PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day with 30 extraordinary educators. It was our second ever Project Learning Swap Meet and it truly was wonderful. The focus for this Swap Meet was on the ‘how’ of project-learning whereas the first Swap Meet had been focused on the ‘what’ and ‘why’. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about when I say Swap Meet, you can read about it here.

The day started in the expected disorganised style that is characteristic of me and Lee … we were creating ice-breaker activities as we drove into the city and once we made it to the Powerhouse Museum we rushed to set up the space and harass the very generous Peter Mahoney into printing off some stuff for us. It was pretty chaotic by the time the Swappers started showing up, haha. I found myself out the front unintentionally and crapping on in a poor attempt to entertain those who were on time whilst we waited for those who were not. I did manage to think up a vampire metaphor for people’s PBL experience to match the stickers I had to give out: the newbies (no projects attempted yet) are ‘no fangs’, the amateurs (one or two projects attempted) are kittens with small fangs and the pros (those who do PBL full-time) are fully-fledged vampires who ‘bite’. It made me laugh, anyway.

Well as soon as most people had arrived, we started discussing what everyone felt they still ‘need to know’ about project-learning. Everyone pretty much agreed that what was troubling them/challenging them was the process of running a project. Mike made the insightful point that many know what happens at the beginning (the project launch and the DQ) and the end (the celebration of learning) but many are still fuzzy about what happens in the middle. I nicknamed this the ‘mushy middle’ and it became a repeated metaphor that we returned to throughout the day. It’s great that the talk naturally turned to this, because really that was the focus for the day anyway- managing the process of PBL. The loose driving question that we came up with for the day (which we didn’t return to enough unfortunately), was ‘How can we make the PBL process killer for our kids?’ (Can you tell that Lee came up with that? His is a much cooler adaptation to my original question, ‘How can I best manage the PBL process to support my students’ learning?’)

Before the Swap Meet, I put together a small booklet of my ‘go to’ resources for managing the mushy middle of project-learning. As I said to Malyn today, even though these are resources that I have created and/or used for many projects, different resources work better with different students. It’s always about context – just try something with your students and if it doesn’t work, evaluate why and then try again or try something different. I wanted to share those resources with those of you who might similarly be struggling with the question, ‘How does PBL work day-to-day in the classroom?’. I sense that this concern is mostly to do with managing team-work (which is really bloody hard and I certainly don’t have the answer … just ask my students!) and the nature of assessment. There really isn’t one way to approach either of these issues – as I said above, it’s very much about trial and error, taking risks and being confident to discuss the problems with your students. I know this is very hard to do, but it is necessary to embrace the fact that PBL is essentially a messy process where the best thing a teacher can do is step out of the way and let kids work things out for themselves. Letting go can be very stressful for teachers, but nothing can replace the sense of liberation you will experience once you do, I promise.

NOTE: These resources are not in any particular order … just in case you read into how I upload them, lol.

Goals/Medals/Missions: I’ve written heaps about this in the past. This is a formative assessment strategy developed by Geoff Petty in response to the research of John Hattie and Black and Wiliam. You can google their names and find out cool stuff about assessment if you so choose. I use GMM in three different ways to help support my students’ learning. Firstly, as a daily learning reflection method. Students keep a simple journal in the back of their workbooks where they record their personal goals, medals and missions for that lesson. I don’t use this with all classes, all of the time. Often I forget. I am human. Secondly, I create checklists for the product being produced (poem, performance, speech, essay, story… whatever) with students identifying what must be included. This checklist becomes their self and peer assessment tool and students identify M&Ms at the bottom of the document for the work they assessed. You can download an example here: personal-essay-checklist. Thirdly, at the end of a project, I collect students’ individual project folders and I give them M&Ms for the skills and content I was targeting for that project – e.g. collaboration, presentation, creative thinking, knowing poetic devices, essay structure, narrative techniques etc. Always give more medals than missions – super important tip!!

Team contracts: When I first started doing PBL, I thought these were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students. Signing that piece of paper means you’ve committed to your team. It means that if you fail to do your bit, your team can justifiably by annoyed and there can and will be consequences. You can get a good team contract from the bie.org freebies section. It’s always best if students create their own contract, of course.

