Make the Most of the Messy Middle

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When teachers are seeking inspiration for new project ideas, they often start with PBL libraries. There’s plenty to learn from schools like High Tech High and the Expeditionary Learning network, which make a tradition of showcasing effective projects. But while PBL libraries help us see the arc of projects—from compelling driving question at the start to a public presentation of student work at the end—we don’t get to see what happens in the middle. And that’s where most of the messy, meaningful learning happens. Here are three tips from PBL veterans to help you make the most of the messy middle.
  1. Let students lead. Pauline Roberts and Rick Joseph, who team teach grades 5-6 at Birmingham Covington School near Detroit, Michigan, were winners in the collaboration category at the Partners in Learning Global Forum in Prague last year. In a project that combined science and literacy, their students conducted a campaign to “green” their local business community by encouraging more sustainable practices. The project made a bigger impact than the teachers envisioned because they encouraged students’ questions and suggestions. “At each step of the project,” Roberts says, “we would ask students, where do you want to go next?” Student questions informed their teaching plans, leading to deeper learning. Read more insights from PiL Global Forum participants, including Roberts and Joseph, in this post.
  2. Make time for revision. Allow time in the messy middle for students to revise and improve their work. Instead of following a straight path from start to finish, students need to investigate, test ideas, and learn from what doesn’t work. They also need critical feedback that will help them revise and improve their ideas and products. As early as the primary grades, students can learn to give and receive critical feedback. To see the process in action, watch this video featuring young learners applying the critical friends protocol with Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning.
  3. Establish rituals and routines. Create some structure for the messy middle with daily routines and check-ins. Morning meetings, for example, reinforce good communication and help to build a positive climate for project work. I’ve seen morning meetings used effectively at all grade levels. End-of-class reflections are also important to help learning stick. George Mayo, a veteran PBL language arts teacher from Silver Spring, Md., uses daily routines to keep ambitious video projects on track. He starts each class with a learning objective that focuses the class period and reserves at least a few minutes at the end for quiet reflection. Those clear routines “provide organization and structure,” he says, “so kids know what to expect.”

    Looking for more project ideas you can borrow and adapt? Here are two more resources:

tags PBL, PiL

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