This post is #8 in a series of 10 posts that serve as extensions of the 10 chapters in Hacking Project Based Learning, which I coauthored with Erin Murphy. This post is an extension of Chapter 8, which focuses on mini-lessons. #HackingPBL
For all of the posts in the series, tap/click here.
During project based learning (PBL), or any form of inquiry-based learning, it is unlikely students will accidentally stumble upon uncovering all necessary content. Therefore, some level of direct instruction will need to be integrated into your teaching. After all…
Students can’t think critically about nothing.
This direct instruction usually takes place in the form of mini-lessons, which are strategically placed throughout the learning to provide students with relevant information at just the right time.
Planning for these mini-lessons can be an intimidating task, especially while one is already so consumed (and possibly, overwhelmed) by the job of constructing the overall PBL experience. However, help can come from one of the most unexpected and unlikely resources of all…the textbook. In fact, I have found “boring” textbook activities often times take on lives of their own when they are implemented within the context of PBL. For example, while putting together simple electrical circuits might feel like a common science experiment, this same experiment holds a lot more value when conducted after students are notified they are going to be incorporating these circuits into pinball machines.
That being said, here is the process I follow for transforming common textbook activities into project based mini-lessons.
1. Make sure the content is needed.
The mini-lesson’s content should align with what you want students to learn during the PBL unit (which should also align with your current academic standards). If you’re pulling the lesson from a textbook that is current, there is a stronger chance everything will correlate. However, there will be instances in which your textbook does not contain the necessary material. Here, don’t hesitate to incorporate lessons from elsewhere: activities found on websites, YouTube videos, apps, etc.
2. Make sure the learning is needed.
During PBL, there are generally two reasons why you would need to facilitate a mini-lesson. First, to more directly teach students content they probably won’t uncover through inquiry. These lessons are usually mapped out prior to the start of the overall PBL experience. Second, mini-lessons can emerge as a result of several students or groups struggling with the same concept. These lessons are designed reactively, while PBL is in full swing and in response to students’ actions (or, inactions).
3. Extract the mini-lesson from the textbook.
Once you’ve decided a particular textbook activity is worthy of being taught, we begin the process of extracting it from the textbook itself.
Most likely, your mini-lesson will be dead before it begins if you announce something like, “Open up your textbook to page 316 so we can complete our next activity.” So, beforehand, take the time to recreate the lesson as a worksheet that can be used in the textbook’s place.
As you recreate the lesson, here are four tips:
- Wordsmith: As you type up (or copy and paste) the words from the textbook into the handout you’re creating, don’t hesitate to simplify the verbiage, if possible. While you do want your students to experience some productive struggle as part of the inquiry process, you don’t want them to be confused as to what to do because they can’t understand what they’re reading.
- Streamline: Streamline student workflow as much as possible by paying attention to the handout’s formatting as well as what components are included. For example: instead of long paragraphs, try to use bullet points or numbering; if students will be writing on their handouts, include (more than enough) lines with proper spacing in between; if the lesson requires students to sketch, include a box (or 1×1 cell) in which this work can take place.
- Essential question: You’ll want students to make explicit connections between a mini-lesson’s content, the current project, and the current project’s essential question(s), as learning is that much more valuable when students are able to see the bigger picture to which smaller pieces of information apply. So, at the top of the handout, include the project’s essential question.
- Reflection: If you’re looking for a way for students to demonstrate higher-order thinking (which you should be), reflection is the answer. While many textbook activities contain some form of reflection, consider incorporating your own, along with or in place of what’s already there. A simple “formula” that worked for me: “Publish a blog post that describes what you learned and how it relates to the project’s essential question.”
4. Upload/Distribute your handout.
Rather than simply printing and distributing a mini-lesson handout when it’s time for the lesson, consider alternatives.
Towards the beginning of each one of my projects, I revealed to students a digital space – website, learning management system, or Google Drive folder – that contained all project-related resources: directions, rubrics, mini-lesson handouts, etc. This one stop shop or “home base” allowed for students to independently access and/or print out anything, whenever there was a need. Often times all of this content was organized according to the project’s different phases, with each phase having its own more specific driving question.
To avoid compatibility issues, all printable materials I included were either created in Google Drive or uploaded as a PDF.
In the End
If your textbook is aligned to the same content your PBL unit encompasses (which is likely), the project can drive the inquiry and higher-order thinking (which textbooks are usually not good at), while the textbook can be used as a starting point when filtering in more direct instruction.
So, when designing PBL mini-lessons (or any type of learning experiences), rather than being anti-textbook, think about how you can mold parts of this resource to best meet the needs of your students.
What do you think is the textbook’s role during project based learning? How have you incorporated mini-lessons into the overall PBL experience?
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