Transcript #11 Dr. Jennifer Pieratt: Demystify Project Based Learning and Beyond

Ti-Fen: Hi everyone. Welcome to compass teachers show I’m your host Ti-Fen. My job is to interview teachers around the world and tease out their teaching tactics, education research work towards the use. Hopefully this show can offers ideas for you to experiments in your classroom.

Ti-Fen: In this episode,  we are going to deep dive into Project Based Learning or PBL. Project-based learning  is a pedagogy in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects. And today our guest Dr. Jennifer Pieratt is a well known expert of it. Jenny holds a PhD in Educational Philosophy, with an emphasis in Project Based Learning. She is an accomplished author and sought-after speaker on the topic of PBL. Previously Jenny was a classroom teacher at High Tech High, an organization that operates sixteen schools in San Diego County. She is also a former School Development Coach for New Tech Network and National Faculty at Buck Institute for Education.   
Jenny is the Founder of CraftED and is doing tons of coaching and consulting to administrators and teachers across the US and abroad.   Please enjoy our conversation today.

Ti-Fen: Jenny thanks for coming to our show.

Jenny: Thank you so much for having me.

Ti-Fen: So there’s that Jenny your first practical experience with PBL is in high tech high. What is your first experience with PBL look like? Any frustration or struggles from it.

Jenny: I’m so I can I can I think of two different things I guess when we talk about my very first experience so it might my very very first experience like my first day on the job was planning with my partner teacher and he was so incredibly patient with me when I look back on it and it was very foreign to me working with someone on my lesson planning/ I just you know prior to that experience being a high tech high head always just kind of worked in isolation. So I think that was my very first experience of project based learning was actually a collaborative one and I think that really speaks to kind of what my work even looks like today. And then the second kind of first experience was as a teacher so my very first project that I ever ran as a classroom teacher at high tech high which was a complete disaster was awful like it like we’re talking like sometime to design projects in there you can refine it and make them better and sometimes you just shouldn’t jump ship and never run again and it was definitely the latter. It just it was a mess and it’s you know I think everybody’s first experience is a little bit messy but that one definitely was flawed in that it it lacks the really important foundational pieces that I now and dad and my practice and supporting teachers to be sure that they don’t ever have that kind of a disaster again.

Ti-Fen: So can you give us one of the example why it is a disaster for you for that at the first time.

Jenny: Yeah I saw it was hot meat so that there’s a pretty extensive onboarding experience at high tech high they called the Odyssey and it’s like a month long experience of just understanding what PBL is and how to how to plan it into selected it but it’s it’s very much. It is an autonomous process high tech high so like there isn’t one standard way to design a project everybody has a different way to do it. And I think for me I was trying to be so drastically different from how I had talked previously in a private traditional school that I left out some important best practices so for example I didn’t know what benchmarking a project wise I don’t know how to build and benchmarks which means that I also wasn’t formidably assessing. So I did know that it was important to have an authentic audience so I had an opinion all the experts come in to view these students presentations at the very end of the project and while the students were doing a presentation I was sitting in the back of the classroom behind the panel and I just I was so embarrassed because I realized it was the first time I was assessing my students content mastery and they haven’t mastered the content yet. They were presenting in front of this expert panel into that was really my first kind of running with wow I need to do a better job of assessing them along the way. And bench marking up the project so that I can scaffold the learning and be sure that they’re getting where they need to be boss for the end of the project.

Ti-Fen: This leads to my question because you mentioned we have different definition of PBL. So what are the key components in PBL for you and how do you define PBL?

Jenny: Yeah and this is different for everybody everyone has their own working definition and you know if we look at historically the roots of project based learning it’s it’s evolved and changed over time so for me my definition comes from my own experience in the field working alongside teachers. And the reality is that they’re in right now so my definition right now isn’t even the same as what my definition when it banned fifteen years ago when I was in the classroom so you know what I found working with teachers is that there is this need to teach standard. That’s right I think we can’t avoid those standards or something that’s that’s just part of what we have to cover so for me the very first non negotiable of PBL is that it has to be rooted in standards. So it has to be content that you’re you know the expectations that you’re teaching and students are learning at rooted in standards. Secondly that another non negotiable for me would be that there’s best practices of formative assessment embedded throughout the project. So I’m you know what we know is productive for students in terms of giving them feedback and reflecting and growing and learning all those best practices need to show up in the benchmarks and the way we’re designing project. Third is that there needs to be some real world connections so you know this element of authenticity is critical especially right now for kids but we need to really think about how to contextualize the standards into a real world applications and that children understand why they’re learning what they’re learning and what it has to do with the world around them. And then you know that that the fourth piece to that is that there needs to be some twenty first century skills embedded in the project and that those twenty first century skills are explicitly being scaffold in an assassin just like the content and alongside the content so when I say twenty first century skills I mean things like collaboration oral communication agency those things are equally as important as the content. And and in many ways that’s how students access the content so we need to be sure that we’re setting the projects up in a way that you’re going to develop those those skills just as much as we would develop the content that students need to learn through the standards.

