You’ve enjoyed the holidays and you have a few more days until school starts back up so you’ve been catching up on your reading. Several of your friends have gone to trainings during 2018 where they have learned about Project Based Learning and you are intrigued. But everything you have read gives you a headache because you couldn’t possibly add anything to your full curriculum pacing guide. 

   This post is for you. And it’s for anyone who wants to “just kick the ball down the PBL road.” Where do you begin? How do you get started? Well, in my opinion, it should start with inquiry. 
    (1) Start every (yes, every) day with an opportunity for your students to ask questions of you and of each other around the topic of math. It does NOT have to be about the current thing you are doing in your math unit. As a matter of fact those who espouse spiraling in topics throughout the year would argue that you should choose things that are not in your current unit. And, it is ok to give a problem that you haven’t covered yet. Let your students struggle with figuring out the answer and then let them know that they will be seeing many more problems like that in a few weeks. 
  Want a question to start it off? Look at the image at the top of the page.  Ask you students to estimate the number of total balls that were in the glass. Then ask them to estimate the volume of the glass. And, finally, have them estimate the volume taken up by the balls when they are all in the glass. An “extra credit” might be how many more balls could you add to the glass until it is full?  Notice there weren’t any numbers given. There weren’t any formulas given. Just tell them that there isn’t a correct answer but there are an infinite amount of incorrect answers – those that came without sound reasoning. 
    (2) Encourage your students to reflect on what they already know and what they will need to know to be successful in the next unit. Start by going to the Extended Questions or Gifted and Talented Questions at the end of the chapter you are about to begin. Find a question that you can bring to life and assign it on the first day of the chapter. If you don’t have something like that then explore online resources for questions about the topic you are about to cover and select a rich question. Make sure the question can not be solved on the first day by the majority of your students. Once you have shown the question to the class, ask them to come up with what information they need to know to be able to solve it. List these on the board. Check those items that the students have not yet covered. Explain to the students that these checked items will be what you will be teaching them in this unit. 
    (3) Give your students opportunities to discuss how to solve problems in groups. Give them problems that might have multiple ways of solving. Allow time for everyone to attempt the problems. Then have them form groups and take turns explaining how to solve the problems. Encourage multiple ways of solving by asking them to come up, as a group, with more than one way to get to the solution. Teach the students how to give constructive feedback for problems that are incorrectly solved. 
    (4) Find ways to have students present their ideas to the rest of the class. (a) Start safely by using a fishbowl where a group discusses solutions in their group while the rest of the class observes and takes notes on the discussion. Just make sure the observers are held responsible for giving constructive feedback to the group in the fishbowl. (b) Have students paired up (Pilot/Co-Pilot) with the understanding that each day will change whether it is the pilot or the co-pilot who is responsible for explaining solutions. When working with your lower groups you can have it that either can answer but the selected position must tell the other person if he or she isn’t going to be directly answering. 
(c) Have a presentation day where students write their solutions on poster paper or on a white board. Then have a gallery walk where students give constructive criticism to their peers. 
   (5) Put it all together. (a)Give an assignment over a topic that has not been covered. (b) Create a knows and need-to-knows list that students generate about the assignment. (c) Give students opportunities to work in groups to find solutions to the the assignment. (d) Have opportunities for students to share what they know with others in the classroom. Include an end of chapter/unit day when the solutions are “officially” presented. 
    What I have just shown you (paragraph 5 above) is the basic structure of project based learning.  If you committed, today, to doing this for each of the units/chapters you have left for this school year then you and your students would benefit from the deeper learning that would occur. 
    Then, next Summer (after an incredible Spring), you would want to commit to continuing this process in the Fall semester. When you planned for the Fall you would look for a math topic that is related to a news item or other item of interest in your local community. You would, then, find a way to connect with someone involved with the community issue. Then you would figure an angle for your students to do some math to help solve the problem (or, as a minimum, have them find several possible solutions to the problem). Finally, you would make sure you have a presentation day that your students would be tasked with presenting their solutions to the community. That one problem would demonstrate what true PBL is all about. It would have a “real world problem,” it would have inquiry, it would have collaborative work and discussion, it would have reflection and analysis, and there would be a public audience. 
     It is my belief that students need three things to help them go deeper in their learning: Something that makes them wonder; time to discuss what it is that they are wondering about; and a non-negotiable deadline where they have to tell someone, they don’t know, all about this thing that they have been wondering about. 
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

     Following these steps will help your Spring semester be the best you’ve ever had. Isn’t that what all teachers should wish for on this New Year’s Eve?  Happy New Year and best of luck in the coming semester. 
Some books to help you on this journey: 
Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets is just plain good reading. 
Geoff Krall’s Necessary Conditions is about great math teaching.
My book, Project Based Learning in the Math Classroom, (co-authored with Telannia Norfar) will help you go deeper with what I have written in this post. This book is now available for pre-sale and will be out in April 2019. 

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