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The Bad Kind of Failure - Nine Ways to Screw Up Your PBL Classroom:

PBL practitioners talk a lot about the theories of educational reformer John Dewey, and with good reason. Dewey believed that the best educational experiences were social and interactive processes that allow learners to experience the curriculum through active participation. He thought school worked best when students take a central role in the planning and execution of their own learning, all of which are hallmarks of strong PBL practice.

But this isn’t another post about Dewey. Instead, we are breaking new ground by talking about Henry Thomas Buckle, the famed historian and someone you’ve probably never heard of before. Being that his most famous accomplishment is dying in the middle of writing his magnum opus, a sweeping history of England, it makes sense that you may have missed footnote associated with him. If you’re saying to yourself, “that is an obscure figure to reference” you are correct, and if not for one line of text from his writings you probably would never have heard about him at all.

Buckle, who also dabbled in philosophy as well as the social sciences, once said, “society prepares the crime, the criminal commits it” essentially questioning who is really more to blame for criminal behavior, the society who neglects the basic needs of the criminal, therefore forcing him or her resort to lawbreaking, or the criminals themselves. Put into the context of a classroom, the quote asks us to consider who is more to blame when students “fail” to meet classroom expectations by refusing to work, or fail to meet the standards of teachers in one way or another; the student or the teacher.

And before you say it, no, I am not absolving an unruly student of responsibility for their behavior or suggesting that we should allow a kid who throws rocks or disrupts the classroom environment a free walk. At the end of the day students need boundaries and need to be taught that their actions, good or bad, come with consequences. However, most competent educators would agree that there are a myriad of ways that a teacher can muck up their classroom and increase the likelihood that their students will fail. If this wasn’t the case then anyone could do our jobs.

With that in mind, here are nine ways that teachers can make their jobs more difficult by “preparing the crime”

  1. Getting Behavioral Expectations from Another Teacher – it’s two days before school and you’ve just received your roll sheets. As you look them over in the staff lounge, one of your colleagues peeks over your shoulder. Her eyes go wide and she says, “Oh, you’ve got HIM in your class?!? Be ready, he’s nothing but trouble!” While your colleague means well, this kind of poisoning of the well can do a lot to sour classroom culture. All teachers have different instructional styles and maybe yours will resonate more with the student. Perhaps the mix of students in the room was the issue rather than the individuals? Maybe there wasn’t enough structure? Using this unsolicited advice can leave you waiting to “catch the kid doing something wrong” as opposed to seeing what they’re doing right. Just because a student had trouble with one teacher doesn’t mean they’ll act that way with you.

  1. Poor Grouping Structures – groupwork can be a source of significant stress for teachers, but with the right structures built in it doesn’t have to be. Deciding on the amount of choice students get in forming their groups ahead of time is important. Can they choose on their own, or not at all? Should you as the teacher be able to approve their choices or exercise veto power? Above all, you should include some sort of pre-written work agreement with norms focused on solving issues relating to unproductivity ahead of time.

  1. Unstructured Work Time - teachers who put students into blocks of work time without basic structures shouldn’t be surprised when 15 minutes into the work period most of the students are off task or misbehaving. Simple steps, like checking in periodically, asking them to fill out a task list, or giving opportunities for them to think about the best use of their time before they dive in can make this time much more effective. You can also break up longer periods of time with all-class check in’s where you call the class back together to refocus them or give them goals for specific periods of time.

  1. Insufficient Formative Assessment Data – being able to track the progress of individual students while they complete collaborative projects is essential. Is there an individual assessment of some sort each day? Are some of your graded products individual? Are you using informal checks often enough? Have you made sure that group tasks are being divided up fairly among all your students? Make sure your assessments happen often and use high-quality tools so that students of all strengths can be evaluated fairly.

  1. Inflexible Deadlines – while some deadlines need to be “hard” or set to ensure that you keep up with your unit calendar, not all of them should be inflexible. PBL allows students time to deep-dive into subjects or areas of interests, and this should be respected where possible. If a student needs an extra day to complete some work, ask yourself, “why can’t they have the extra day?” before just saying no. Can they still participate in group discussions, protocols, or the next phase of the project without having completed all aspects of a project milestone? Can you turn work days into differentiated days so students can work at their own pace or catch up?

  1. Poor Technology Management – 1:1 devices can make or break a project. They allow students to work collaboratively and research more effectively, but can also become a huge distraction if students choose to watch videos or play games. Are you seated behind your desk or actively moving around the room? Have you provided your class with short skill tutorials so they know how to use the tools you’re requiring them to use? Have you considered less than 1:1 devices, perhaps two computers per groups, to ensure that the computers they have are too valuable not to be used as research tools? Above all it is important to recognize that high-level technology integration suggests that computers are only used for tasks that cannot be completed in an analog environment. If you can do it with paper, save your kids the screen time.

  1. Relying on Textbooks and Boxed Curriculum – Just don’t. Please.

  1. Not Allowing Room for Failure – Nothing is more stressful than a “do or die” scenario. If students aren’t allowed room to try and fail or iterate their ideas it can cause significant disfunction. High achievers will be less likely to delegate work for fear of it impacting their own grades. Students who are reluctant to try will be even less likely for fear of being wrong and having no recourse. Find ways for students to “precheck” their ideas and work through strategies like think-pair-share, reflection, or revision protocols.

  1. Lack of Student Voice and Choice – Getting buy-in from students is essential to keeping projects on track and engaging. Students who feel as though they have had a choice in what they’re doing are more likely to produce higher-quality work than those that don’t. Are you allowing students to choose how they present their learning? What about where and who they work with? If you prefer uniformity with certain aspects of the project, can you provide them with differentiated learning days or present content materials with activities and resources that speak to multiple learning styles or preferences?

  1. Powerstruggles – If you engage a defiant student in front of the class, you’ve already lost. Instead of taking a problem and blowing it up into a public battle, take a step back. Don’t engage in any conversations or problem-solving if you’re running hot. Ask yourself what caused the issue in the first place? Was there a way to address the disagreement in a less public fashion? Can you take the disagreement “off air” after the rest of the class leaves? Would a short break, a revisiting of the tasks assigned, or looking over the content goals of the project make it easier for the students to participate?

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