Bob Lenz, PBLWorks CEO, shares how hundreds of thousands of educators are adapting as fast as they can to meet the needs of their students.
Project-based learning naturally fits during COVID-19 when learning may not happen under direct supervision of a teacher.
Instead of waiting for answers, successful educators are inspired to create project-based learning projects both online and offline at-home learning.
Nationally, Bob Lenz is recognized as a leader in high school redesign, project-based learning, 21st-century skills education, and performance assessment. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recognized Bob as a Senior Deeper Learning Fellow. He is the author of Transforming Schools: Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards.
Bob became the CEO of PBLWorks in June 2015. PBLWorks is a professional services organization that is recognized as a worldwide leader in the research around building tools to facilitate quality project-based learning.
Bob Lenz connected with Adam Geller as part of the PLtogether Lounge Talks . During their conversation, Bob Lenz shared implementation ideas and strategies for PBL, Project Based Learning, nationwide.
Overall, Bob believes that PBL fits extremely well into the distance teaching environment. Since students are already working separately, they can take ownership of their projects so that each project is unique to the student who created it. Because many successful projects require independent work that is targeted to the learning aptitudes of each student, PBL molds perfectly into this distance teaching world.
The interview segment is included above, and highlights of the interview are below.
How is project-based learning different from just doing a project?
We define project-based learning as design and gold standard teaching practices. In this type of learning, you’re starting with learning goals such as academic and success skills and then deciding what we want their key understanding to be. The work offers students an opportunity to be intellectually challenged, the students are being pushed to discover. Students are able to create their own knowledge while exploring the content that is out there around their topic to obtain the answers they are looking for.
Project-based learning gives students choice in completing the assignments and also provides an opportunity for critique and revision. Students that are engaged in PBL typically excel at receiving feedback and providing feedback to their peers.
What is a real-world example of PBL during COVID-19?
During COVID-19, many more people are cooking at home. A real-world example of PBL that I can share with you is a Quarantine Cookbook. The question for students of all ages is: “What are the favorite recipes or meals of our family?” The students have an opportunity to connect with their own family and to reach out to their other relatives to discover their favorite recipes or what they have been cooking throughout this pandemic.
Then the students compile that list with all the cooking directions and decide which of the recipes will be published in a way that can be shared beyond their home. The students will need to test out the recipes by cooking and documenting the process which includes taking pictures, videos, or writing about the experience. The final product will be shared online as a cookbook that includes some written recipes as well as some written notes about why the recipes are important to their family.
How does project-based learning aligned with grade-level standards and content?
With project-based learning, we usually start the planning process with the standards. During COVID-19, our primary goal is to engage students in the content areas and especially with academic skills. What we call “success skills.”
PBLWorks identifies “success skills” as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving. An example of this is how a 7th-grade math lesson can be a part of the cookbook. The students could be looking at all the measurements and how it ties into the math they are working on. Those are academic skills and math application skills. Through the cookbook project-based learning, students are working on project planning and critical thinking by deciding which recipes to include and identifying the ingredients and necessary materials. The cookbook will be at least shared with the students’ families. The writing in the cookbook has to be publishable quality.
How can a teacher prepare for implementing project-based learning?
On our main PBLworks website there is a special section devoted to Covid-19 resources called PBL for Remote Learning. That microsite has all kinds of resources for educators who are interested in blending online and project-based learning.
PBLWorks contains lots of projects that are mostly built out for teachers and we are currently piloting a project now about environmental sustainability. We are working with 50 teachers. The teachers are meeting with a coach in a webinar-style on a daily basis. They are given all the necessary materials so they can facilitate the project with support from coaches.
We facilitated PBLWorld virtually this past June and posted the PBL 101 workshop online for teachers to access. This workshop will help them start learning about ways to facilitate project-based learning in the distanced teaching environment.
What types of process should teachers share with their students before including project-based learning into a unit of study?
If you say to your students, go and create a cookbook without detailed guidelines and expectations, the final product of the cookbook may not meet the necessary standards to be a rich learning experience. At PBLWorks, one of our gold-standard teaching elements is managing the activities. Truly thinking about how to map backward from the end product.
At PBLWorks we implement the strategy of teaching and having the student practice with feedback. The students receive instructions, then work to complete their project, and finally are provided with feedback on their work. Educators continue to monitor the students’ work, so they have the support needed from their teacher to be successful.
We have found that sometimes students who struggle in traditional schooling really excel in project-based learning. In some cases, students who perform in school really well can struggle at the beginning of a project-based experience.
What are your thoughts about project-based learning when students must learn offline and do not have technology resources for online research?
I think as teachers are designing their learning, whether that be project-based or any other learning, that sense of equity and knowing their students is key. Teachers need to design learning that is going to be possible.
Let’s go back to our recipe project. In my experience as an educator, I am thinking about the students that I have taught. Many of my students had limited access to technology, and many of my students’ parents were not able to help with projects in English. I still held them to a high standard of production.
Let’s imagine that Spanish is the primary language at home, in this case, the cookbook will be produced in Spanish. The teacher will need to ensure that the Spanish is grammatically correct. Let’s put the onus on the teacher as opposed to the student.
One of the great blessings in this, in some ways, is that teachers are more aware of the home environment by which their students are living. Hopefully, this is an opportunity for that type of real adaptation that takes into mind the challenges and the opportunities that students have at home.
Given the circumstances of teaching from home, what can teachers ask of students to do to ensure that their teaching is not diminished?
If teachers are fortunate enough to be in contact with their students, then that becomes part of the project. The teachers are asking, what type of resources do you have at home to produce a cookbook? For some students at their home, the materials may include paper and pens. During project-based learning in many cases, students will write a project proposal including the materials that will be used.
Project-based learning fits well with distance learning as classes come together on a video conference. Since they are apart, the students can then work independently. Teachers can make one on one appointments with their students for five to ten minutes to check in with them. Many times this would not happen in the traditional learning environment.
We are taking a lot of the ways that we would expect adults to interact in a collaborative work environment, and seeing how students can benefit from those strategies too. The benefit of this approach is that it opens students up to come together when possible, but they have the freedom to complete the work at their own pace.
Like what your reading? Watch more videos at PLtogether.org or read our related lounge interview with Deborah Ball about the urgent need to transition to new types of teaching during COVID-19.