Refining the plan

Why should I spend time refining the project-based learning unit before I teach it?

Project plans and ideas can be enhanced through a process of critique, refinement and reflection.

This concept of refinement is underpinned to two key principles

  1. Working together can produce better work than working in isolation.
  2. Every piece of work can be improved through more time, thought and effort.

In order to create high-quality PBL units, it is important to understand the importance of sharing work and welcoming feedback. This process can be unnerving as both a personal process and a collaborative process and requires courage and support.

This process models and reflects the processes of refinement and feedback that we expect students to undertake when engaging in PBL. Through tuning protocols through the use of feedback, and by doing the project themselves, teachers and school leaders can produce higher quality PBL experiences for and with students.

A tuning protocol is a structured process or set of guidelines for a conversation. In education, protocols typically involve a small group of teachers and aim to promote collegial, efficient communication and powerful, purposeful learning. 

Teachers participate either by presenting, facilitating, or consulting during the protocol and, ultimately, create a culture of trust and respect necessary for collaboration and innovation.

Protocols provide structures that build skills and culture, increase the quality of work and enhance learning for students. Most protocols specify a time to listen carefully and a time to respond appreciatively without feeling vulnerable or defensive they direct critique, feedback dialogue, and reflection through practice. 

Protocols make it safe for colleagues to ask challenging questions of each other and build trust by supporting teachers to do meaningful work together.

See ‘Collaborative Protocols’ document for details about the protocols that you may find helpful.

Establishing systems and practices for giving and receiving feedback will help to make this process a normal part of planning within your school community. This should help the feedback process become embedded in everyday practice for both teachers and students.

There are a number of resources available to support the development of these practices and a few common principles that are helpful to follow.

Once example by Ron Berger describes effective feedback as being 'kind', 'specific' and 'helpful'. Establishing these basic ground rules and expectations provides a simple framework for feedback.

Setting up a Gallery Walk with colleagues to get feedback on a specific aspect of your PBL plan or the overview in its entirety provides an opportunity for anonymous feedback.

Simply using sentence starters such as 'I like' or 'I wonder' provide a common language with which to give feedback and ask probing or clarifying questions.

Any time you receive feedback it is important to allow time to take on board the feedback and respond to it.

When receiving feedback from colleagues, there are opportunities to ask follow up questions, gather some feedforward about the ways in which it could be improved, and investigate other ideas they have. These ideas help to refine the PBL outline before it is put into action with students.

Doing the project yourself, at least in scaled-down version, may help you to prepare yourself to support students in identifying what equipment, learning activities or resources may be required in order for the PBL to run well.

As you work through the project or particular products within your project, you should identify possible checkpoints or milestones for assessment potential. Also, if you find that you need specific resources or technology to complete a task, you could create scaffolds or pre-organise the resources your students will need.

It should be noted that this process is not always necessary. As you become more comfortable with the PBL process and students take more ownership for the learning and the steps involved it may be impossible for you to predict what the PBL will entail and you will not be able to do the project yourself.

"I always do the project myself first. That way, I can see if it is feasible and worthwhile and if it looks good. If I can't do a good job on it, then I figure the students will be at a serious disadvantage." – Jeff Robin, High Tech High

Further reading and resources

Ron Berger explains the key principles of critique in this video.

Seven Keys to Effective Feedback by Grant Wiggins – an article exploring the principles of effective feedback, aimed at teachers providing feedback to students but equally applicable for teachers providing feedback to colleagues.

Using Gallery Walks for revision and reflection: PBL Works blog about using Gallery Walks, includes a link to a webinar.

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