Ti-Fen: Got it. So would you mind giving us a PBL example that we can know how the PBL look like in classrooms?

Jenny: Yeah I’m gonna give you two because I think you know classrooms right now look very different than they did wind sprints because the covid-19. Yeah yeah so I think I am one of my favorite projects and actually I can share with you if you want to include in that show notes

Ti-Fen: Yeah that would be great.

Jenny: is one that I shared on a on a podcast I did for cult of pedagogy and it’s it’s this project it’s called silent voices and it’s about all of the voices that we don’t read in history books in particular as it related to the American revolution and it wasn’t that great project and I just I loved it for a lot of reasons but namely just let you know when I was working on the project and we were dreaming it up for kids it was like how I can’t believe fifth graders are going to do this like this is why you know we things we kind of start to learn about in college but we should have learned earlier. And the way that we set it up made it so accessible and relatable for kids and I think it just was a testament to what kids can really do when you set them up and and set them up for him and believe that they that they can so that’s why my favorite example not that examples also featured in my my elementary but keep it real PBL. Another example that I can share with you and you know one for for more of a virtual settings so I’ve been talking a lot recently about PBL lite which is a modified version ad might be offering marks a rather than being ten steps to planning and facilitating it’s only five. I’m concerned example as a virtual project and I recently designed was having students write a who would win story and so I’m not sure if you’re familiar you’re elementary audience might be familiar with this book series but it’s a series of informational kind style text about two animals that would never normally battling nature but the book put and together and it gives you all the statistics about each of them and then it says if they were to go to battle who would win. And so I had students right I can use this as a model to write their own book about it can be any two things I want to compare so to famous athletes you know to data scientists are too well known artists so if they were to kind of battle each other in whatever setting that might look like who would win. And so there is a lot of researching involved interviewing involved and then they ended up going to the entire writing production kind of time line and actually publishing a book and sharing in a virtual author and then at the end with a with a wide audience.

Ti-Fen: Got it that’s really interesting so actually Jenny you mentioned about benchmark and that’s the piece I’m really interesting too because when I was reading your work. Why group grades are discouraged and if there’s any example with project benchmarks that you can provide for the listeners to understand or how do you do benchmarks.

Jenny: Yeah okay. So there’s I think there’s two questions. So the first one being about collaboration young group grades so it’s a big no no for me because when students are working together it is very difficult to know what individual students understand no because issues of status and equity show up when we work in groups. If we are not very careful to include strict protocols that do things like take down those barriers of power and privilege. It show up in group work so you know what I mean by that is if you have a student saying who’s the second second language learner their comfort with speaking in a group is is going to likely be lower than that another student and so we might not hear from that first student and so how would we know what they know. And so if the group turns in a final product altogether, we can’t just assume that everyone knows and contributed the same thing that final product. So I encourage teachers to assess students collaboration skills how are they working together in a group rather than what did they know as a group because that’s very difficult to be able to say without individually assessing each child. So you know so that that’s kind of the first piece of that question. The second piece about benchmarking is is and people not everybody like that me saying word benchmarking so if you don’t like that word I would say you could all it’s synonymous with milestones or phases of a project. I’m really what it is is just taking your your end in mind your final product and working backwards and breaking it down into smaller chunks phases milestones benchmarks whatever you wanna call it. I want to make the project more digestible for everybody so it’s just setting. If you’re an industry it’s just like project management right how do we take the whole and break it down into parts so that we can get to the whole. I’m in and tied to each benchmark are within each benchmark is where you find your daily lesson plans in your scaffolding and then tied to each of those benchmarks is a deliverable that is permanently assessed and this is really getting stance opportunity to you know engaging assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning because we’re giving them feedback and applying them to grow and develop throughout this process rather than just waiting till the end. And greeting when it’s all over there’s no opportunity then for them to give it another try or to apply that feedback to the next phase of their learning.

Ti-Fen: Great. So how often do you thing a teacher should do the bench mark throughout the project?

