This free publication, dated to February 2012, is a valuable and economically efficient vehicle for enhancing the understanding of any faculty which is making the move toward PBL.   If it were me, I’d think about distributing it widely, making it available in a printed version for those who prefer reading that way, and use it as a faculty summer reading option or for part of a year-long faculty study of PBL.

Coming as it does as an addition to the existing literature on project-based learning, and most particularly the many resources available from BIE, both free and priced, the new book offers both reiteration, valuable as that is and well supported with examples, and a few new notes.  I thought it’d be most helpful to identify what it adds to the conversation, and most particularly where its emphases are different/additional to what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements (and, of course, which I think are especially important).

These differences/additions can be best summarized with four C’s:

Currency, Critique, Collaborative Colleagueship, and (Traditional) Components. 

1. Currency: The booklet opens with a helpful commentary on why PBL now.

There have been two key shifts that have reignited teachers’ interest in project-based learning and helped it to shake off its stigma.

Firstly, and most obviously, digital technology makes it easier than ever before for students to conduct serious research, produce high-quality work, keep a record of the entire process, and share their creations with the world.

Secondly, we now know much more about how to do good, rigorous projectbased learning, and we can evaluate its effectiveness.

Surely all of us exmaining PBL would find many more reasons to add to the mix, most importantly that an embrace of PBL methodology follows naturally upon the previous embrace of teaching 21st century skills as our first and foremost “outcomes” priority.

2.  Critique.  BIE’s essential elements includes, importantly, one entitled “Revision and Reflection”  (though I’ve always been curious why in that order: wouldn’t one normally reflect before revising?).  But what this guide adds in to this arena is a very high priority on “critique,” which it deems one of the three keys to high quality PBL, in addition to exhibition and multiple drafts.

Getting into the habit of creating multiple drafts of work has a huge impact on how students regard their assignments, their learning, and themselves. It is especially effective when students are critiquing each other’s drafts, rather than just handing in drafts to a teacher.

Formal critique sessions give students the opportunity to learn from each other’s work and from each other’s feedback in a structured, safe context – this can include critique of the process (‘how I made this thing’) as well as product (‘the thing I made’). Critique sessions can become lessons in their own right, because they provide the opportunity for teachers to introduce concepts and skills at a point when students will be eager to learn them.

Equally importantly, they bring students’ misconceptions about the project to the surface, so that the group can respond to them.

The guide goes on to expand considerably upon the above summary, with much more detailed information about how to manage these critiques in the classroom.

3. Collegiality and Collaborative PBL design.   In my visits and observation to New Technology campuses, and in what I have observed first hand, high quality PBL design, development, and deployment is greatly enhanced, and in some cases dependent upon, collaborative collegiality among teachers.     At New Tech teachers spoke about the hours and hours they put into after school- faculty meetings in which each PBL unit was presented and then workshopped, at length, before it was implemented.   At St. Gregory some of our best project initiatives were carried out in interdisciplinary fashion among two or more teachers, who took multiple sessions of our dedicated faculty learning and collaborative planning time to develop and manage their projects.

This new guide hits the right note in this emphasis.

The sooner you start talking to your colleagues about your ideas, the better your project will be. If you don’t want to talk to people at your own school, you can find lots of teachers who are excited about project-based learning by going online (see page 84).

Once you’ve planned your project, it’s time to have a ‘project tuning’ session.

This means presenting your plans to a group of colleagues, who will give you constructive feedback, come up with ideas that you haven’t thought of, and warn you of potential problems that you may not have anticipated.

It is also very helpful to invite students to be part of the tuning – they will have insights into the process of doing a project from their perspective, which may take you by surprise. Doing a project tuning also sets the stage for the peer critique that your students will be doing during the project, so it’s good for them to see you modelling how to receive critique graciously and constructively.

Tuning is critique for teachers, and the benefits of ‘tuning’ and ‘critique’ are exactly the same.

What follows here is an elaborate and carefully constructed tuning protocol.

4. (Traditional) Components of Instruction.   Apologies here: I know this fourth one stretches my “C’s” too far.  What I am appreciative of here is that the guide is unafraid to communicate that it is entirely OK to incorporate traditional elements of instruction into your project– project based learning doesn’t require a “purist” progressivism or constructivism.

This appears in two places, and both make a lot of sense to me.

In the assessment section, the guide states plainly that it is fine to give traditional exams as one of your assessment methodologies.

You may want to have a separate assessment of knowledge, such as an exam. This could come before or after the exhibition (just make sure you space out the exam and the exhibition, so you and your students have time to give both the attention they deserve).

One effective way of doing this is to make an exam that covers information presented by all of the groups during the project. This will ensure that students learn a wide range of content, as well as giving them an incentive to study each other’s work closely.

In this same section is a clarification that although we very much want project-based learning to be conducted most of the time by groups of students working together, that doesn’t mean you have to give only group grades.

Avoid the impulse to give ‘group marks’ (that is, giving the same mark to everyone in a group). These can lead to bad feeling in groups if people aren’t ‘pulling their weight’, and it encourages students to over-specialise (one student does all the research, one student handles everything technical, and nobody gets to experience the full scope of the project).

Find a way to identify and assess individual contributions to the product: peer assessment, student journals and teacher/expert observation will all help you with this.

The other place we see this relatively more traditional methodology welcomed is in a note toward the end, during a discussion of “managing the process.”

Question: Is teaching allowed?

When project-based learning is working, teachers’ roles are transformed.

This is exciting, unfamiliar, and potentially terrifying, but it does not mean you won’t be using all the skills you have developed as a teacher. Teachers of project-based learning do everything that other teachers do, from lectures, to seminars, to plenaries – it’s the context for all of this that changes.

Now, in fairness these more traditional elements are also allowed for/welcomed in the BIE model, though they don’t appear in the “essential elements” and they can be a bit less visible in some materials.

I’m not trying to paint this report as superior, but as a valuable addition to the PBL literature; that it comes from High Tech High and shares some of the exemplary programs that happen there is all the better.

On a concluding note I’ll share their end-of-paper summary:

So one final time, we want to drive home what you need to do in order to design and run great projects:

• Design from your own (and your students’) passions
• Make sure you tune projects with your colleagues and students
• Make sure your students create multiple drafts, and critique each other’s work
• End every project with an exhibition.

And, always, remember to have fun with it.