Our goal as PBL advocates is to design powerful projects. By powerful, I mean projects that fully engage students, offer a potent blend of skills and intellectual challenge, and prompt or awaken a deeper curiosity about life. Nothing less, I believe, is going to serve us in the decades ahead.
The methods for designing projects are well evolved. But to help PBL realize its potential, a shift in teaching philosophy is also required. Central to that shift is redefining teacher as coach.
I distinguish teaching from coaching in this way: Teaching is primarily about delivering information (think ‘in’-struction); while coaching focuses on eliciting the best performance from students (‘con’-struction).
Obviously, teachers do both. But successful PBL requires excellent coaching—and I believe there is a simple way for PBL teachers to check themselves on whether they’re designing projects from a teacher or coach’s point of view. I like to lay out the project planning process in seven stages. Each stage represents a fault line—a point at which good coaching measurably improves projects.
Identify the Challenge
A coach begins by designing ‘projects that matter.’ A project that gives students an opportunity to contribute to their community or prepares them for life will invite their best efforts and whole-hearted participation. Generally, if projects originate from a laundry list of standards, they lack a big idea to power the project. There must be a reason to learn beyond covering the curriculum.
Craft a Driving Question
A coach gets better performance out of students by capturing the challenge in a question that provokes interest and compels inquiry. An effective Driving Question taps a deep level of motivation, often by appealing to the feeling world instead of the knowing world. For example, here’s how a social studies team shifted their driving question on a Depression-era project to get at deeper lessons from the 1930’s that resonate today: ‘What can we learn from the 1930’s?’ was changed to ’How important is self-reliance in today’s world?’
Start with Results
A teacher focuses on test results, but a coach thinks more broadly: How will students behave, speak, perform, and hold themselves at the end of the project? Through PBL, students learn both skills and content. But in PBL, skills are decisive. Students who work well in teams learn more content; students who practice to mastery on presentations bring that rigor to their content exams. The more skillful your students, the more responsibility and work can be off-loaded to them.
Build the Assessment
First, a coach distinguishes assessment and evaluation. Assessment is a constant tool, used to improve performance and support growth over time; evaluation is the final score. Second, a good PBL coach views content as the core of a broader process designed to help students become more skillful, be reflective about their capabilities, and prepare for post secondary success. This means designing evaluations in five areas: (1) 21st century skills; (2) conceptual understanding; (3) personal strengths or habits of mind; (4) innovation and creativity; and (5) critical content.
Enroll and Engage
Introducing a project is a sales event—and a good coach knows how to sell. A teacher relies on handouts and a brief introduction; a coach uses the tools of the trade—entry events, need to knows, and refining protocols—to get the project started with the right focus. Above all, a coach takes as much time as necessary to get students hooked into the project.
Focus on Quality
The chief aim of the PBL coach is to facilitate deep thinking through inquiry. This requires a relentless focus on the process of the project, a two step process that begins with effective teamwork. By forming student teams according to well-thought out guidelines and using proven team-building methods, coaches help team members take collective responsibility for the quality of their products, commit to each other’s success, and collaborate respectfully. Once that happens, the real work begins: Coaching students as they use the tools of inquiry and practice the skills of dialogue, visible thinking, peer evaluation, and critique.
End with Mastery
Instead of concentrating on a test at the end of a unit, coaches work backward from the main event, allowing sufficient time for preparation, drafting, and refinement of products, presentations, and skills. Prototypes and a well thought out project schedule are the chief tools of a PBL coach—plus plenty of time to practice, just like on the field.