Hacking Project-Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom by Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy

Hack 3: Magnify PBL-Worthy Content

  • A key for effectiveness here is to decide which content lends itself to PBL. The authors use the term High Impact Content (HICs). This is content that is essential for students to learn and also offers opportunities for exploration and creativity. Directions should contain verbs like create or justify rather than identify or state. Ideally, projects will have a lasting impact and future transfer.
  • The second key idea involves High Impact Takeaways (HITs). This means that you have specifically designated outcomes in mind. Don’t assume that projects you have done in the past qualify. Expect the application of vital content and skills. Your HITs should be stated in student-friendly language. In some cases, they can be demonstrated by performances. Ross gives an extended example that he used when he taught fourth grade where students had to design and build their own pinball machines.

Hack 4: Create a Vision for Your Project

  • It’s important to avoid situations where students are expected to learn all of the content prior to starting the project. Also, avoid a lengthy list of step-by-step directions and outcomes that are simply a display of content. Feedback should focus on the learning process rather than correctness. Be sure that the content connects with reality. A number of project resource banks are included from the Buck Institute for Education, Edutopia, IDEO Education, and Getting Smart. You should also look for the #HackingPBL hashtag in Twitter.
  • It’s important to look to your colleagues for ideas as you share yours. It helps if you have critical colleagues rather than people who just stroke your ego. At some point, students might suggest ideas for projects. Consider having a website that can support and show off projects.

Hack 5: Wrap the Learning in Inquiry

  • Students need an engaging context for their work. They need more than directions and learning outcomes. A key here is a well-crafted umbrella question. This can transform your High Impact Takeaways into an engaging catalyst for student inquiry, which means it doesn’t have a yes/no answer. As students become more skilled, they can create their own umbrella questions. The authors find that students think more creatively when they are not worried about a letter grade.
  • The question should relate to what is being studied, promote inquiry, and not be Googleable. Each group can have their own umbrella question but the authors prefer one class-wide umbrella question. Questions should be posted and left after the project ends. The question should not be one that can be dealt with in a single class period. You need student buy-in, not a sense that they are doing something because it’s in the textbook.
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