Designing a Mini-Project

For many students, Project Based Learning is a foreign concept. Introducing students to a new way of learning (inquiry) can be one of the greatest challenges for any teacher starting out with PBL. To address this, we designed a small scale project to get students engaged, and evaluate their prior learning and ability to work together. Before I dive into that, let's examine the context and some challenges...

Getting a foot in the door

The first challenge, at the outset, was the newness of PBL to the current context.  PBL often seems daunting even to experienced teachers, and when colleagues begin to implement new teaching strategies a range of reactions can occur. Be clear, PBL is well established, well researched and internationally recognised. Go for it.

Fortunately, in South Australia, the state mandated pedagogy is permissive, and enables teachers to follow a PBL approach. Coupling this with a respect for the policies and practices that exist in the school (eg. literacy & numeracy agreements) and for what students, parents, and the community bring - teachers have the opportunity to spark centres of innovation in their school.


Scrum Boards

I'll write more significantly on this when I get the opportunity. Scrum boards are a process borrowed from computer science for project management. I heard about these from the fabulous Rox Levett

In essence, students become responsible for managing their projects, you - the teacher - become the "client" for the deliverable product, and you have Scrum meetings daily with students to help keep them on track. Each student - or each group of students - will have a board divided into 3-4 sections, with a "to do", "in progress", "to check/verify", and "done" division. 

Here's some pics of us setting up eduScrums...

Week 1, Term 1 - What first?

I haven't found a definitive answer to 'what do I do first' with PBL, and rightly, much existing writing suggests teachers assessment of their context is paramount to successful beginnings. So the takeaway is there isn't a single band-aid or unit-plan that is going to work for your context, some work is going to be required -- but for most teachers, especially those trying to commence in PBL, a LOT of work is going to be required. The pay-off is students who are self-directed, curious, engaged, capable and hungry.  

Consider your context carefully, what's around your school, who and what can be a resource for your students' learning? Draw on elements of your students' interests, and their needs.

Enough warning - To get the ball rolling, here's what we designed...

Thinking about what our students showed an interest in (hint:  design and tech, construction projects etc.) we designed an initial activity that focussed on:

  • laying initial foundations for the 4C's: Critical Thinking - Collaboration - Communication - Creativity and Innovation
  • starting to build an inquiry learning culture in the classroom
  • helping students feel comfortable in their teams
  • making initial steps towards acclimatising students to project planning, implementation, and reflection
  • and finally introducing the use of Scrum boards as a project management tool -- keeping this part simple!

This mini-project took the form of a 3 lesson (2hrs each) "Tower Design Activity" - cliché I know, but bear with me. It's also worth keeping in mind that because this was a Week 1 activity there were plenty of 'coming and goings' in the classroom!

In the design there were five major parts of the project:

Part 1: Brainstorming

In groups of 5 for the remainder of the mini-project students were to complete:

  • A 'what first' activity, that included: brainstorming some ideas for how we might design the product, and figuring out who in our group is going to be responsible for what parts.
  • This 'what first' activity also included the opportunity for students to add their own items and address these in their first 'play' with the tower design. 

Because we were also introducing Scrum boards at this point, there was a great deal of explicit instruction in the introduction asking each group to put up the same tasks in the 'to do' column.

Part 2: Designing

  • Students were each to produce a draft design based on a set of criteria. The criteria was based partly on the students brainstorming about their designs and joining techniques, in addition to the following:
    • "Your structure will be able to support itself without you helping it for at least two minutes"
    • "Your structure will be at least as tall as your tallest group member (measure yourselves!)"
    • "Your structure will incorporate at least two of the ideas, and joining techniques you brainstormed above"

During this process students remained responsible for managing their progress against the Scrum board tasks. 

Part 3: Collaborating

  • Students were to come up with the ultimate design, incorporating elements of each of team-members' design. This ultimate design was submitted for checking before proceeding to the next step.

Scrum boards, again, played a part in keeping the groups on track - reinforcing the use of the Scrum board to help manage the project.

Part 4: Building & the challenge

  • In their groups, the students were to construct their ULTIMATE DESIGN! Their attention was drawn to the criteria provided on the project brief, and they were reminded about the goals of the activity.
  • Importantly, this task was not considered for 'assessment', the production of the tower was a team building exercise, not a criteria for success. If students' towers had collapsed or failed to meet the construction criteria, this was considered in reflection -- but not in a 'grading'.

Part 5: Reflection

  • Finally, students were encouraged to reflect on their experience.

Students were asked to: "Have a chat with your group, look at your Scrum board, look at your final plan. Figure out what worked, what didn’t work, what you might change…" they conducted a short self-assessment (single point rubric, check boxes) and wrote a short reflection on the kinds of thinking they did, reflecting on their creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

These questions guided their reflection:

  • How were you creative in the design of your tower?
  • How did your brainstorming inform your tower design? How did you think critically about how your design would come together?

What now...

This activity provides an entry point for you to assess your students ability to do a range of things. From working in teams, to thinking critically and creatively. From here, you can make changes to your planned units, adding extra support, or removing certain standards that students are addressing fluently. 

Stay tuned for the feedback and reflection from students on this module, and how we might respond to this as teachers. 

Some Resources

  1. The mini-project brief and rubric for students - these are slightly modified for privacy.
  2. An excerpt from the unit planner for teachers - this is significantly modified because you will need to adapt this one project for your context!

As always, until next time... Best Wishes,

Aidan. 👨‍🏫 

P.S. There are heaps great blog posts written about 'how much', 'is this right', 'how do I' in PBL.