I listen to a table of 10th grade World Studies students take turns explaining how women are affected by the lack of access to education in underdeveloped countries. One girl, listening intently, speaks up and asks “Why aren’t they allowed to go to school when our research shows that education actually raises the incomes of families?” The rest of her group pauses and looks at me. I repeat her question and reply, “I wonder if that has a simple answer? Go add that to the project wall questions. The rest of you make a list of other questions that this initial research brings up.”
Moving from good to great Project Based Learning involves being aware of the specific, intentional “teacher moves” you make that drive student inquiry, engagement, and excitement for learning. One “move” I made that enhanced my PBL teaching was developing the classroom project wall into an active teaching tool, rather than a bulletin board. The project wall is the visual space in the classroom that helps manage information, project questions, calendars, standards, assessments, and resources that guide student learning during the project.
Your project wall can support your use of each of the Gold Standard PBL Project Based Teaching Practices:
Design and Plan
One of the ironies of PBL done well is that the best projects arise not from spontaneous decision-making but from detailed planning. A powerful project wall will be the classroom hub that shows the results of your planning. The more that crucial elements of a good project - the driving question, list of student-generated “Need to Know” questions, resources, and the schedule of formative and summative assessments - are visible to students, the better they become at taking control of their learning. And the better you become at facilitating, rather than controlling, their learning. BIE’s Assessment Map and Student Learning Guide are simple, powerful, (and free) planning tools.
Align to Standards
The well-planned project must clearly align student learning to targeted content standards and skills. The project wall is a place to keep those standards and skills front and center. A PBL teacher I respect has a wall where students group their inquiry questions in categories under the standards. This is a powerful, visual learning strategy that helps her students become meta-cognitive about what they are learning - how their own curiosity and inquiry is linked to key content and skills. It also provides a conversation point for parents and administrators, showing how your PBL teaching is aligned to standards.
Build the Culture
Make sure the classroom norms, which have been co-crafted with your students, are front and center in the project wall. These norms and the student-generated questions reinforce the value of student voice and choice. Keeping the project calendar visible and updated allows students to know what needs to be done. The project wall becomes a resource that you can direct students towards in order to answer their own questions. Here are more great tips on building a culture of collaboration, critique, and questioning in your PBL teaching.
The great PBL teacher is always dancing back and forth between individual and team work time, and whole group and small group instruction. The project wall helps to manage this dance with visual information needed for each of these aspects: schedules, assessment checkpoints, deadlines and class norms.
Scaffold Student Learning
Similar to managing activities the project wall can support the scaffolding of student learning. The visible list of questions, aligned standards and skills, and flexible calendar ensures that you are providing students with opportunities to practice, apply, and reflect on their learning. As your formative assessment shows that students need more or less scaffolding, you can adjust the project calendar and keep students aware through the public information on the project wall.
Assess Student Learning
High quality formative assessment is crucial to scaffold student learning towards the summative products of any good project. Along with the public flexible calendar of checkpoints and deadlines, your project wall should also make all assessment rubrics public and accessible. The project wall should make it clear what assessments are individual or team based. The assessments need to be linked to the list of student questions, and identify which of the 4 C’s (communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity) are being assessed.
Engage and Coach
A comprehensive project wall will boost your PBL teaching and support student engagement only as much as you include it as an intentional, frequent teaching tool. I always knew my students were more engaged with a project when I saw them, on their own, referring to the wall with their team mates. The more I asked them about which of the Need to Know questions they were learning, had them continuously update the list of questions, referred them to the calendar, rubrics, and class norms, the more students became self-reflective and supported each other in learning.
How will you boost the power of your teaching with a project wall?
See some great examples of project walls from Katherine Smith Elementary School.
Do you have questions or tips about project walls? Please leave a comment below.