In an ideal world, every teacher would be teaching perfect project-based learning (PBL) units all of the time. But what if you are totally new to PBL? What if you’re not ready to take on every one of those standards right away? What if the idea of shifting everything that your students have come to expect from your classroom overnight terrifies you beyond belief?

Two words: baby steps.

You don’t have to make the shift to PBL all at once, and in fact, I would guess that it would be a complete disaster if you tried. Instead, I’d suggest approaching it like all good experiments. Change one thing at a time so that you can truly judge what works and what doesn’t and you can make it better the next time around.

Here are a six baby steps that you can take to shift your classroom toward project-based learning.

1. Think about problems that your students face. One of my favorite texts to teach my students is Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Believe it or not, the main reason why I love to teach it is because the issues in the play are super relevant to students today. Bullying, gender, disguise, communication—Shakespeare brings up so many questions that students today face in their daily lives.

When I make my goal in teaching act II scene iii to better understand who gets bullied and why (rather than simply for students to answer questions on the plot of the play), I’m already taking it to the next level. I am always looking for ways to push it to the next level, but for now, I am happy with the level of authenticity that I bring to my classes.

2. Use backward design to plan your next unit. I often think about my goals for my students in terms of the “on the street rule.” If I were to run into them on the street in five or ten or twenty years, what would I want them to remember from my class? They will likely forget how old Shakespeare was when he wrote The Tempest, but they will probably remember when they first learned about how colonialism affects colonized people. This might not be the challenging problem or question that a true PBL unit would aim for, but for now, it is a step in the right direction.

3. Get students to try criticizing their own work. When students are used to only finishing their work for a grade and being done with it, this is not an easy sell. Still, like any other challenging and new task, with some scaffolding and modeling, students can learn how to criticize their own work. I have found that giving students specific questions about their own work and asking them to provide evidence to back up their answers helps a great deal.

For example, rather than asking them “What works in this essay?” I might tell them to choose their favorite sentence and explain why they like it. Critique and revision is not easy for most students, but by scaffolding this kind of critical thinking, we are moving in the right direction.

4. Assign an interview. If students think that research only involves reading nonfiction articles online, they will learn a great deal about the resources all around them when they conduct an interview. As this is only a baby step, even a simple homework assignment might do the trick. Getting kids used to the idea that sustained inquiry involves sources beyond those traditionally studied in school is a great baby step towards the kind of prolonged and in-depth research that PBL requires.

5. Give students some options on how they present what they have learned. Jumping right into completely authentic forms of communication will likely too much for many students, but giving students some options and having them choose the medium that works best for them for a specific task will go a long way in teaching them to think about the choices that people make when they want to communicate their ideas to others.

So let students choose between an essay and a presentation or a short story or a skit. But also spend some time discussing the benefits and limitations of different forms of presentation. It might not be a public product yet, but it is a baby step in the direction of getting students to think about how best to communicate what they have learned.

6. Give students some specific ways to reflect on their own work. Again, anything that is too open-ended will likely fall flat with students who have never looked back at their own work. One method that I have found successful is to task students with grading their own work using the rubric that I provide. This isn’t exactly the ideal way to reflect on work, and yet it is a great stepping stone. The more students are comfortable with these expectations, the more I can push them to the next level of authentic reflection.

Which element of Project Based Learning intimidates you the most? Where have you found successes already? Leave your answers for me below in the comments.

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