"If they're not all doing the same work, how do you know they will all be ready for the tests?"
I’ve been asked this question more than once when talking with a group of teachers about Project Based Learning. Usually I get so worked up, that I’m nearly unable to stammer out a coherent thought, and that seals the deal in that teacher’s mind that PBL doesn’t do anything to support learning.
I know this is simply not true, but I needed to work on a more insightful response that addresses the question directly, gently, and effectively. I needed an answer that will actually help the teacher understand that the tests are not the end-all of learning in the world, regardless of what others might be telling them. I needed an answer that leaves the questioner better for having asked the question.
So today, I worked on my answer, 140 characters at a time. And it goes a little something like this:
Well, we like to work from the understanding that not all students are the same. Nor do they have the same needs. Instead of working from the premise that all students need is to simply pass the test, we feel that all students need to practice thinking; that they need to see themselves as an active part of the learning process; that they need to know that they're stronger by actively finding others who have strengths and interests beyond their own and working to better themselves, as well as helping out others with their own strengths.
These skills are ones that will carry them into the world of lifelong learning. These skills are the ones that will help students become learners and get excited about learning. And kids get excited about projects. Well more excited than doing test prep.
Think about a time your students were actually and truly alive in your class. Picture it. What was the lesson that was going on? Regardless of the content, I'm guessing it was active. That it required the student to be active. That it wasn't the norm. And while I'm sure it was quality learning, it was also about more than just getting the right answers for the test.
So if we can get that sort of life out of them, while making sure they're working on projects that are rooted firmly in the standards we know they need, where can we go with them? Will they remember the classes and lessons where they worked, finding the answers to questions on the study guide? Or will they remember the classes and lessons that were exciting, and where they were fully alive and active?
Which will they remember? And won't remembering this information, rooted in solid standards and learning, trigger better results on those tests?
So your task as the facilitator of a PBL project is to be sure that each student is getting what s/he needs out of the project. It's not about each student getting the same. It's about knowing your kids, and helping them to know themselves and each other. The tests take care of themselves for most kids after that.
Sure, there will always be stragglers, but that's why we have intervention time and we give them special attention to help move them forward as well, even if it means in addition to our PBL projects.
That’s why project based learning works and that’s how we can ask students to learn differently and still do alright on those tests.
So the next time I’m asked, you’ll know where we’re going.