PBL Basics #1: Challenging Problems & Questions

114017bNote: This series of posts is inspired by Larmer, Mergendoller, and Boss’s (2015) recently released book, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning.  It is a great book for anyone looking to get into or learn more about project/inquiry based learning.  These posts are just a small sample of the pedagogical tools you will find inside.  A full review will be up after this four-part series is complete.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that in my second year of teaching I found myself occasionally falling prey to the “sage on the stage” mentality, focusing more on what I would be saying to students than what students would be doing.  As a second year teacher, I felt like I had so much to share with students that I needed a decent chunk of class to give them a thorough idea of the concepts and skills we were learning.  Entering my third year as a wiser, more experienced teacher, I’m rethinking my curriculum to align more closely with best-practices and my own teaching philosophy, namely by making it completely student-centered.  This goal led me to Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning.  As someone who is just getting started with the implementation of this pedagogy, I thought it might be helpful for others looking to do the same if I outlined the key elements of high quality project-based learning as outlined in this book. As always, chime in with any questions or comments!

#1 – Challenging Problems & Questions

The authors state that project-based learning starts with an open ended problem or question that will allow students to explore a complex topic and utilize a variety of skills to find one or a series of answers.  The key here is that the questions be open ended, meaning that there is not a singular correct answer.  The goal is not that all students find the same answers, or even ask the same questions, but that they consider the options and use their critical thinking and problem solving skills to determine which answers (and which solutions) make the most sense to them.

These questions can also determine the difficulty of the project.  The authors specifically outline three aspects of the question that determine the project difficulty:

(1) The complexity of the underlying skills and concepts – Students have more trouble with some skills and concepts than with others.  Through experience, teachers can determine which skills/concepts are more or less challenging and adjust the degree of difficulty for a project by choosing a question that focuses on utilizing particular skills and knowledge.

(2) The amount of structure built into the question – Some questions might be totally open-ended, leaving the students a blank canvas on which to paint their ideas and artfully create their own solutions.  This level of open-endedness is the ideal, but many students need more guidance.  Generally speaking, the more specific and detailed a question is, the easier it will be for students to get started.  A series of questions could even be used, allowing students to see the step-by-step process more clearly.

(3) The “complexity of procedures and the number of steps” required of students to thoroughly address the question (p. 38) – This refers to the scope of the project.  Does it need to be broken down into two parts, or twenty? Is each step fairly simple, or is each step a project within itself?  Again, the question acting as the basis of the project can be used to guide the scope and alter the difficulty level.


In part two of this series, we will look at #2-3, sustained inquiry and authenticity.

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