6 Insights on Student Ownership for Your PBL Classroom

The team at Getting Smart asked educators, “How do you encourage students to own their own learning in your PBL classroom?” (To contribute to the conversation, fill out this short form to submit ideas for future Getting Smart posts).
We also talked with students learning through projects, and parents who support projects.
Briana and Leona Das are two of those students, who keynoted this year’s PBL World conference and shared stories of their projects, beginning when they attended a project-based learning preschool. Their experience in PBL grew to become not only school related but also largely encouraged through extracurricular activities, and fostered by their parents. Briana and Leona formed a group called Tribe Awesome as a project to grow plants without using soil, called aeroponics. Their tagline: Awesome is what we totally are (we agree!).
From listening to students, parents and educators about how to encourage student ownership of projects, here’s what we learned:

Foster Collaboration

We heard someone say this yesterday and immediately wanted to Tweet: “Collaborate over compete.”
Sharon Davison at Allen Brook School said, “I try to think of ways to globalize my students ideas. We use Padlet, Twitter and Skype classroom as ways to connect what we are doing. This way others globally can contribute their ideas about how they might be solving a common need/problem.”

Know the Students

“Know your students and encourage them to share their stories” was a theme we have heard over and over again at the conference.
Jen Morrison of High Tech Middle Media Arts said, “I think that student ownership of their work begins with truly knowing who your students are. What is their story? How do they communicate their ideas? What does collaboration look, sound and feel like for them? Also, what are their strengths and how can you as the teacher, help to empower those strengths? How can you facilitate those strengths growing? I believe that the better we know ourselves and what we are great at, the more personally connected we feel to the work. So, my thoughts are…how do we as teachers create a classroom space where students not only know their own strengths but the strengths of those around them?”

Allow for Voice and Choice

Jen Martin of Westlake Charter School said, “The voice and choice are key. When students are learning about something that they are choosing and something they have say over, their buy-in is natural and their enthusiasm is obvious.”
Anastacia at Eagle Rock School & Professional Development Center said, “I love giving students the basic expectations and focus of their project and letting them take it from there. When a student has the choice to focus on particular areas, the depth to which they will go in their research can be astounding.”

Involve Adults

Involve other adults in the building. Encourage mentorship. Invite in parents.
Briana and Leona’s mother Muge Das mentioned that mentors played a critical role in shaping her children’s projects.

Teachers can line up adult mentors who come into the building and help students on particular projects that line up with their expertise, or use online tools such as Nepris or Mentored or to connect students to mentors/adult experts.

Create Space for Inquiry

Maria Sourgiadaki from 1st Epalleraptras in Greece said, “The driving question must be the closest possible to the students needs. That’s why we need flexible curriculum and collaboration with teachers of different subjects for a multidisciplinary approach. Enthusiasm is contagious.”
Allyson Roberson of Irvington High School said, “Students generate the questions that are going to be answered or the problem to be solved.”
Amy Maukonen (@STEMMontessori), director of The Valley School, a Montessori inspired middle school in Medford, Oregon said, “We like to start out the year by asking students to investigate who they are in relationship to the world around them. Our teachers seek to create space for student questions, and teacher questions, that can drive inquiry and promote learning between student and teacher.”

Plan and Assess

Decide how you will access the project and student grade(s) ahead of time and communicate that at the start. You could use an electronic portfolio where assignments and formative assessments exist at the end of each lesson or project? At the end, you can have a performance-based assessment with a rubric. There could be a final reflection paper due at the end of the project. This can also be used as part of the narrative assessment. Vernadette Rino suggested we should involve students in the assessment by ensuring students have particular roles in which their peers can give them feedback.
Andrew Larson of Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School said, “Students should be given many opportunities to apply the content they are required to learn to authentic and meaningful situations. As long as there is evidence that they have mastered/ improved to the instructor’s expectations, they should be free to reach out to the world in anyway(s) possible, use whatever tools best help them make meaning from the curriculum, and create a myriad of creative and innovative final products.”
Nicole Assisi of Thrive Public Schools said, “The best way for students owning their work is to truly link it to the world around them and to make the outcome public. When students create tangible outcomes for a real world audience they are found on their work and be excited to share with the public. The stakes become high and an authentic way that truly matters. When you know that others will see your work you’re more likely to dig deep and put your best foot forward.”
This blog was created at this year’s PBL World conference. Follow along at #PBLWorld and contribute your ideas by submitting short answers to our PBL World form. You can join us by watching keynotes live (and later archived) here.
For more, see:

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Bonnie Lathram

Bonnie Lathram is a student advocate and former teacher.

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