Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows

project-based learningA couple of months ago I had an email conversation with Mary Ann Stoll, an education and technology coordinator in Arizona. Mary Ann provides professional development for teachers on how to incorporate project-based learning. She had read through my “Diving into PBL” series and was interested in my reflections on using need-to-know lists to drive projects and in what scaffolding I used to help students with questioning. She wanted to know what I did differently the second year to improve our learning and research. Specifically, Mary Ann asked:

  • How do you guide the uninitiated student group to even start asking need-to-know questions? 
  • And then, how do you nudge them along until they’ve explored their knowledge, skill, and information gaps sufficiently?

Here’s a portion of my response to Mary Ann:

I always start from the first day using thinking routines to help my students learn to ask questions and show their thinking/understanding. Before we narrow our topic we use Question Starts to come up with list of questions we have about the larger concept. Our concept was human rights in the second year, and I started by simply introducing the Declaration of Human Rights, and discussing what we thought they meant. Then, the students generated open-ended questions they had about the individual rights. We use Question Sorts with those questions to eventually narrow our topic. Then, we drafted our driving question together. (I really had to steer them in this. In their previous PBL/design thinking challenges the question was not student-created.)

Once we had our driving question, we used Think-Puzzle-Explore to start developing our “Need to Knows.” The students worked in small groups to generate their T-P-Es, then we shared them to the larger group and wrote the best ones on our IdeaPaint wall. I transferred those to a Google Spreadsheet and shared it with the class giving certain students editing rights to help me track our learning on the spreadsheet. (This was a good idea, but I didn’t execute it well.) Those students could add new questions to the list, mark questions as answered, provide links to related articles, etc.

We used a Diigo group to curate our research, and I assigned students rotating roles (stolen from this Bill Ferriter handout) for what they had to do as we began reading and learning about our driving question. They had to bookmark, annotate (using a modified ladder of feedback), and share what they were reading and learning with the rest of the class in Diigo. Then, they had to perform their rotating roles to help us evaluate our research, clean it up, and make sure we were considering multiple perspectives. (I’m attaching a couple of images that hopefully will help this make sense.) We used SweetSearch as our starting place, and then I worked to find other resources to help them as we went.

Finally, I had students keep an individual Peel the Fruit Map that they updated every day so that I could track individual student’s understanding. We spent way more time on research the second year, and I felt my students had a much deeper understanding of the topic. That said, due to time restrictions, I finally just had to call an end to our research and move on to the how-do-we-share-what-we’ve-learned-and-do-something-about-this-issue phase.

The thinking routines and the social bookmarking roles really helped me provide the scaffolding my students and I needed. I had several teachers visit my classroom to watch how it worked, and I was really pleased with how the students responded. It was a HUGE improvement over year one.

Mary Ann found my response helpful but was still having difficulty visualizing the Peel the Fruit. She asked:

  • Do you happen to have a diagram of such a map?  Is it a general concept map or concentric circles?

I responded by sharing a few more ideas:

Understanding MapHere’s a PDF of a blank Understanding Map/Peel the Fruit and a better picture of a class one…During the last few minutes of class, I would stop the students and ask them to pull out their individual maps and add something to it—a question, an insight, a new discovery, etc. I’d collect them or walk around and glance over them to see where kids might be and who I might need to focus my attention towards. I also encouraged students to use post-its to add “their best thinking” to the class Understanding Map posted on the wall.

The map is set up to be a concept map, but we definitely felt the questions overlapped. I liked it because if a specific question wasn’t being addressed, I knew to push our thinking in that direction. For example, one class had a tough time considering other perspectives, so we took a day and did the Circle of Viewpoints and Step Inside routines.

Again, I mainly used the map to help me track our collective progress as well as see individual student’s progress. I found it a good accountability tool, too. (If someone’s map wasn’t filling up, I’d wonder how they were using their time.)

That’s what I did with my students, but I’d like to know what other teachers using project-based learning do. How do you teach students to ask good questions and develop their “need-to-knows”? How do you formatively assess individual and class understanding throughout the process? How do you monitor student research and know when it’s time to move on? If you have any ideas or experiences, I’d love to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “Project-based Learning: Questions and Need-to-Knows”

  1. Great stuff! I love the reflection you are incorporating reflection into the PBL process (which is one of the attractive things about PBL to me… and learning in general.) The other take-away I initially have from your post is how visual these reflections are. They are easily shared with peers and with you. I’ve had some success with students writing project journals about the meaning from knowledge they are developing during a unit/project. I’ve found that this keeps them develop their voice as a writer… thanks for sharing this stuff; I’m glad to have discovered your blog.

    1. Thanks, Dave. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do a third iteration of the project, but if I did I’d probably try to incorporate some journaling. I think that’s a great idea. If only there were more hours in a day… Best regards!

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