Diving Into Project-based Learning: Feedback Friends

project-based learningAs a teacher, I found project-based learning incredibly chaotic and difficult to manage. I had four classes each investigating a different topic. In each class I had 7-9 different projects in development, and each project was unique. I wanted to help my students–finding resources, asking questions, suggesting options, but as soon as I focused on any one group another would demand my attention. Instead of feeling every day was a productive, meaningful day of inquiry, I left school most days overwhelmed that the classroom looked disheveled, the learning seemed scattered, the students appeared distracted, and I felt disorganized. Were we accomplishing anything? I knew project-based learning was going to require a paradigm shift on my part, but I didn’t expect to feel so beat up by it. I needed some quality feedback, and I knew from conversations with Mike that the boys needed feedback from their peers as well.

At the end of many days I found myself sitting on the couch next door in Alice’s room bemoaning the way things were going and trying to re-design plans for the next day. I needed a partner, someone with whom I could collaborate and troubleshoot. I also needed an extra set of eyes and hands. I didn’t feel I couldn’t give a group my full attention because I was so busy trying to make sure everyone was on task. Unfortunately, Alice was teaching the fifth grade at the time. Even though Alice was willing to listen and make suggestions, she couldn’t offer first-hand observations about what was happening in my room. She simply wasn’t there, and I needed someone who was.

Fortunately, my friend Jill Gough had scheduled a visit to my school. Jill and Bo Adams are famous (at least in my mind) for designing and implementing a project-based class called Synergy at their former school, and I had relied heavily on their work in designing my classes’ projects. Jill spent two days visiting PDS, and I had several opportunities to pick her brain about her experiences with project-based learning. (The image at the top of this post has my notes from lunch with her.)

Jill gave me some fantastic suggestions that I tried to carry out immediately. First, Jill suggested that I have the students complete a survey/reflection and give me some feedback on their own learning. My first plan was to give them a handout to complete that would encourage them to reflect on their learning and evaluate what they’ve done. I showed the handout to Jill and she gave me some great feedback on it. She also suggested that I use a Google form and not a handout to collect the data. You can view the Google Form I used to collect feedback here. Jill also spent about an hour in my room observing as I interacted with the boys. She took the time to point out to me all the good things that were happening and how engaged the students were. I needed to hear it. She gave me some constructive feedback, but she also built me up and offered specific examples of how quality learning was happening in my room. Sure, it was active and noisy, but it was still learning. Jill’s observations and encouraging words gave me the shot in the arm I needed.

In addition to the idea for reflections and the feedback on the class activity, Jill shared with me how, with Bo, she would have students do Ignite-style presentations on their products and allow other students to offer them feedback. Jill suggested “Ignite Lite” presentations (4 slides, 30 seconds per slide) to allow plenty of time for feedback in our shorter classes. I liked the idea and decided to combine it with Mike’s suggestion of using “critical friends” and the Ladder of Feedback from Project Zero.

I have Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart that I use with students in my room to guide us through the feedback process.


For our Ignite Lite session, we used the Friends’ Feedback Ladder handout below to record our feedback on each presentation so the presenters could refer to it as they began revising their products and presentations.

Feedback Friends LadderHere are the PDF versions of the handouts: Ladder of Feedback Anchor Chart, Friends’ Feedback Ladder.

I walked the students through the process and kept reminding them to use the language the anchor chart and handout provided to keep the feedback positive and constructive. We’ve use the Ladder of Feedback all year, but I think it’s too easy to fall into the mode of being critical (meaning negative) and not more constructive. I also wanted to make sure we celebrated the good in each project. the boys really were doing some great work.

Once the boys had presented and received feedback, they began revising their projects and making them better. They weren’t required to make every suggested improvement, but they had to consider the feedback. Overall, I know our project-based learning improved because of the Friends’ Feedback/Critical Friends process that I got from Jill and that the boys gave each other. Now, I’m beginning to think about how I can use this type of feedback into other aspects of our learning.

What do you think about the friends’ feedback/critical friends process? what experience have you had with it in your classroom? What other ways might it be useful? I’d love to know what you think.

This is the ninth post (I know, right?) in a series on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric designour need to knowour inquiry, or our innovation.

6 thoughts on “Diving Into Project-based Learning: Feedback Friends”

  1. Awesome series, Philip! I did not see the Google form or the Ladder of Feedback while was observing. I am so pleased and grateful that our time learning together during my visit to PDS was beneficial to you. I certainly learned much from you and your talented colleagues. The Trinity community had many questions for me about your learners’ work and projects upon my return. They were and continue to be intrigued by the sophistication of the projects your young learners are engaged in.

    We are so impressed by your level of reflection and willingness to share bright spots, struggles, and course corrections. We are inspired to launch a semester of teacher reflection learning and growth following your wonderful model.

    Your boys are learning the value of giving and receiving feedback to influence others learn and to become reflective. Their projects already help them understand the world at a deep level. You are making a huge impact on the world!


    1. Thanks, Jill, for the comment and for being such an encouraging colleague. I’m committed to making these posts honest reflections and to considering the things I want to change for next year. I appreciate your continued feedback. (Sorry I never send the forms before now. Oops.)

      I love the transparent way you are sharing the professional learning taking pace at Trinity. I’m also inspired by what you are doing and would love to connect with some of your teachers. Maybe we do some collaborations between our classes for next year. What do you think? Again, thanks for commenting. I’m looking forward to connecting with you again at the Martin Institue Conference in a few weeks. Unfortunately, I think we both present at the exact same times.

  2. Keep it up, Philip! I’ve really enjoyed reading the series. I would also like to know how the students are faring. What have they said about this extended project.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Dr. Grant. I’m going to see if I can get a student or two to write guest posts about the experience. Unfortunately, we are near the end of the year, and they are pretty busy with finals and graduation activities. I’ll see how they respond to my request.

      If no one is willing, I’ll pull some of their reflection responses together. Are there any specific questions to which you’d like them to respond? next year I may require some writing about the PBL process so that I can share them. I think that’s a great idea and might be helpful to others considering whether or not to “dive in.” Thanks again for the comment and for reading. You are too kind, sir.

  3. Philip,
    This has been a wonderful series to follow. Thanks for taking the risk of learning in public about PBL. I love how you’ve found ways to right the ship when you’ve encountered rough waters. Earlier, you brought in an expert to help students test their research against reality. Brilliant. Now, you’ve modeled peer collaboration and troubleshooting by inviting a colleague to observe your classroom–and notice how she saw so much good stuff going on! It’s easy to miss that when you’re in the throes of managing messy learning.
    Look forward to your end-of-project reflections, and hope you’ll share some student comments, too. I can’t wait to see where you go next.
    Best wishes on your PBL journey!

    1. Thanks, Suzie. I am humbled and honored that you would stop by AND leave a comment. I really appreciate the feedback and encouragement. I have asked a few students to provide some comments/reflections on the learning. We’ll see if they are able to do so as we are winding down the semester. I do have some of their reflection comments, and I might pull and share some of those if they aren’t able to write something more formal.

      I’m thinking of continuing this learning goal next year and would greatly appreciate you providing suggestions for further reading and learning. I appreciate your expertise with PBL and would value any recommendations you have for further growth.

      Thanks again!

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