Project Management Log: This is another BIE document that I ignored for years in my attempt to avoid paper in my classroom. Just recently I’ve discovered the power of a management log whilst working with my Year 9 students. It takes time to fill this document in, but it is really worth the time. Like the team contract, it allocates responsibilites to each team member, but it also helps students to become more independent each lesson as they have direction in their learning. It’s as much about time management as it is about role/responsibility allocation. You can get a copy of the project management log document from the bie.org freebies section.

Learning spaces and metalanguage: The best project classroom is going to be a flexible space. I know we don’t all have those rooms with cool bright furniture on wheels, but we all do have access to open spaces like ovals and quadrangles. Make the most of them and get your kids outside when it’s appropriate. A great tip I stole from the peeps at New Tech High is using staircases as presentation spaces – the audience sits on the stairs and the speaker/performer stands at the bottom. This is the type of creative use of existing space necessary for a successful project-learning class. As you know, I think metalanguage is powerful and have adopted the names of spaces used at NBCS, inspired by an essay by Thornburg. You can read about my thoughts on metaphors for learning spaces here.

Project packets: The term ‘packet’ for a bundle of worksheets it so American – we just don’t use it here in Australia. When I say ‘packet’, I mean ‘packet’ in the Aussie sense – a bunch of stuff in a container. For me it’s an envelope of documents. Of course it doesn’t have to be an envelope (I bought plastic document wallets for 50c each at Officeworks), it can also be a plastic tray or a plastic sleeve folder. It is one packet of information per team. It contains only the essential documents required for project success: project management log, team contract, project calendar, project outline and supporting documents to guide them through the inquire, create and present cycles of learning. These stay in the classroom in a central space that students can access each lesson. They don’t go home – if they did they’d never return!

Project walls: A project wall can be physical (an actual wall space in your classroom), or virtual – online somewhere like a weebly, glogster or blog. It is a space for key project elements to be shared. It’s similar but different to the project packet. It keeps students focused and organised but also showcases the learning that has occurred so far. Essentials for the project wall are: project outline, driving question, student-generated ‘need to know’, project calendar, key project vocabulary and the lounge roster (in-joke, lol!).

SOLO Taxonomy: This is just another strategy to help students self-assess and monitor their learning. I’m not a SOLO guru but I know there are heaps of them online, so go find and follow them. Our mate Tait Coles is the gun when it comes to incorporating SOLO into a project-learning-style classroom. I really like SOLO and my students have had great success with it. Their honest self-evaluation can be enlightening and terrifying for teachers.

Punk Learner rubric: This is a piece of genius created by the aforementioned Tait Coles. He created this rubric with his students and passionately encourages you to steal the idea of a punk learner rubric, but to create one with your students instead of just using the one him and his students created. It’s all about context and significance. My Year 11 students used this rubric to self-assess post half yearly examinations – as with SOLO, the results are enlightening and terrifying!

Team work rubric: Similar to Tait’s Punk Learner rubric, this is about students self and peer assessment to start a conversation and reflection about their contribution to team goals etc. I had a great time creating a team-member rubric with my Year 9 class after some students failed to be effective team-members in the previous project. You can download pre-made rubrics from bie.org freebies page which is a great place to start.

Blogging: I think getting your students to start blogging really allows you to follow their individual experience of each project. It’s such a cool way to get into their heads and can be extremely enlightening! My Year 11 students have successfully used the think/puzzle/explore blogging protocol this year. You can read about that protocol here.

Need to Know: This is essentially a list of questions that students decide that they need to have answered. You can use a KWL table for this or just get them to sit in teams and generate a list of five things the definitely need to know in order to be successful with the project. This is a kind of sneaky activity because often you (as the teacher) know what kinds of things they will identify – but that’s what differentiates the typical classroom experience from the PBL experience – it’s about students identifying what they need to know and how they will discover that. I love putting these questions up on the project wall and returning to them each week to monitor learning – students like being able to cross questions off the list and it helps them see that they are learning.

