As readers of this blog well know, I spend a non-insignificant amount of time thinking about and experimenting with Project Based Learning. Over the past few years, one purpose of this blog has been as an outlet for me to express ideas about PBL and get feedback, and at the same time to share my own experiences in implementing PBL in the hopes that others who have an interest in trying it will be able ti find ideas to adapt for their own classrooms.
However, one area that I have rarely focused on is PBL from the student perspective. One of the great selling points of PBL is its ability to increase student motivation and interest by providing them with greater "voice and choice" in their own learning, by setting up units with driving questions meant to spark their interest, and with seeking out authentic audiences that help students realize that the material that they are learning in class actually matters to the world at large.
All of that may be true, but on a practical level, I am constantly encountering a very big roadblock that students face when doing PBL. While students may, on some level, crave independence and may enjoy the freer classroom environment that accompanies a PBL unit, the fact is that students need to be taught how to be independent learners. Unless a school has been fostering this since 1st grade, most students have likely been taught to be good listeners and to look for "right" answers - and PBL often works against those impulses.
If you have ever had an obsessive notetaker in your class, then you know full well what I am referring to. Think about that student who writes down every word that you say, and constantly raises his or her hand to make sure that they wrote down exactly the right thing. Why do students do this? Sometimes because they are really interested in learning, but more often because they have learned the rules of the game of school - come to class, get down really good notes, and ultimately turn those notes into correct answers on tests or projects or quizzes. There is a certain comfort that accompanies this mindset - the information comes from a trusted authority (the teacher), can be easily checked for accuracy (by asking the teacher), and gets confirmed in its accuracy on assessments. To top it off, such students generally earn praise as being "good students" for having mastered the skill of, basically, obedience.
And then those students enter a PBL classroom. Now the trusted authority is no longer providing a reliable wellspring of information. Instead, the students has to trust himself and his ability to find a source, know that it is reliable, read the source, and interpret it correctly. Of course the teacher will be by at some point to steer the student back to the correct path if a mistake has been made, but that reassurance is not immediate and that time lag can be very jarring for some students. As PBL projects are somewhat open-ended, students often ask myriads of questions as to whether their idea is acceptable. Again, they are looking for something as concrete and well-defined as a test, and that type of assessment just is not forthcoming. It can be unnerving.
How can we help students get past this roadblock? In the same way that we teach children to do anything else, beginning with teaching them to walk. We stand a few feet back and let them try, knowing that they will occasionally stumble but that they will eventually figure it all out. When students in my PBL classes come to me with infinite questions, I answer the ones that I know are a bit beyond them, but I send them back to work on the ones that I am confident they can solve with a little more effort. And if they make a mistake, so what? I will be there soon enough to catch them before they drift too far off course.