Part 2: Setting Goals
Thinking back to my time in the classroom both as a teacher and as a student, my most salient memories are of times when projects were in progress. I might remember some because they were fun, or because the product turned out great, or even because everything went wrong. In every case, I remember more about what we learned during those times (again, both as a teacher and as a student) than everything else that might have happened in the classroom at any other time.
In the business world, projects have a definite beginning and an end, have an agreed-upon product or output, and have discrete goals and scope. If we only went by this definition, we could argue that filling out a dreaded review packet is a project. Of course, that’s not the case. Otherwise, how is a project different from a worksheet? We clearly need a more robust way to think about projects. If you’re unsure about how to categorize something you’re planning for your classroom, take a look at this excellent write-up from PBL Works. The page provides useful questions to ask ourselves before going too far down the wrong path.
Planning a project with so many requirements can be overwhelming. I like to simplify a bit when working with teachers who might find the PBL Works framework to be too much. Here’s my own version of the questions I ask:
- Are the students learning something new to them in your subject area or discipline? If students are simply giving back the information you already gave them, reassess what you’re asking them to do. Structure the project to encourage inquiry, research, observation, personal interpretation, and synthesis.
- Are students learning or practicing skills with applications beyond your subject area or discipline? This might involve skills related to specific tools or technologies (typing, editing video, designing 3D objects), but should aim for skills that are not tool-dependent. You might want to target life skills such as collaboration and time management along with more narrowly focused skills (visual literacy, computational thinking, etc.).
- Are students making key decisions about the product, and are they able to showcase skills, personal preferences, or talents in the execution of this project? This important aspect of the process is essential for students to feel valued and respected, generating dignity and agency that they will carry beyond the classroom.
- Will student products be substantially different from one another? If the answers to the above questions are affirmative, it is safe to assume that each product will be different. If all student products are expected to be identical or even just resemble each other closely, this is not a project but a recipe — a glorified worksheet.
These four questions can be used as a basis for establishing more specific content, product, and process goals for the project. However, it is a good idea to finalize the project goals in collaboration with the students. Rather than imposing goals that hem students into a narrow process, develop goals with their support and collaboration. Launch a project by having a conversation about the project itself, and have students define its goals and features. What information should it use or present? What should it look like? How should it be executed? If students set the standards, they have ownership and agency. They decide what is required and what is possible, and in the process, define how it should be assessed.
Let’s look at a specific example I’ll reference in future posts in this series:
Students are learning about the water cycle by constructing a museum exhibit that teaches the audience what the water cycle is, how it works, and why everyone should know and care about it. The students have access to crafting materials as well as several code-enabled devices such as Hummingbird robotics, Makey-Makeys, LEGO WeDo sensors, and micro:bits.
To launch the project, the teacher gives students basic information about the water cycle. This could be a conversation about a traditional diagram of the evaporation/condensation/precipitation cycle. Then students are encouraged to think about the importance of water and the details of the cycle itself. What happens if any part of the cycle is interrupted? How might that even happen? Should people worry about it? Once students have some ideas, they can discuss the product and set standards supported by guidance from the teacher. Students and teachers work together to set standards for what the project should be and give minimum standards as well as descriptions or examples of outstanding products. Anything that must be included, or anything that is to be avoided, must be explicitly expressed in the goals and included in the rubric to ensure everyone knows the path to success. There should be no surprises and all criteria should be directly related to the expressed learning goals.
- The quality of the information presented in the exhibit: is it clear, complete, accurate?
- The appearance and operability of the exhibit: is it neat and attractive, easy to operate, does it operate properly?
- The process for accomplishing the work: did the team use time and resources effectively and involve equitable effort by team members?1
This co-creation of a rubric ensures everyone is clear about the agreed-upon standards. The rubric is a contract rather than an edict. Everyone complies because everyone has agreed to it. Students know exactly what to aim for and can self-assess their work as they do it. And, as the teacher gives students feedback during the execution of the project, referencing these explicit goals and standards makes the feedback a tool for growth and closing the gap between the current state of the project and the ultimate goal for the project.
1 For help with teamwork, consider an adaptation of Scrum for classroom use.