Project calendar: I think this really is a PBL staple. It’s so normal and expected in the ‘real world’ (love that phrase cos it makes me laugh, is a school an unreal world? lol!) that we plan our projects, that we look to the future and organise our time in advance because we want to be successful and know that we need to negotiate time, money, space, people etc in order to be successful. I love the BIE project calendar – you can’t beat it. Download it from the bie.org freebies page.

Rubrics for products: I wouldn’t say that these are essential. After years of doing this PBL caper, I’m kind of getting suspicious of rubrics. I find them too prescriptive and constrictive. But that’s me coming from a place of much experience with using them in the classroom. I personally think that students don’t like using them and they don’t use them well. A check-list is better. If you are going to use them, create them with your students and make sure they are written in student-friendly language. You can use Rubistar to find pre-made rubrics as a model for what you and your students can create. I used a rubric created with my students for assessing rap-battles earlier this year. You can see it here.

Formative assessment strategies: You need HEAPS of these, and really a number of them are in this list anyway. Be creative with your formative assessment – use a variety of online, face-to-face, recorded, team and individual formative assessment strategies to provide your students with feedback on their learning. I wrote a post once asking for people to share their favourite formative assessment strategies – maybe you’d like to add to it?

The inaugural #OZPBLCHAT was awesome – thanks!

On Monday evening, despite feeling far from 100%, I moderated the very first #OZPBLCHAT. I was a bit nervous that not many people would join but the turn-out was awesome … it was so busy in the chat, in fact, that I could barely read any replies to my questions! I guess that would explain the picture below:Yup – the very first #OZPBLCHAT was trending in Australia and it was even showing above #qanda … OK, maybe just for a bit, lol. I was in awe of the great ideas and questions shared and asked by my fellow tweeters. It makes me feel happy knowing that there are so many teachers ready to give up an hour of their time to chat about a different way of teaching – yeah, it’s not the only way of teaching (I hope I made that clear) but is one worth giving a go. I’m not going to go into detail about what was discussed during the chat because I want the tweets to speak for themselves. I have to say a big thank you to my dedicated hubby @waginski who spent most of the chat retweeting awesome tweets and then spent a couple of hours on Tuesday putting together the storify of the best tweets. If you don’t know what a storify is, it’s just a selection of key tweets put into a sort of chronological narrative. You can read part one of the chat here and part two here.

Oh, and for those of you who couldn’t make it, these were the focus questions for the chat. Feel free to add your comments or further questions below:

Q1: What do you KNOW about PBL?

Q2: What do you WANT to know about PBL?

Q3: Why would/should you give PBL a go?

Q4: What have you LEARNT this chat?


Surprise PBL driving questions for SDD

Next Monday I have to run a workshop with 47 teachers at my school on … PBL! Woot! First time I have presented on it to my colleagues so a little bit nervous about it.

I have decided to run this workshop just like a ran my last few PBL workshops, as a project! I only have an hour and fifteen minutes so it’s going to be pretty tight. What I realised with my last workshops was that designing the DQ proved super time-consuming (understandably cos it is one of the most important things – in fact, the most important as it determines the validity and success of your project). Because of time restrictions, I’ve decided to supply my colleagues with a driving question – they’ll get it as a ‘surprise’ in an envelope.

This morning I had to come up with nine driving questions … no easy feat UNLESS you have a super comprehensive epic website on driving questions that you can access. And ‘ta da’ I have one! This site is AMAZING and really detailed … I’ve read it through once (I think) and now I just jump to the tables and the bottom screen cos there are cool sample questions. I’ve taken 6 questions from there and also written some of my own … see if you can notice the sneaky one that I wrote in order to get some change happening to a part of my school.


How do we use our sense to discover the world?

How does climate affect the way we live?

How do drugs affect our health?

What makes a school safe?

How does our school impact the environment?

How do wars start?

What makes a good person?

How can we redesign our school library to meet the needs of 21st century learners?

What are the ingredients for a successful school?

I can’t wait to see what projects my colleagues craft around these driving questions … fun!

PBL + Me = How?

In response to my original post PBL + Me = Why? my edmodo colleague Mr Rowley asked:

Not really sure where to begin. How do you get it rolling?

