Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Inquiry

project-based learning

As we sprang into our project-based learning, the students and I began our inquiry looking for answers to our “need to knows.” I wanted to keep up with what they were discovering, and I wanted them to evaluate and share their resources with each other as they went along. I decided to use the teacher console on Diigo to create groups for each of my classes. I used  handouts and tips from Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking Wiki to get everything set up and explain to the student how I wanted them to find, annotate, and share resources and information. (I highly recommend Bill’s resources. They saved me a ton of time.)

The students had used Diigo for research on a project during a previous school year so I thought with Bill’s handouts and the boys’ previous experience we were in good shape to begin. I soon learned differently.  We have a 1:1 laptop classroom and the boys have a natural tendency to head straight to Google any time they have a question, but it was obvious after the first day that they weren’t finding the quality resources they needed. Additionally, some boys still didn’t know (or forgot) how to share to a group while others didn’t know how to write a quality annotation. I had assumed too much. They needed what Mike Kaechele calls a “teacher workshop” on searching for information and on how to use Diigo. They needed me to model what they should do.

We spent a little time talking about how search engines work and why Google’s search algorithm wasn’t the best option for this project. I also introduced them to SweetSearch, DMOZ, iSeek, and the Library of Congress site. Then, we talked about how we should assess the trustworthiness of the site and try to recognize biases in content providers. Then, we talked about the need to summarize a page’s content and how Diigo make it easy to highlight, capture, and share that information. Not all the students listened and learned from the workshop, but several did.

As I stated before, I wish I had done a better job developing a better list of “need to knows” because some of the boys had a tough time determining what to look for. At times they seemed to lack focus and some were easily led down rabbit trails thanks to  web links. I also had difficulty getting some boys to spend time researching. Some of them just got so excited about the product that they jumped in, and I had to coerce them to stop, back up, and do the research first.

project-based learning
Ron Wade from HopeWorks, Inc. speaks to my class.

Of all the classes, the one studying chronic unemployment seemed to struggle the most with finding quality information. Fortunately, I have a friend who leads a non-profit organization that works with the chronically unemployed. (My years in development still come in handy.) I called my friend Ron Wade at HopeWorks, and he agreed to come speak to my class and help them learn more about the issue.

I was really grateful Ron was willing to help my class. One of my biggest struggles throughout our entire project-based learning unit was feeling like I didn’t know enough about the topics we were studying to truly be helpful to the guys. Having been a traditional English teacher for so long, I am comfortable being the content expert in the classroom. With project-based learning that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. I find that unsettling.

Another internal conflict I had with our research and inquiry was with deciding when we had researched and learned enough to move on toward developing the products. I wanted the research to be ongoing and fit the needs of the individual projects, but I also wanted to make sure the boys had enough general knowledge and skill with the topic to speak intelligently about it. How could I know we were ready? I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge about these issues to speak intelligently about them. (I’m still not sure.) How does one decide that? Fortunately, I know now I’m not the only teacher who finds this difficult to figure out. Eventually, I decided arbitrarily it was time to move on. We could always circle back as needed.

This is the seventh in a series of posts 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 design, and our need to know. I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have. Feedback is both desired and helpful.


  1. William Chamberlain

    I think that one of the most important lessons students learn from PBL or Inquiry Based learning is that the teacher is not the expert on all things. Let’s face it, we don’t often put ourselves in the position of being less knowledgeable than our students, it is in an uncomfortable place to be.

    Bringing in an expert is a great way to not only help students learn from someone else, it also is an object lesson for everyone to know that we can get the knowledge we need from others. Not everything needs to be, or should be, Googled.

    Are you finding it difficult for some students to engage in the more open ended learning? I have had a ton of trouble with my advanced math students, they prefer school in the more traditional sense since they feel very successful with that model. It has been a fight to get them to move beyond what has worked ‘good enough’ in the past.

    • Philip

      Thanks for your comment, William. Inquiry/PBL is a transition for both the students and the teacher as everyone’s role changes. That’s challenging. I’m amazed at how quickly we “google” everything we want to know. Google has become a part of our fabric, and while I like Google (excepting their unforgivable murder of Reader), I’m uneasy about that. Google has its place, but I’m confident it shouldn’t be our default.

      In response to your question, I do have a few boys that struggle with the more open-ended learning. Our school tends to embrace more open-ended learning from an early age so most of my students have learned to embrace it. The few who do not usually become dependent on their group partners or want to jump into the product–something more concrete. With students who have grown up in this learning environment, I sense their reluctance is more developmental. They are just immature. I’m sure students who have found success in the traditional input-output mode would find the new way tough. I battled that at MCHS when I went to standards-based grading. Students who had always scored high on the first assessment resented that I let others keep working at it to eventually get the same grade. They were still focused on the scores, grades and rankings rather than the learning. It’s a tough shift. At least, it has been for me. Thanks again.

  2. Michael Kaechele


    Good to hear about your inquiry project. I think the uncomfortableness you feel is normal. I actually think it can be a plus in getting students to dig out the answers instead of depending on the teacher. I like to tell students, “I don’t know. Do some research and let me know what you find out.” Many students are motivated by the chance to “teach the teacher.”

    Glad the workshop idea worked for you. As you know judging when to shift in a project is always tricky and there is no hard line. PBL is no panacea for education but it is a good model to shift the locus of learning from the teacher to the student. You will find that you continue to shift how you use the PBL model the more you try it and with different groups of students.

    I appreciate your passion for teaching and your students. Keep sharing!