One of the core aspects of PBL that sets it apart from other forms of teaching is the emphasis on student-centered learning. While working to complete their projects and solve challenging problems, students learn and are assessed on subject-matter content, develop skills, and eventually demonstrate mastery of those skills along with the content by working alongside each other to create authentic products. The teacher, while still an “expert” resource, takes on a new role as a guide or facilitator rather than the judge and arbiter of all knowledge. This is why teachers who have transitioned to high-quality PBL in their classroom universally report growth in student agency.
But this doesn’t mean that teacher gets to sit back and eat a sandwich. To make sure that students have the opportunity to stretch themselves and work independently teachers need to design carefully, considering things like the accessibility of information on the topic and the ability of students to find resources and information. This is tricky, especially for teachers new to PBL, but fear not, there is a solution in the form of a famed 1970's TV show.
The Telly Savalas Principal
One way you’ll know that the subject of your project isn’t well suited for project work is hearing, “I can’t find anything on Google!” at which point it’s already too late! If you hear this begin to cascade around your room it means the subject is too obscure for students to grapple with or requires you to provide a little background knowledge before they can investigate further. Luckily, there is a way to test your topics to see if they can be the subject of student-centered inquiry.
This test is known as the “Telly Savalas Principal” Your students probably don’t know who Telly Savalas and there is a pretty good chance that you don’t know who he is either unless you happen to be Greek. This means that if they were to do a project where the content focus included Telly Savalas there would need to be readily accessible information about him that was easily accessible for all students.
If you Google this famous TV actor and you’ll get a little over a million results, meaning there is accessible information out there which your students can use to build their own knowledge about him. Even better, there are film clips, articles, images, and other mixed media that can be used as scaffolds by students who struggle with gaining information by reading alone. In short, there is plentiful, diverse, and accessible information readily-available.
Now look at your learning goals for your project. If the ones you’ve chosen doesn’t return at least as many results as “Telly Savalas” and if the information doesn’t come in the form of mixed media, then you’ll need to consider some sort of scaffolding. Here are some possible options to help get your students over the hump;
- You may need to facilitate information gathering by providing a link or source for them to start off with.
- You may want to begin your project with a teacher-directed mini-lesson.
- You may need to focus on research as your target skill and teach students techniques for finding information.
- You may need assistance in the form of a librarian, outside expert, or other individuals who can coach your students.
If you don’t include steps like these you run the risk of derailing student agency. Students who aren’t used to learner-centered activities and figuring out things on their own or collaboratively can expect a tough time showing student agency through your project. Always remember to think critically before you send your students off into the gaping maw that is the internet!