It’s a good question! Mr Rowley is actually playing around with the idea of a Flipped Classroom too and was thinking the two could work well together. This is something lots of teachers are starting to do – making connections between teaching approaches to enhance their effect on student learning and engagement.

Here’s my messy response. I’ll fix it up a bit later.

It takes quite a bit of planning for your first project … start with thinking about what you students can create or do to demonstrate their learning – this would be your content/skills/habits of mind/standards. Then start thinking about a driving question that would immediately engage your students and help guide them throughout the process to creating the product and presenting to a specific audience.

The flipped classroom and PBL go together well because the individual stuff (the content focus, you typical teacher-centred instruction) occurs at home and the team-work occurs in class. Of course PBL (and I’m assuming the flipped classroom) would still feature whole class interactive instruction … just less often.

I tend to think in terms of a process and a product as the ‘assignments’ (process 1: investigation/plan, Process 2: Draft of product Product: object created and/or presentation of learning/object). This means they’re being assessed formatively twice and summatively once. Each process/product sees the students engaging with the driving question. You can also award ‘points’ (like a gamification thing that lead to edmodo badges) for positive project behaviours – I use Habits of Mind for this.

Tools for managing student behaviour and expectations

I know that the title of the posts sounds a little archaic. Shouldn’t we be worried about engaging students rather than ‘managing’ them? Surely we’re in the business of learning and not controlling. I’d agree with these sentiments and I’m sure they’ve been read here in this very blog a number of times.

This post isn’t so much about controlling students and coercing them to do as the teacher wishes, rather it is about using digital tools wisely to help students develop positive learning behaviours. It’s a bit like a transitional tool-kit to help students and teachers adjust to the new learning dynamics of an open, student-centred classroom environment.

See my last post for a bit of an over-view as to why I’m writing this post about ‘managing team work’. Simply put, managing team work is damn hard for teachers and students – the switch from passive to active learner is tough on students and will require some scaffolding and support.

ClassDojo – what is it?

Essentially it is a cool little online tool that allows you to award points (or deduct points) to students for certain behaviours chosen by the classroom teacher. It is designed to be used every lesson to monitor student behaviour – over time students become accustomed to the visual and audio cues that indicate that they have received a point for positive behaviour or, conversely, have had a point deducted for misbehaviour. I guess you should interpret the word ‘behaviour’ loosely. It’s more about classroom expectations.

According to the website, ClassDojo is ‘Realtime Behaviour Management Software’. I’ll be honest, when I first read that tag-line it didn’t sound too appealing. I like to think I don’t have behavioural issues in my class because kids are engaged in authentic, real-world projects. But that’s not true all of the time. It’s just not.

There are expectations that need to be established in all environments – especially environments where learning is hands-on, inquiry-based and involving young thinkers. I am a big fan of the 16 Habits of Mind devised by Art Costa and advocated by BIE. I am also a fan grrl of Assessment for Learning using the ‘Goals, Medals, Missions’ scaffold as devised by Geoff Petty. I think ClassDojo gives me the chance to easily implement both of these learning strategies into my PBL classroom.

Here’s a couple of screen captures of what it looks like:

Your class list appears on screen (best projected on an IWB or screen for students to see) like this:

Class list in ClassDojo

Teacher enters desired behaviours/expectations for students (the ones below are the sample ones given by ClassDojo – I’m thinking I will opt out of negative behaviours):

Sample ClassDojo BehavioursMy expectations/behaviours will be the 16 Habits of Mind (HOM) … I think I’ll probably have 4 target HOM each lesson. The image below displays all 16:

16 Habits of Mind in ClassDojo

The teacher selects ‘start class’ and then during the class awards points to students for meeting expectations – using an iPhone as a remote or clicking on the screen, the students see their number on their avatar rise (or decrease) and hear an accompanying signal. The images below shows a student with a positive and a student with a negative:Negative points

Positive Points




At the end of the lesson the teacher can get a neat graph of the types of behaviours/expectations met during the lesson. Students can track if they have improved each lesson with printable PDFs that sum their performance over a period of time.

Why ClassDojo and PBL?

