.
In the first few weeks of school, students watch us closely. They tune in to how we frame lessons, they read our feedback, and they listen to the kinds of questions we ask. We may not think they're paying attention, but they are, and one aspect of our classroom culture that they notice is whether they are in a GROWTH classroom or a GET-IT-DONE classroom.
We've all been in “get-it-done” classrooms. The focus is on students completing work, turning it in, and receiving a grade. Success is praised above all else. When the work is done, the learning is done. Everything feels final, and somehow it's not a pleasant learning environment.
Growth classrooms, on the other hand, have a different feel. Everything–from how the teacher frames the unit's first lesson to the reflection discussion at the unit's conclusion–points to ongoing learning. Students take risks and ask questions. They collaborate with their peers and share interesting ideas. They give each other tough feedback because the teacher has cultivated trust among the students and has taught processes for providing feedback. While the work is in progress, learning is occurring, and it is expected to continue.
Project-Based Learning (PBL) is the perfect vehicle for promoting a growth mindset culture that emphasizes persistence and learning from mistakes. PBL units not only allow for students to develop expertise in the content they are learning, but students can also exhibit growth in skills through PBL units across the year.
For example, in a middle school science PBL unit, students take on the role of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation experts. They are to design an optimal temporary habitat for a displaced animal after a disaster. In this unit, they are learning about ecosystems and relationships within them, and they have the example of real-world Wildlife Biologists on which to model their growth. In this unit and others throughout the year, they are also growing in their ability to collaborate, communicate, research, solve problems, persist, and exercise key Science and Engineering Practices.
How does a teacher take steps to build a growth-centered classroom? Here are a few ways you can begin to embed key features of a growth mindset culture in your PBL units:
For more on cultivating a growth mindset classroom, check out this Edutopia post with several teaching tools and ideas.
It’s tempting, especially in a math or science classroom, to dive right into the syllabus on Day 1. However, that’s likely what students will be hearing all day in their other classes. What might it look like to dive right into thinking and learning? You could show them how a positive classroom community works in the context of the work students will be doing. Some of you may be thinking, “There’s so much to teach!” and, “We need to get into the basics of scientific method and math review!” However, there are multiple ways to accomplish these goals while also understanding who students are as learners and what strengths and knowledge they bring to the classroom.
In those first few weeks, you can dive into the necessary learning while also attending to these 5 “Rs”:
After spending time on these 5 “Rs” of classroom community, your students will be primed to engage in PBL work. Of course, you will always add more to their repertoire of cooperative, academic, and relational skills, but providing this foundation will help your PBL units roll out smoothly without much front loading and review. Best of luck to you as you begin your year, and for those of you who have been in session for a few weeks now, some of these strategies can still be applicable!