10 Teacher Moves To Build Student Support in a PBL Classroom

EdLeaders, Leadership, Learner Experience, Learning, PreK-12

JoAnn Groh

When I work with teachers around Project Based Learning (PBL), I am sometimes faced with questions that are basically some form of: “I’d like to do project-based learning, but I worry that not all of my students can do it.” It is a well-intentioned question–we want our teachers to be thinking about how all of our students can succeed.  

My response is that I absolutely do believe that all students can not only survive but thrive in a PBL classroom, and that for many of our students who struggle, the engagement that accompanies PBL is a game changer. So I encourage teachers to think about their efficacy and focus on strategies they need to put in place that will help students who are academically behind, prone to distraction or easily discouraged.

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Here are ten ways teachers can build that important student support in a PBL classroom:

  1. Visual Image of Parts to Whole Connection. We often get frustrated when our students fail to connect what they learn from one day to the next. We have to help them do that. One of the best ways to do this is to create visual depictions of their learning using graphic organizers, webbing, mind maps or storyboards. These can be teacher or student created (or both) and should be referred to often to remind students what they have done, what they still need to do, review significant content and preview upcoming learning.
  2. Communicate Clear Expectations. Many students benefit greatly when teachers share up front what they need to do to be proficient. This can be done with rubrics, checklists and examining student exemplars.
  3. Break Into Manageable Steps. Students need help breaking their workload into discrete work tasks, particularly with large projects that span multiple weeks. Learning how to resist procrastination and manage their time (and negotiate with their peers for the same) are important life skills.
  4. Design Low Stakes Practice. We need to design opportunities for students to try something, fail, try again, fail a little less, until finally they try and are successful. Think of the amount of practice that goes into shooting free throws before a player is put into the high-pressure position of shooting for two at the end of the game.
  5. Timely and Specific Feedback. In addition to opportunities to practice, like good coaches, teachers need to provide feedback that is targeted and  immediate so students  know what to focus on for improvement. In this way, less is more. One immediate, encouraging but pointed comment is so much more valuable for instructional purposes than a paper returned weeks later awash in red ink.
  6. Teach 21st Century Skills. We can’t assume that our students come to us already knowing how to communicate, collaborate and problem solve with their peers.  
  7. Use Stations. All of our elementary students know what to do with stations. Unfortunately this valuable teaching strategy completely disappears when students get to middle and high school. Stations have lots of benefits, one of the biggest being that while the majority of the class is engaged in predesigned work, teachers can meet with individual students or small groups that need targeted support.
  8. Teach How to Design a Powerful Search Query. So much frustration and wasted time can be sidestepped by a search query that will find the actual information a student needs. Students need specific instruction and then practice in honing their search query skills.
  9. Customize the Research. When students review the results of their search query they rarely focus on the reading level of their hits, yet it can be inaccessible for our struggling students. For example, Wikipedia articles usually have a lexile level around beginning college level. There are specific resources we can highlight for our students such as Encyclopedia Kids and Encyclopedia Britannica for Kids. Even Wikipedia has a “Simple English Version” and a search engine designed specifically for children at Safe Search Kids.
  10. Believe In Them. My latest favorite meme is one that says: “My teacher believed I could do it, so I could do it.” At Paulo Freire Freedom School, we talk about “High Expectations with High Supports.” All students (indeed all people) have their strengths and stretches. In our work we rely on our strengths, continue to improve on our stretches and through this process, we can all be successful. When kids come to believe it as we do, there is magic.

PBL’s intrinsically engaging content is powerfully motivating and, with some intentional focus on specific teacher moves, all of our students can succeed.

This post is in partnership with Buck Institute for Education (BIE) as part of part of a blog campaign titled Getting Smart on Edu Blogging. BIE national faculty are writing about how project-based learning (PBL) is engaging students and transforming classrooms and schools. To engage in professional learning about PBL, check out the upcoming conference, PBL World in Napa Valley June 13-16 and join in the conversation using #PBLWorld.

For more, see:

In addition to being a BIE National Faculty member, JoAnn Groh is a co-founder and principal of Paulo Freire Freedom School in Tucson, Arizona, where project-based learning is implemented and the curricular focuses on social justice/ environmental sustainability. Follow her on Twitter: @joannbentegroh


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1 Comments

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