I like the idea of having a visual reminder of the expected behaviours required to work effectively with others and to work towards successfully completing a project. The fact that I can add any expectations/behaviours I like means that I don’t have to stick to those suggested by ClassDojo – it’s a nice flexible tool. I like that I can add in the target Habits of Mind and students can be rewarded for applying these in the lesson. From what I can tell from the comments on the edmodo ClassDojo group, students are really enjoying the system and it’s making them strive harder to meet target expectations.

I hope it works for my class – will check back with you in a week!!

PBL conundrum: How do teachers ‘manage’ project teams?

Visiting Riverside Girls High School to talk about PBL with a small group of teachers was a really wonderful experience. I’m not sure what I found the most pleasing, the fact that these are public school teachers like me keen to learn about PBL, the fact that they were each from a different KLA (including Maths, Science, HSIE, English, PD/H/PE and TAS) or the fact that we chatted for nearly five hours and I NEVER heard a negative or disparaging comment. I think the last point is what really excited me. These teachers were NOTHING but positive about getting stuck into PBL and doing all they can to make learning ‘real’ and ‘engaging’ for their learners.

Team: same but differentOne of the many questions that arose out of our discussions concerned the managing of teams. This is a skill that most teacher lack. Why? Because in the traditional teacher-centred classroom managing group work or team projects just didn’t happen that much. I guess Drama or Dance teachers would be adept at this, even PD/H/PE teachers, and these are some people that we should seek out for tips.

So the question went a bit like this, ‘Have you had any issues with the equal distribution of work within groups? Do you find some students carry the load whilst others barely contribute?’ I had a think about my experience with PBL over the last 12 months and felt confident answering that it hadn’t been an issue I’d noticed. I really haven’t, but I don’t suppose this is any reason to conclude that it doesn’t happen. One teacher in the group told us that she had used surveys at the end of a project to ask students who worked well in the team and who they felt didn’t contribute enough to the project. This information was used by the teacher to organise groups in the following project as well as helping her target the students that needed more support during the projects. This data was also used to identify students who the teacher would speak with 1-1 about their performance and see if there were any welfare issues contributing to the poorer performance.

We all agreed this experience  reveals the strength of PBL and not its weakness – PBL allows the teacher greater flexibility to engage with students on a 1-1 basis, thus any problems can be addressed rather than ignored. Finally an added bonus of this survey of contribution levels is that students were aware that their contribution was being monitored by both their peers and their teacher – a motivator to work more productively. Of course it can be argued that a failure to contribute may reflect deeper ruptures within group dynamics such as personality clashes or differing skill levels. It can also be argued that it may reflect a lack of engagement in the project. The former possibility may be countered by ensuring students assign roles and responsibilities at the outset of a project. A great post on the need for this type of group management can be found on Malyn  Mawby’s blog, here. The latter calls for the teacher to (re)evaluate the project itself using a project evaluation tool like this one. Rubric_Project_Design_June2010

I suggested a couple of tools that could be of assistance to help ‘manage’ group work more effectively, like ClassDojo and Memiary. I argued that both of these tools would assist in the managing of classroom behaviour and expectations. If we have both of these managed in our class, then we will be a good deal of the way to managing the issue of equal contribution to a team project. No?

Anyway, when I got home from Friday’s meeting at Riverside Girls HS I found an edmodo post that made my heart sink and made me feel a little foolish. But I like these types of shocks – they shake the foundations of my ‘PBL evangelism’ and make me rethink where I am going with student-centred pedagogies. So what was the edmodo post about? One of my Year 10 students posted that he didn’t like group-work because often only a small minority of the group did the mass of the work whilst the others mucked around and contributed minimally. Wow.

It was a timely reminder for me that PBL is hard and that quality project and people management is essential to effective PBL. It makes me panic a little that PBL isn’t right and I’m doing the wrong thing by my kids. Then I step away from my emotions and remember that life requires people to work together. These students are learning valuable skills in collaboration … this is one of those ‘just in time’ learning opportunities.

Year 10 and I will be having a little chat about collaboration skills on Monday. Looks like ClassDojo and Memiary are going to be getting their first airing in my classroom this week. Read about these tools here.

PBL + me = why?

