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Option Overload - Narrowing Choice and Encouraging Smart PBL Decisions

Voice and Choice is an important part of strong PBL projects and an essential ingredient in the sausage of student engagement. Without it, buy-in will be limited, students will feel less ownership of their project, and you become the focus of the learning environment instead of the students. At a recent conference in Ohio, one of the participants asked how to help her students narrow down choices without it feeling overly restrictive. I offer the following solutions as possible answers for encouraging smarter and better choice.

Give Them Boundaries BEFORE They Choose.

My grandfather grew up on a farm where they had a saying, “If you don’t want the pigs to ruin the roses, fence them out!” This salt of the earth advice has some connections to PBL in the sense that if you don’t provide boundaries for your students, their choices will end up all over the place and will be impossible for you to track or manage. By providing them basic project information up front, such as timelines, major products, assessment points, resources, and other information they can begin to think for themselves about what kind of choices they have time for within the scope of what they working on. Being up front with deadlines and work expectations will also allow them to think about the work they have in other classes and keep them from procrastinating and turning in sub-par work.

The Bad Idea Factory

Students are good at thinking of lots of options and then picking the absolute WORST one. To help coach them away from disastrous choices or unrealistic products, try the Bad Idea Factory protocol inspired by Kevin Brookhouser.

  1. Begin by putting the Driving Question on the whiteboard or a poster paper. Tell students they have 2 minutes to write down as many BAD ideas and solutions they could create that would answer this question, then let the ideas roll in.

  2. After they have had their fun (and be prepared for it to be fun) lead a discussion about specific ideas on the board or observations they have regarding WHY these ideas are all so bad? Is it the time involved? The materials required?

  3. Create a list and keep it up on the room so that when students are selecting their GOOD ideas they can use the list as a way to “stress-test” their ideas to ensure they things they can complete.

Highlight Good Solutions – Group Brainstorms and Gallery Walks

Students sometimes make bad choices because they don’t have any exemplars to look towards. While it is true you should be cautious showing students examples that are too close to what you expect from them (or else you might get 25+ copies of the example) it is helpful to show them an example. Consider creating a “prototype” yourself with unrelated content. This will give you an exemplar they can’t copy AND will help you to understand better what the student experience is in creating the product. For example, if you want them to create a PSA about water quality, consider creating your own PSA about bike safety or the dangers of smoking. If you’d like to encourage students to support each other through the project process, do a gallery walk following their first brainstorm or work day so they can see what products other groups are considering. If the choice aren’t related to product, but process, before students being work time or independent group time involving choosing what or how they will work, ask groups to share what they will be doing during the time to options ideas out there.

Synthesizing with a Vengeance

Another common challenge associated with choice is trying to get groups of students to coalesce around a single solution when they are working on a group product or class product. For example, students may be trying to plan kindness campaigns that they will then carry out to explore the idea of one person creating positive change, but a teacher may want to the entire class to support one idea while giving students voice and choice to individually propose and develop ideas of their own. To help students synthesize their many ideas down to one actionable one…

  1. Begin by having students refine their own ideas during the project process. Make sure they have lots of opportunities to interact with and receive peer feedback during this process so they are exposed to each others ideas. Early on, allow students to form pairs so they can work together on one idea. Many students will want to work with a partner or friend rather than working along and there will be natural similarities that occur where students can pair up and work together. This will eliminate about half the ideas out there as students create consensus among themselves.

  2. Near the end of the critique and revision cycle, invite a “panel of experts” or outside audience in to hear about the ideas students have developed. They can ask probing questions to see who really has an actionable idea and who is more invested in their ideas than others. Have them recommend or rank the ideas based on which they feel are the best solution. For example, if you are planning a kindness campaign, the school administration may weigh in on the solutions that best speak to the issues they want addressed.

  3. Finally, if you still have too many ideas, you can ask the students themselves to select an even smaller number of solutions to actually carry out. This can be done with voting, Google Form, or any other sorting method. Students will then join with the group already working on the solution and delegate out the parts of the project that they need support with.

“Yes, Building a Full-Size Pirate Ship Would Be Cool, But…”

We want our students to “shoot for the stars” when they propose ideas or solutions in the form of their projects. How else will we get creative, radical thinkers who disrupt the status quo or push the envelope? However, we also want them to reflect on their choices through the lens of reality so that they don’t attempt something that is either too ambitious or doesn’t have any visible connections to the standards. You don’t need to tell them what they can’t do, instead be prepared to lead them in some introspective thinking. Ask questions like, “How will this show me what you’ve learned about our topic?” or “Given that you only have _________ days to complete this, do you think you’ll be able to complete it and have it be your best work?”

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