What We Tried, What We Learned About Project Based Learning in Denver

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(Part 2 of 2)

For the past year, 13 after-school sites within Denver have been working to implement quality programming integrating Project Based Learning (PBL) concepts into daily activities. Recently, my colleagues and I reviewed activity plans across the 13 sites and, to our disappointment, many of our projects fell short of expectations.

Some did not have components of PBL, and some were not projects at all, but single-day activities masked under an overarching theme (in order to make a project seem to be sustained over more than one day). Furthermore, choice was heavily limited and most were activities that all students “had” to do.

Surprisingly, the “I am just doing this because I have to” attitude even existed among staff who were implementing PBL in their programs. This, after a full year’s work of teaching PBL concepts to increase program quality, was extremely disheartening. We continue to struggle with how to help staff understand the concepts and importance of PBL as quality programming.

It is important to note that many sites are implementing the desired components of PBL and creating projects the students get excited for every day; some sites are even exceeding our expectations. However, the frustration was to not see steady growth across all our sites. Instead, site improvement was based off the level of understanding of site leaders and their interest and skills, not predominantly from any systems, training or professional development we offered.

These frustrations led to the conclusion that our programs cannot, in fact, support a full implementation of PBL because of multiple hurdles. Some of these hurdles include:

  • The skills, education and knowledge of front-line program staff
  • The knowledge and experience of those training and supporting staff
  • High turnover rates among staff
  • Part-time, split-shift jobs that are not conducive to professional development
  • Conflicting ideas and practices, at all program levels, of what after-school programs should look like and offer students
  • No standardized activity plan
  • No standardized process to evaluate activity plans.

In order to address these challenges, we are making changes. We plan to simplify and only teach the necessary and most desired components of PBL, making sure that they are relatable to current practices. We created a standardized activity plan, piloted it, vetted it and implemented it. Following that, a process to intentionally review activity plans by staff and supervisors and observing it in action will be rolled out.

Training will be rethought to focus more time on our full-time site leaders, which is best practices in any out-of-school time setting, as they are most often full-time staff and traditionally turn over less than onsite staff. Site leaders can then pass learning on to their staff. Better support and more consistent implementation will, hopefully, create buy-in to the PBL method. We will work to implement PBL components if, and only if, a site is prepared to try it. With this plan and process we are confident PBL and our activities will show steady growth across our sites.

What redesigned activities look like to us

So, what do redesigned activities look like in an after-school program? Instead of following the same cookie-cutter, step-by-step project, students can break away and choose what activity they would like to do based off a topic or theme. Within that activity they have the ability to create a piece of work, a product, in a way that is unique to them. Students will have access to a variety of materials from art supplies to books to computer software to create their project.

[Related: Part 1 - How to Redefine Structured After-school Activities So Kids Will Be Engaged]

As an example, a common activity I have seen at sites is students creating animal masks based off an animal they like. I call this the cute bunny mask project, and some of us may have led this activity at least once, myself included. In this activity, students are given a paper plate, markers and pictures of animals to gather ideas from.

What we see are kindergartners through second graders sitting at their cafeteria tables with crayons in hand coloring away and following the step-by-step process to make the paper plate mask. An ear here, a nose there, maybe a few whiskers made from popsicle sticks and yarn. Some students are enjoying this, some have already completed the activity, some are staring at the Legos waiting for free time, and most of the fourth and fifth graders are disengaged, distracting others or pretending to do homework as an excuse to talk with their friends. This level of engagement is not ideal, and there are some simple steps we can take to redesign this activity.

First, let’s name it something students will find interesting, like the “Art of Mask Making.” The mask can be something that may resemble a real character such as Spiderman or a tiger, or it could be an abstract mask that may not resemble a mask at all, but is unique to them. The only stipulation is that we are making masks. Then let’s have our cookie-cutter template project in our back pocket for those who may need a little assistance getting started or deciding what to do, especially younger students. Add some different materials such as clay, paper-mache, fabric and a sewing machine (yes, even kindergartners can sew and they love it), and maybe even a few computers with design software and a 3-D printer for students’ final products.

Now we do an overview of all the different ways students can make a mask and let them know they can make any mask in any way they would like using the materials provided; they can even blend and combine different materials and methods. We have given instructions, or made available knowledgeable staff, on how to use each of these products and have books and computers available for students to research and plan what they want to make and create the design they want. Typically, activities will run four days, with the first day the students planning, the second and third students creating their product, and the last day students reflecting and revising or presenting their end product.

The most important difference between the first and second activity scenarios is that students are given a topic and it is up to the students how they would like to show their mastery of the subject. If the students are struggling with where to start or need an idea, we provide students with a cookie-cutter project where they can follow directions and scaffold them toward creating a project on their own, or better yet, help them plan and brainstorm ideas on how they would like to get started.

With a variety of materials and the right staff members, we are confident that a student will find their niche in how they would like to create their final product in an activity, which is ultimately unique to them. Throughout the project timeline staff will ask students to share progress and ideas with other students, and give feedback on each other’s work. As long as the student is staying engaged, learning and having fun, it does not matter how they do an activity; it does not matter if they build a model of a car, paint one or create a board game about cars.

Does the success of a well-done project have to do with how closely they can replicate the design of the staff member’s final product? No. The foundation of a successful activity is that students have a say in their work beyond the choice of what color they will use, but authentic choice, where the final product represents the research, planning and choices students made to get to the final product. This process creates the ability for students to learn critical thinking, planning and design skills in a way that they enjoy and empowers them to think on their own.

After-school programs give students the opportunity to succeed in a setting with low risk, no grades and choice within activities. Redesigning after-school activities in the ways I have outlined will provide an opportunity for students to explore their sense of wonder and creativity, increase program quality and student learning, and consistently make activities fun for our students.

With the flexibility provided by after-school programing we should take advantage and move away from single activities where students follow step-by-step guidelines to ones that are more challenging and exciting. With time, resources and investment in professional development, we can infuse curriculum, such as PBL, into our activities creating better, more engaging, activities and increasing learning for all our students.

Omid Amini lives in Denver, working with Denver Public School in the OST field providing support to various school implement and sustaining high-quality programming.