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What to Look for in PBL

Project-based learning looks different, and may seem messier, than traditional instruction. Administrators visiting PBL classrooms shouldn’t expect to see orderly rows of students moving through the curriculum together. Instead, they’re likely to find small teams of students working on investigations of open-ended questions. Students should be able to explain what they’re doing and how activities relate to the project goals.

At Howe High School in the Howe Public Schools in Oklahoma, a small school making the shift to PBL, an administrator questioned a student about why he was in the hallway using his cell phone during class. Tammy Parks, district technology coordinator for Howe Public Schools, said the student had no trouble explaining his purpose: “He said, ‘I’m calling the mayor’s office to set up a meeting about our project.’”

Principal Rody Boonchouy of the Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis, Calif., says that comprehensive evidence of learning in PBL should include “mastery of concepts, skills to achieve and demonstrate mastery, and detailed reflection of personal processes.” To encourage reflection, he recommends that administrators ask students “to talk about how they are learning,” including how their thinking has changed. He suggests using a reflection prompt that asks students to explain, “I used to think … but now I believe …”

PBL typically culminates in public presentations of what students have learned, with audience members invited to ask questions, offer feedback, and score student performances. Administrators can take an active role in these culminating events, contributing to the authentic assessment of student learning.