[Originally Written for BIE.org in 2016. Updated here.]
If you have ever listened to me talking at edcamps, sxswedu, or in a facilitated pbl training, then you have heard me say “we need to be more like magicians.”
One of the key elements of PBL is the idea of Sustained Inquiry. Sustaining inquiry, as a teacher, requires patience. Patience built upon knowing that students really are fairly inquisitive. They will, eventually, need and/or want to know how or why something is the way it is.
But, very often, I see teachers struggling with the seeming dichotomy of a structured curriculum and “allowing students the freedom to explore the content.” If we have done our homework and have backward designed the project with those standards that we want our students to learn, then we can allow students the freedom to explore. We just need to create the path that we want our students to walk down while they are exploring.
For example, let’s say that we are creating an upper elementary project around geometry. We want students to create a package design that fulfills the requirements of having a specific volume and surface area (volume and surface area might be a standard that is above the “level” of our students but we should never miss a chance to use math at a higher level). You received a donation of a bunch of balsa wood and you decided to have that be the material they will use. The students will have to measure all of the pieces of wood that they are piecing together. Because measurement is one of those real-world things that create messy numbers, our students will (should) be ending up with measurements that are in fractional parts. This means that you have planned to teach and/or review manipulating numbers with fractional parts (along with how to use a ruler).
Because you have backward planned your unit, you know you want to teach/review fractions on Tuesday of the second week of the project. As a good pbl teacher you wait until students start struggling with the fractions in their measurements. And then, either by directly telling certain students they aren’t working their numbers properly or, by seeing that they have already stated in their need-to-know (NTK) questions that they need to understand how to work with fractions, you state – “You know what, it looks like some of you need help understanding fractions. Would you like me to cover that sometime?” And when at least one student says, “Yes please…” you say, “I’ll go ahead and plan something for Tuesday. Until then I’ll help those who are already at that point and need the help.” Poof! you are now a magician.
The lecture/activity on fractions was, metaphorically, up your sleeve. Everything you will need is already in your room and the slide deck has already been created. And when the time was right you produced a timely information session, to your students’ amazement. Now it’s time to work on your finger agility – roll that coin across your knuckles every day for 30 minutes. Yes, great teachers ARE magicians.