Tagged: need to know

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.

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.

Diving Into Project-based Learning: Our Need to Know

project-based learningOnce the students had selected a topic from our over-arching theme of civil/human rights, and I had a rubric, it was time for the real work to begin. We started our project-based learning by making a list on the board of things we know about the topic followed by a list of things we “need to know.” Basically, we completed the K and W of our KWL chart (PDF).

We completed this quickly and looking back now, I realize we really should have slowed down and spent more time here. I should have had each team create their own KWL and perhaps even added it to the rubric as part of their reflections. The students were eager to get to researching and creating, and I was excited for them to begin, too. We should have slowed down this step in the process. We should have been more thoughtful and purposeful here. Hindsight. Instead, I allowed the boys to rush through the process so that they could begin creating their group contracts and planning their projects. We didn’t spend the time we should have on identifying what we needed to learn, and their inquiry and projects suffered as a result.

Once we started researching, some of the guys lacked direction. Some didn’t know where to look beyond a simple Google search for information. The more I consider that, the more I believe some of those struggles resulted from an inadequate list of things we needed to know. It wasn’t that they didn’t know where to search, but that they didn’t really know what to search for. We’d rushed through a crucial step, and it limited their inquiry. This was one of my biggest mistakes through this dive into project-based learning, and one I don’t plan to repeat when I try again next time.

This is the sixth in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If this series interests you, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resources, or the genesis of this ideaour project brainstorms, or the rubric design. As always, I’d appreciate your comments, questions, or suggestions.