I was worried the first time I tried a project-based learning unit with my students. As a young teacher, I had prided myself on running a challenging class and had focused much of my attention on getting my students prepared for what we were both going to be assessed on: the test.
I was not doing test prep. I didn’t believe that giving students sample test questions would make them do any better on our state standardized scores (and still don’t).
Yet, I was actively trying to match my lessons and activities to what they would be assessed on later down the road. I thought that this was best practice, and would benefit us both as they would be ready to tackle challenging questions (in any format) as we got towards the end of the school year.
Heading into our first true project-based learning unit, I wondered whether my students would learn as much as they did when I was teaching in more traditional methods.
I wondered if they would have more fun and balk at going back to those traditional tasks.
But, deep down, what I really worried about (if I’m being honest with myself), is how their results on the standardized test would reflect on me as a teacher.
And I don’t think I was the only teacher who felt this way…
Is Practicing the Test the Best Way to Prepare for a Test?
As author Jay McTighe states: “The logic of test prep is plausible and rooted in experience from other domains. For example, if you want to improve your performance in dribbling a basketball or piano playing, then you must practice those activities. Shouldn’t the same apply to test taking?”
I was a former athlete and was a football and lacrosse coach during my time as a middle school and high school English/Language Arts teacher.
As a coach, I believed that winning was a byproduct (not just a goal) of the time, work, and focus the team displayed while practicing. Fundamentals, teamwork, strategy, tactics, planning, and execution all had a role in how well the team performed. But, at least we had common goals.
In the classroom, we had varying goals. Each student was different. They all had unique interests, ideas, friends, and views on what success looked like to them in school.
My goals as a teacher were fairly simple.
- I wanted students to enjoy my class and find success in learning.
- I wanted to challenge students and give them an opportunity to grow.
- I wanted to make sure their hard work in my class showed on the learning assessments that were measured.
I say this because, maybe, just like me, you only have one or two assessments each year that are actually measured beyond your classroom walls.
And guess what?
We care about what we are measured on. We focus on it, and we try to improve it. This is not only teachers, this impacts every person in any field.
In a recent HBR article they talk about how the measures in other fields (CEOs, Medicine, Science etc) have the exact same impact:
It can’t be that simple, you might argue— but psychologists and economists will tell you it is. Human beings adjust behavior based on the metrics they’re held against. Anything you measure will impel a person to optimize his score on that metric. What you measure is what you’ll get. Period.
This phenomenon plays out time and again in research studies.
There is no way around it, except to change what we measure. Or, to change the game entirely.
I was caught up in a circle of practice that was based on some misconceptions on how to improve the metric I was judged on as a teacher. It is important to note, I was trying to do what was best for my students this entire time. I believe almost all teachers have the best interest of students, and that their practice is predicated on preparing students in any way possible.
McTighe shares the misconceptions that led me down this test prep trap as a young teacher, and what many of us commonly believe as the reasons for preparing students for a test that we don’t believe in.
Misconception #1 – The best (and only) way to improve test scores is to practice the test.
Here McTighe shares an analogy of the yearly physical exam with your doctor. Although the physician examines and measures your health, spending all your time trying to prepare for this physical with practice on the strategies would not make much sense.
It would be thought silly to practice the physical exam as a way to improve one’s health. But this confusion is precisely what we see in schools all over North America. Local educators, fearful of results, focus on the indicators, not their causes. The format of the test misleads us, in other words.
Misconception #2 – Standardized test items involve primarily recall and recognition, and thus drill and practice will be the most effective method to prepare students for them.
Grant Wiggins (2013) points out the flaw in this reasoning: “Even though the test format requires a selected response, it does not mean that the tested knowledge is necessarily simple. The [format] deceives you into thinking that since you are mimicking the format of the test, you are therefore mimicking the rigor of the test. But data show the opposite conclusively: local tests are often less rigorous than state and national tests even when they mimic the format.”
Too often, the information revealed by test prep exercises identifies whether students have chosen the “correct” answer rather than helping teachers determine if they have a conceptual understanding of the underlying concepts and skills and can apply (transfer) those.
How I Got Out of The Test Prep Trap with PBL
It started small.
First, I started to notice how disengaged my students were in class. Despite my efforts to use technology, create fun learning activities, and challenge my students…I was failing them in many ways.
They cared more about getting a GRADE and playing the GAME of school than they did about learning. When I looked at the research it was clear that it was not just my class (and my students) that were showing signs of apathy.
In a recent article by Scott Mcleod on Dangerously Irrelevant, he shared results available from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students (over 920,000 students participated last fall). Here are a couple of key charts that Scott made from the data:
Interestingly enough, it seems that our students know this is happening. They know that they and their peers are often bored in school.
