Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on a Buck Institute for Education (BIE) training by Anthony Cody, one of their National Faculty. We had a terrific discussion about the difference between projects and project-based learning that led to an insight: the difference between “doing projects” (what the BIE refers to as “dessert projects”) and doing project based learning is not binary – it’s a spectrum.

PBL experts share concerns that when schools begin to implement project based learning that they may end up simply doing dessert projects instead. There are a number of distinctions that draw the difference between the two. For example, in project based learning:

  • Collaboration and teacher guidance are needed whereas dessert projects can be done alone
  • The learning experience is more about the process than the product
  • Student questions and interests drive the direction whereas dessert projects have all students creating essentially the same/similar products
  • End products are shared with an authentic audience as opposed to just being graded by the teacher
  • Problems that are tackled have some sort of real world relevance or are based in real world experiences

The Buck Institute for Education promotes a description of High Quality PBL (HQPBL) that takes PBL to an even more rigorous level and asks that the learning include intellectual challenge and accomplishment, authenticity, public product, collaboration, project management, and reflection.

In our practice we look at to what degree student-centered pedagogies such as a PBL implementation foster and can be measured by student agency.

In all of these cases: PBL, HQPBL, and Student Agency, there is a shift in teacher stance from control to supporting student autonomy. This is not a shift that can happen all at once, but that involves a gradual release of control. Consider an extreme case where teachers are teaching using scripted curriculum and students are demonstrating understanding through multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank answers on tests. Asking a student to do even simple things may result in a blank look, an “I don’t know” or a “What do you want me to write there?”

In the case of students who are responsible and high performing, there may be a similar push-back. These students have learned how to game schooling by understanding what the teacher wants them to say and then saying it – they are not prepared to deal with the ambiguity of asking their own questions and then pursuing the answers.

The shift to student agency, student autonomy, and student-centered learning is a gradual one. Students and teachers both need to be ready before full-on implementation is likely to be effective. Early forays into project based learning may require scaffolding to help develop skills and shift culture that will cause it to fall into the not-quite-PBL-yet category. Is this ok? Of course! So long as it is a part of a journey, rather than the destination. Such scaffolding may include:

  • Not expecting students to create their own questions in their first projects, until they have had exposure to driving questions and sub-questions that are modeled by the teacher.
  • Giving students a format for how they will present their final product.
  • Focusing on one or two elements of the process – such as iteration or collaboration – rather than expecting students to be responsible for full project management.
  • Sharing end products with students rather than the full community or experts.

By offering a scaffolded project that includes elements of PBL, teachers can support students in developing their autonomy and competence (which are critical to student agency and HQPBL) in small steps that eventually lead to a highly student-centered classroom.

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