Haha – do you like my catchy title? Does it make you think that I’m not liking PBL, that I’m questioning this pedagogy? Hmmm … maybe I am – but then, shouldn’t I be? After all I am a budding researcher who is being trained to look critically and find ‘gaps’ in research/practice that I may be able to ‘fill’.

But really I’m just preparing myself to present on PBL to a small group of enthusiastic teachers at Riverside Girls High School. I was asked by my friend Paul Jones to assist his staff in preparing for a ‘possible’ wider-school PBL adoption on 2012. A small group of interested teachers will be the ‘pilot’ team to plan and implement subject-specific and cross-faculty PBL. I am so excited to have been asked to help fellow teachers tackle the challenge of shifting from a teacher-centred to a student-centred pedagogy. Who knows, maybe this time next year these teachers will be part of my research into PBL and its relationship with digital technology usage, assessment for learning and the teaching of multiliteracies. Maybe I won’t put that pressure on them at our first meeting though, huh?

This post is essentially a means for me to do a mini-reflection on where I started with PBL and where I find myself now. I know that the road to here has been bumpy and confusing and I’m confident that it will be a similarly mind and body-jolting experience for the Riverside Girls teachers. But want I want to stress is the extreme benefits of this journey. The benefits are not just for the students – but for the teacher as well. Like what, you ask? Like being engaged with your learning as a professional, being challenged on a daily basis to respond to shifting student needs, by getting to know your students more personally as individuals and as learners and by feeling that what you’re doing is meaningful beyond the four walls of your classroom.

Dean Groom: I first started PBL because of this guy, Dean Groom. To be honest, I can’t even remember why I took interest in him and his ideas about education. I’m glad I did though. If you wanna have your ideas about education smashed to pieces every day or two then I suggest you read his blog here. Dean helped me to design my first PBL project. You can read about it here.

Suzie Boss: That project wasn’t what I would have called a success, and I wrote about that here. This post was found by Suzie Boss who used it as the basis for her own blog post here. It wasn’t until a little bit later I learnt that Suzie is a PBL guru working for Eduptopia.

Wider PBL community: This experience gave me insight into the amazingly supportive PBL community that is always accessible online. You can get great resources from BIE, read inspiring stories at Edutopia, watch useful ‘How-to’ videos on the BIE and Edutopia YouTube channels, join the PBL BIE community in edmodo, find amazing shared links at the PBL Diigo page, learn to craft a driving question thanks to this insane post (scroll towards the bottom) or follow the #pbl hashtag on twitter.

Trial and Error: The very best things in life take time – like understanding a really complex poem. I have written a series of blog posts questioning the effectiveness of PBL in my classroom and reflecting on the impact PBL is having on my students. You can read about this experience in the posts below:

Year 10 Project Based Learning: teething problems

Project Based Learning: The need for a determined attitude

Project Based Learning: Struggling

Is my PBL faux student-centred learning?

Fearless fun: A big part of PBL is risk-taking. Too often teaching is ‘safe’ and uninspired. Teachers feel comfortable standing at the front of the room referring to a textbook or handout. Teaching out the front can be effective if the teacher uses a whole class interactive method, but often teacher-centred lessons see teachers being didactic and students being passive. Teachers wanna have fun too, and sometimes fun involves throwing yourself off a cliff with the knowledge that at some point (preferably not too close to the ground) you’ll pull the shoot and land exhilarated at your success. I love those classes – they never cease to make me smile. I’ve blogged about a few of those lessons and included one below:

A priest, a prostitute and a thief: the hilarity of my Macbeth PBL ‘hook’ lesson

Meaningful assessment: One of the coolest parts about PBL is the assessments. They never suck and they’re never boring. If they do suck and they are boring than you’re not doing PBL right in my opinion. Assessment in PBL is both formative and summative. Check out my whinges – sorry, I mean ‘posts’ – about assessment below:

Assessment: out with the old and in with the new

Authentic assessment: sharing what we know

Authentic assessment and the HSC – a challenge?

Assessment and Project Based Learning

PBL and DER: changing the assessment landscape

I hope these posts come in handy to some of the teachers tomorrow!!

What tips do you have for teachers just starting out with PBL?