This was when I first started with project-based learning. It was a natural attempt at doing school differently, so my students might become engaged. At this point, I had nothing to lose.
My co-teacher and I taught our symbolism unit using an activity where students would create “junk sculptures” to represent characters, scenes, emotions, and much more through their creation. Our transfer goal was having them discuss in roundtables how the authors use the words on the page in the same way.
We got students talking during class, in real ways. Discussion games, fishbowl activities, and symposiums focused on their analysis out in the open, instead of trapped on the centered lines of a worksheet.
We changed our assessment of the human rights and genocide unit from being a letter to a state senator to developing, creating, and running an awareness campaign that would reach our community and people all across the country.
With each of the changes, my confidence grew as a teacher. With each new project, my students’ confidence also grew in their ability to critically think, problem solve, and create in authentic ways.
And they were not doing worse on standardized assessments. They did better.
They were not missing pieces of content that we could not cover because of lost time to the project. They were going deeper.
The Research Supports PBL Approach to Achievement
I wasn’t the only one finding out how wrong I had been about Project Based Learning. Everywhere I turned I started to see articles, journal reviews, and videos of teachers around the world who had seen their students achieve at high levels when moving from a traditional teaching approach to a PBL approach.
When Edutopia came out with this overview of the research around PBL I nodded my head at the results:
Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009). PBL can also provide an effective model for whole-school reform (National Clearinghouse for Comprehensive School Reform, 2004; Newmann & Wehlage, 1995).
A 2016 MDRC/Lucas Education Research literature review found that the design principles most commonly used in PBL align well with the goals of preparing students for deeper learning, higher-level thinking skills, and intra/interpersonal skills (Condliffe et al., 2016).
No longer could the argument be about how well (or poorly) students would do on standardized assessments. The research was clear. When PBL was implemented well, students thrived in traditional tests and in a wide variety of soft-skills that are crucial to development and success beyond school.
The Buck Institute for Education also put out a research summary on PBL and 21st Century competencies that states, “Project Based Learning has been shown to yield a number of benefits for students, ranging from deeper learning of academic content to stronger motivation to learn. Looking specifically at how PBL supports 21st century learning goals, we can find several promising areas, including:
- Academic Achievement
- 21st Century Competencies
- Teacher Satisfaction
I urge you to dive into this research more here on the BIE website if you have any doubts.
If you asked any teacher, administrator, parent, school board member, student, or community member to list their top goals for an academic program, you would see achievement, 21st century competencies, equity, and motivation all at the top.
Project-based learning is shown to work in all kinds of schools, in all different grade levels, with students of varying backgrounds and abilities.
So, if this is what the research says about PBL, then why do we still have so many schools falling into the test prep trap? Why do some many teachers feel like they cannot make the jump into PBL? Why haven’t we seen a nationwide movement towards PBL as a best and effective practice for all students?
Finding the TIME for PBL When We Have to Cover So Much Material
When teachers ask me about my PBL experiences, they’ll quickly ask three questions over and over again:
- How did you find the time?
- What about the curriculum?
- How did you assess it and make sure students were understanding content/concepts etc?
In reality, this is just one question, that I can phrase in a quick sentence:
How did you do PBL given the current constraints as a teacher in our educational system?
The issue is that we all have constraints. Are we supposed to as teachers and leaders NOT do Project Based Learning because we don’t have enough time…or can we start within the time we are given?
This isn’t a case of all or nothing.
I think teacher and author, Joy Kirr, put it perfectly in this comment:
I cannot redesign my entire school like I know you dream of. I am one teacher. I can, however, with the blessings of my administration, give 60 minutes of my week over to the students. It is TOO LITTLE time, I know. And I can’t make sure each project will change the world. But it is a start. And the lessons we all learn during this time seep into the other four hours I have with these students throughout the week, thank goodness. I don’t have numbers to show student progress. But I’m trying to create life-long learners. How do you measure that?
Project-based learning experiences give students opportunities that they would never have in school otherwise. To ME that is enough. It is enough to try this type of learning with your students. It is enough to take a risk and go beyond the curriculum.
I’d ask anyone who is criticizing PBL in the classroom to talk to the teachers and students who have had this opportunity. I’d ask them to look at what students are creating, making, and building during this time. I’d ask them to talk to the parents about their students’ attitude towards learning.
I’ve heard from so many colleagues and teachers around the country (and world) who have said this time has changed their teaching and the way they view learning.
I give two answers to the question above:
- Try it for a day and see what happens. Start small and build from there.
