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The COVID guide to PBL: Making PBL work during school closures and lockdowns

With the prospect of schools being closed (or largely de-populated) for some time now, teachers around the world are grappling with how to deliver content to students and teach classes in an online environment. A question we have been hearing from schools relates to the place of project-based learning in the current climate. Is it suitable for students to work on projects at home? And, if so, how can teachers facilitate the projects?

How PBL can keep students engaged during the lockdown

In this month’s school reflection, we saw that the introduction of PBL has had a significant impact on student engagement (as measured by school attendance and retention metrics) at Ulverstone Secondary College. Their experience is not an isolated one; PBL has been consistently shown to enhance student engagement through greater collaboration with peers, hands-on learning, and student voice & agency. These factors are just as, if not more so, important during the lockdown.

During the lockdown, students face spending much of their day in front of a computer. Whether that is attending virtual classes delivered by a teacher through video or completing work electronically to submit as a way of evidencing comprehension, students are being asked to adapt to a way of learning which is not necessarily suited to them. Hands-on application tasks which might normally be used in a classroom to break up explicit teaching of content are now harder to deliver, the risk being that these tasks are substituted out for written or reading comprehension. The absence of this hands-on learning harms both engagement and the ability for students to consolidate and strengthen their understanding. The likelihood of boredom or disengagement is high, particularly given the social isolation and the lack of human connection, both to their teacher and to their peers, that many students will experience.

However, incorporating PBL into each student’s daily or weekly work schedule over the lockdown can get around these two problems. By requiring students to complete more hands-on tasks, it has the benefit of enhancing their engagement, getting them away from their screens, and will also help students go beyond knowledge retention. Students can transfer their understanding of content to a new context and blend learnings from multiple content areas, deepening and broadening their understanding. The inherently collaborative aspect of PBL ensures students retain a close connection to the class and to their teammates as they work together, share research and ideas, and collaborate in the selection and design of their solution and end product. What’s more, PBL can help bring parents into the student’s learning environment and provides students with someone they can bounce ideas off or discuss the big issue they are focused on solving.

Golden rules for PBL design during the lockdown

All the best practices of how to best design a PBL unit apply to the design and implementation of a PBL unit during the lockdown. However, there are some design elements whose importance is heightened:

  • Projects should be closely designed around core curriculum content, where students are engaged in tasks which further their progression in the project whilst also incrementally consolidating content they are learning. Students should not be asked to ‘create’ or seek out any new knowledge too early in the project when they do not have a teacher ready at hand to guide or shepherd them in the right direction

  • Projects shouldn’t be structured wholly as research tasks. Whilst some research may be necessary across the unit, students will be better engaged if the tasks are hands-on applications of what is being covered through explicit teaching. If any research is required, it must be extremely clearly scaffolded in terms of what to look for and where to look for it

  • Clarity on task completion and expected work products is paramount. Share rubrics and success criteria upfront so students know what is expected of them. Be explicit and clear in explaining what is expected and how to approach each task. Teacher clarity is more important when you are not physically present in class with students to constantly remind them or get them back on track

  • Above all, make the projects fun and open to student exploration. Now more than ever, students need work which (whilst reinforcing curriculum content) can distract them from the current climate and allow their interests and passions to drive their curiosity

How to facilitate a PBL unit during the lockdown

Delivering a PBL unit during the lockdown requires a different approach to project facilitation. Here’s some tips for how to guide students through the project from afar.

  • Engage with their parents. Keeping parents on top of what the students are working through and how they could help gives you a second (or third!) pair of eyes. Parents shouldn’t be expected to supervise students or hold them accountable. Instead, they can be encouraged to discuss the overarching problem that the student is working on – for example, ocean plastic waste or water scarcity – to help students flesh out and develop their understanding of the problem and possible ways to tackle it. The added benefit of engaging parents, is that it also showcases a school’s innovative approaches to pedagogy to key stakeholders, combating the raft of comments and complaints seen in the media in recent weeks from parents about children who are disengaged, or occupied in a range of unproductive ways.

  • Set explicit progress benchmarks with students at least twice a week. Students should know what they should be working on each week and where they should be up to by each check-in date. They should provide evidence of what they are working on even if they aren’t finished (like a photo of a sketch or an early prototype) so that you can provide feedback, as if you were in class and witnessing their ideas unfold. This allows you to keep each student on track and provide additional support early if you detect a student (or team) is struggling or falling behind

  • Create a central space for students to save their work so that you and their team can access it. This allows you to centralise feedback and discussion and encourage collaboration between team members, whilst ensuring you can stay on top of student work to monitor their progress

  • Be explicit on how students and teams should work with each other. From designating the platforms they should use to identifying which tasks will require different types of communication between and across teams, there should be no grey area on how students are expected to work together

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