Jenny: So typically there anywhere from three to five benchmarks on the project it just depends on how many standards are covering and you know how robust a project is obviously gonna dictate how much you need to break it down. So that the smaller project you know that’s a running through four weeks you’re piling and have like three benchmarks if it’s a much bigger project. You know maybe closer to six weeks and you would have something more like five or six.

Ti-Fen: What are the misconceptions of PBL that you always need to demystify for teachers ?

Jenny: Yeah there’s a lot and I can also include a piece that I read on this it’s called myth busting project based learning and it’s the five top misconceptions. So we’ve already had on a few of them one of them is that everything should be collaborative right. So I I try to kind of bust that myth right out the gate and just say that it you know if it makes sense for students to be working in a group and it’s a task that truly necessitates collaboration great. If it’s not then save it for something else. Not everything has to be in a group another misconception that we’ve already kind of hit on is that there is an assessment or standards in projects very much at the forefront of the design. Another question I get a lot is about you know kind of what we call voice in choice. So this idea that everything is student driven and there’s a really big misunderstanding to that. And that teachers think okay well if it’s student driven and I don’t really have a place in that so I just kind of sit back and make they take it wherever they want right. And the answer is no. Actually you know for me voice in choices. Yes, we give students choice you know maybe it’s they have three different options and final products or they have a voice and you know the content that they want to research as related to the driving question of the project. But it by no means means that the teacher isn’t still putting those guard rails on student learning and still guiding them in directions to be sure that they are learning what they need to be learning. So I think those are private the top ones that I find myself addressing most often.

Ti-Fen: I sometimes I heard that teachers found hard to do PBL because of their collaboration with different subject teachers. Do you have any advice for a cross subject collaboration because I can imagine teachers might have different opinions on what are the most important things to learn?

Jenny: Yeah it is hard and I think part of that I’m I’m going through yoga teacher training right now so I’ve been learning a lot about the ego to yeah the ego like doing an ego check is is first and foremost probably what teachers into doing their cleaning together. But then after that I would say what I’d normally recommend for teachers is to use what I call the driving standards when you’re starting out with your project designing and driving standards are social studies and science and I recommend those two because it doesn’t mean that the others are important so I’ll just say that but I recommend those to you because the way that they’re written tends to provide a really nice context or seen that the other content areas can really easily support. So that that’s going to make my big first piece of advice if you’re if you’re you know collaborating with another teacher. Make sure that one of those content areas as part of the conversation and let them throw out there their main ideas of their standards and then the other teachers can start thinking about how they can fit inside of that.

Ti-Fen: Great so what is the feedback you got from teachers that used PBL. giving your coaching and see the transformation for their students learning?

Jenny: It depends every teachers different in every context is different you know sometimes it takes sometimes like you know the early adopters they’ll do it once and then it’s like they want to turn everything in the classroom in the PBL. Because it’s so wonderful and they have this one you know this great positive experience with their kids. Other teachers it takes awhile and they they aren’t what we would call the early adopters they’re they’re a little more skeptical of it you know. What I’ve found with those teachers is that like 99 percent of time they didn’t do the project plan was a deli so we’ll we’ll put the project plan in place and will make the calendar will make all the assessment pieces and what will happen is they’re all saying not use the rubric or they didn’t formative reassess and so they’re they’re frustrated with the outcome. I’m yet to meet somebody who actually did the whole plan that we put together and was unhappy with it but I’d like to just kind of fall into one of those two camps and if they’re a little apprehensive about it takes them doing it a couple times to kind of get there but usually once once they run through a few projects it it’s really rare that a teacher you know I would tell you that it wasn’t worth their time so if a teacher wants to try out PBL.

Ti-Fen: how they can take their first step or use your craft-curricula service?