- Teach through the project, instead of using the project as an “end-of-unit” assessment that takes more time than a multiple choice test. When kids learn during the project, the time constraint goes away.
And yet, it also comes down to the school leaders. What do we praise, support, make time for, and allow as school leaders? Are we encouraging our staff and students to take risks and go beyond the traditional models of teaching and learning?
If you are a school leader, try to reflect on these four questions as a way to promote this type of learning in your school.
The First Question is: What do We Praise, Look For, and Assess?
There is famous saying I referenced earlier: “What you measure is what matters.” And this is very true in the teaching and learning world. If our schools are only successful based on standardized measures, then it is no coincidence that many focus their efforts on the performance of these measures. For our students, this tends to mean they believe handing work in on time, being compliant, and doing well on traditional assessments is what makes them a good student. It’s why a third of my 11th graders during the 20% project asked if they could just get a handout with a rubric instead of having to think for themselves on what they wanted to learn. Yet, when we change what we praise and look for in a classroom, students begin to adjust what matters. When we praise failure, look for grit, and assess the process (instead of only the final product) then students are empowered to share their work and grow as learners in a variety of ways.
The Second Question is: What do We Support?
Take for instance a school that solely focuses on standardized assessments. The teachers are not supported by the administration by bringing in new ideas or curiosity to their profession. Then it is increasingly difficult for teachers to support students when they create or make. Often they’ll never get the opportunity. Yet in schools like Wissahickon (where I taught) I was supported when I wanted to try something new in the classroom. Online and global opportunities like the Flat Classroom Project weren’t looked down upon. And when my students wanted to try something outside of the box or run with a project idea, I jumped at supporting their innovative work through ideas like Project: Global Inform. Support is a key ingredient to help those new ideas actually work.
The Third Question is: What do We Make Time For?
A constant complaint I hear from teachers and students is that they don’t have enough time. It drives stress levels up, and brings innovative work to a halt when we create curricula and schedules that are jam-packed with content and pre-determined lessons. When we make time for reflection/self-assessment (look at Hattie’s work), sharing, and making/tinkering our students (and our teachers) actually go out and TRY new things.
The Fourth Question is: What do We Allow?
What we allow for in our schools and classrooms will ultimately open up avenues for new ideas to develop. If we don’t allow for inquiry, choice, collaboration, digital tools, failing, then usually only the people in charge are allowed to have ideas.
How to Teach About the Test and Learn Beyond the Test
Around the testing time, when it came to be March, there started to be a real sense of urgency in my school. Are our kids ready to take this test? Have we done our best to prepare them for this assessment? And how can we figure out ahead of time, what we need to do to get them there?
What always struck me as odd, is that we have all these tools and all this data that we can use, but we never have enough time. Instead of approaching the test as the ultimate measure of my ability to teach and my students’ ability to learn, we began to take a different approach in my classroom and school.
Our focus was not to dismiss the test but to treat it as a reality.
The conversation I used to have with my students before the test was simple:
“I want you all to try your best on this, just like in anything else you do. But you should not be waking up in the middle of the night because of these tests. You should not be coming to school nervous because of these tests.
You all, have been prepared for much greater things than these tests. The tests only show a smidgeon of your ability, not just as English students, but as human beings. So if you think that I’m going to stand up here and tell you how important these tests are, I’m not. Instead, you should treat them the same way you treat anything else. Do it to the best of your ability, and understand that everything you’ve been doing in my class has prepared you for this. But, it has also prepared you for much more than this.”
My students scored well on our state tests. Not every single student, but across the board covering minority groups, low-economic groups, and all different types of students, they scored very well. In an effort to teach above the test, I had to look at my choices as a teacher with a different viewpoint.
Our focus needs to change. We can’t hate these assessments. And we also can’t love these assessments. We need to start treating these tests for what they really are, which is just one assessment out of many that our students will have to take in life.
Their first interview for a job, that’s an assessment. The college essay they’ll have to write, that’s an assessment.
They are assessed every single day, and judged every single day, and this is just another assessment they’ll have to take in the game of life.
Is Project-Based Learning the solution to all that is wrong with our current system? No.
But, it is a start. Like so many teachers around the world jumping into PBL, I saw my students get excited about learning again. I saw my students work together with their classmates towards common goals. I saw my students struggle and fight through tough learning moments. I saw my students become leaders and push their classmates to success. I saw them reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and what they would do differently next time.
Above all, I saw my students LEARN. They demonstrated their understanding in all kinds of ways (and yes, the test was just one way). And, as a teacher, when we see our students learning, the excitement is contagious, and our creative spark continues well beyond the school day.
Wondering How to Start?
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