Jenny: I have a very layered approach to project planning and and that’s really intentional because I feel like you kind of just seen a dip your toe in a little bit and then layer up from there so one of the categories on my blog and your resources is called getting started with PBL. So it’s much more about like making small ships and just kind of the brainstorming process and coming up with ideas or analyzing models of existing projects and modifying those and then from there I kinda layer up to okay now design your own project this is also the way my book is written in this kind of progression/ You know now write your own project and then the next layer would be okay reflecting refined not project and apply what you learn from that project to designing a second project and then once you’re feeling ready now start diving into more of the nuances of PBL. So now you’ve got this project that you friend you can kind of be set up with you know doing an exhibition in the community in front of an authentic audience really engaging and fieldwork in getting students out into the field collecting data bringing experts and wanting your project in a way that is really engaging and exciting for students those to me are all much more like I mentioned before nuances. There are more advanced kind of approaches to designing projects and that’s also kind of bring my blog which is advanced tests for PBL. I might eat courses are set up in this way in the book chapters around this progression because I really feel like I I ran those trainings for companies where it was a 48 training and we taught them everything they need to know in 40 hours and they I would see tears coming down teacher spaces halfway through the week. It just it was too much for them all at once so when I set out to start my own company and I come with my own framework I kept it is the planning for. As one page there’s no staple and I kept all my resources in this layered approach because I really feel that teachers need to get in and roll their sleeves up and try it and then there need to know is are much more driven by authentic need to numbers things. That okay they’ve done it they’ve tried it gosh that you know that group work didn’t really go great like how do I think about getting better at fostering collaboration in my classroom. Those to me then feel like much more of an organic time to talk about okay yeah how do we do that now. So there’s layers I would say to getting started. So just get in and kind of start connecting with people on social media that hash tag PBL chat is really great on Twitter to just see where other PBL teachers are doing. And it just kind of start wrapping your mind around what it is and what it could look like for you in your classroom what is the piece of advice you would give to you who once you try out PBL. So right now I know that it can still really overwhelming to teachers given that so many different places are doing teaching and learning differently this fall. So I would say for right now given our current context in the pandemic that were and I would say to rethink maybe how you understand beyond the past I’ve been doing a lot of resource creation and blogging and writing on this idea of PBL lite so I’m much more condensed and modified version of PBL. So I think if a teacher you know is thinking about it don’t don’t get hung up on what it spent in the past you know trying to think about how it could be a screening for you to create just meaningful learning experiences for for students and whatever you’re setting isn’t all.

Ti-Fen: Wonderful I believe our listeners can get the great sense of PBL to apply into their teaching and last few questions I want to touch on: except for your the books, are there any other books that you recommend the most?

Jenny: I’m you know I’m not really so much about what I read for my own pleasure but in terms of work I like to use links and articles because I feel like they’re much more real time and more practical not theoretical. So I’m I have different channels on social media for different purposes I do most of my learning through Twitter so I mean there are some incredible minds you know one of my favorites to follow it’s cult of the pedagogy. There’s just there’s so many wonderful resources that feel very practical right now so that’s actually where I do them the most of my learning. Yeah I have a few Jo Boaler books so I love her work leaders in their own learning and an ethic of excellence Ron Berger would be I guess my other favorites and then designing group work by Colin. I would probably be my others have been my most formative in my work.

Ti-Fen: Great. Jenny you mentioned about you used Twitter to learn a lot or to get lots of way new information. So is there any educators work you are following the most recently?

Jenny: Yeah yeah the one I mentioned the cult of pedagogy and Jan Gonzales first to everything that she puts out she’s so thoughtful about what she points out that it’s everyone of them is guaranteed to be something that I find useful. And then I’ve actually been creating a growing Google documents that’s just a curation of resources on virtual learning sense covert school closures so those are all I can share that with you as well everyone of the links that are on there I have gone through and read and kind of put my stamp of approval on. So I think that would be the best examples that I could share would just be sharing that Google document with your audience.

Ti-Fen: So what is the worst advice you were given when you were a baby teacher ?

Jenny: yeah I’ve been thinking about that question since you can ensure that one in advance and I don’t I can’t come up with any and I think that’s because even if there was bad advice it’s also something you can learn from. You know I think one of the most important things that any teacher but if PBL teacher in particular needs to be able to do is just to be either a flat and so every day every lesson every student was okay how could I have done that better and so I think you know even if that wasn’t great advice I’ve forgotten about it but you know I learned from it and I still continue to learn every day in this work which is what I think is so great about PBL. You never really arrived.

Ti-Fen: Great before we close up, do you have anything else you want to share with our listeners and if they want to learn more about your work and how they can find you online?

Jenny: Yeah I am I’m very active on social media so my handles @crafted_jenny and every day I try to post material that is useful to teachers parents and school leaders so it’s anything from a project idea to a planning form to you great articles to support teachers. I’m just really practical tips and tools on there so I would say that that’s probably the best place to to keep learning and growing. And then I’m the others my blog so that’s it and you’ll see under the resource tab that there are a lot of different resources you can search projects by elementary secondary level or whatever level you’re at with your own PBL journey whether you’re getting started or more advanced. I I try to update that a few times a week with just new content so I would say those are quite two great places to get started.

Ti-Fen: Great I will make sure their own in our show notes. So thank you so much Jenny for sharing with us today.

Jenny: Thank you so much for having me.

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