Middle school boys: Suave; Savvy; Sanguine; Scholarly; Skilled; Superior. Just ask them. They’ll tell you! School? It’s a place to socialize and play sports. Teachers? Are there for their sport. Learning? No need. They know it all already. How do we, as educators, break through the barriers they’ve erected and help them realize there’s more to learn, and convince them that they actually want to learn it?
I believe the answer lies in getting into the psyche of a middle school boy, and trying to understand from his perspective what would be engaging and motivating.
Suave. Image is everything to them! They want to be cool.
Savvy. They want know-how. They want to exude confidence.
Sanguine. They are social. Talkers. They want attention. Lots of attention!
Scholarly. They want to come across as smart and knowledgeable.
Skilled. They want to be experts and perceived as very capable.
Superior. They want agency. Not governance. They want to be in control and in charge.
Is it possible in the classroom setting to meet the needs of these pre-teen boys while still meeting our curricular goals for them? Absolutely! How? Through Project-Based Learning.
Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is designed to engage the unengaged, motivate the unmotivated and reach students who seem otherwise unreachable. There are seven essential elements to PBL project design: A challenging problem or question; sustained inquiry; authenticity; student voice and choice; reflection; critique and revision; and a public product. By their very nature, these seven design elements address the needs of our middle school boys and engage them in their learning in a way that no other methodology does so completely.
In PBL, we start with a Driving Question (DQ). This is a meaningful problem to be solved or a question to be answered that is at the appropriate level of challenge for our students. This question is not “googleable”! There is no existing answer. No two answers will be identical. The only way to answer the question is through something the students create. In my school, our boys ponder such questions as: What can I do to get into the
‘Making a Difference’ Wax Museum considering my future career path? How can we, as members of our local community, volunteer to give back to the city or school community? What simple solution can we create to solve an everyday problem? How can we, as government leaders and economists, best develop a newly discovered island into a country that would encourage immigration to it? The DQ and its resolution are
thought-provoking and student-centered. This piques their curiosity and dangles a proverbial carrot in front of them that entices them to investigate further how they can create something of significance. It puts them in the driver’s seat.
Once their appetite has been whetted, we hook them. We ask them to ponder the question and come up with a list of “need to-knows” in order to be able to answer the question. These “need-to-knows” can fall into several different categories: vocabulary, content, context, project requirements, etc. In our above examples of DQ’s, some “need-to-know” questions might be: What is a career path? How does someone get into a wax museum? What is a community? If we’re being asked to ‘give back’ to it, does that mean it’s giving something to us? How can I, as a student, create a solution for an everyday problem? I know what I’m interested in, but who can help me? What’s an economist? What encourages immigration? And so on. The key lies in having the questions be student-generated. Get the gears turning! Start them thinking. Have them connect personally to the material.
Now they’re hooked. There’s more they need to know. There’s more they want to know! We build on their curiosity. Now they’re learning to satisfy their own thirst for knowledge, not because someone is pouring information down their throat. We encourage them to keep asking questions, to explore, and to think deeply. We present information to them as answers to their questions, as assistance to enable them to answer the DQ. We encourage them to research topics that are important to them. We set ourselves up as “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” This actually fosters more connection between teachers and students as we learn more about their individual interests and styles and confer with them one on one. We also learn more of their trust as we collaborate with them rather than dictate to them.
Our Driving Question places the content of the material being covered into a real-world context. The one question you won’t hear in a well-designed, gold-standard PBL unit is “Why do we have to learn this?!?” By making the material relevant to them, by speaking to their personal concerns and interests, by giving them authentic tasks and tools, and by having them connect with actual “experts” from outside of the school community, the boys are awakened to the fact that their learning is relevant and meaningful. That it has context outside the pages of their textbooks and the four walls of their classroom. They too can be important and make a difference. And that makes all the difference!
“I’m content to do exactly what you want me to do; I have no opinion on the matter,” said no pre-adolescent male to his teacher, ever. Our boys want to be heard. They want some control. So much of what goes on in their lives is mandated, and they are forced to toe the line or suffer the consequences. Or toe the line and suffer the consequences, in their perspective. They are assigned to a class by school administrators. They have no say about which boys they’d like to be with. They must follow the school’s daily schedule, like it or not. Dress code – mandated. Lunches – either the school is serving or their parents are making, but they have very little, if any, say in the matter. Indoor or outdoor recess – not in their control.
As preteens, these boys are at a stage of development which requires them to meet and master certain psychosocial tasks such as becoming independent and making their own decisions, and learning to focus their ambitions in their futures. How can they do that if they are never given opportunities to do that?! That’s where student voice and choice come in. We don’t fully give over the reins to students who are not yet capable of complete self-governance. We give them opportunities to practice making decisions for themselves where the stakes are low, but the payoff is huge! And as we all know, practice makes…better. We can conduct a survey to find out what they’re really interested in. We can create a list of product options with the students. We can provide a “menu” of tasks that all need to be completed, but students can choose the order in which to complete them. We must remember to include “voice” too, not just “choice.” We must give them opportunities to literally have their voices heard: Share their opinions; debate ideas; become the expert and teach others; reflect and give feedback to others.
Voice and choice is usually the design element that meets with the most resistance from teachers. Teachers fear the perceived consequences: They will be viewed as abdicating their responsibilities. Students won’t make responsible choices. Chaos will reign. In reality, teachers must realize that they are not being asked to forfeit control of everything. Too many choices can be overwhelming and paralyzing for students. This is about providing scaffolding – training opportunities within a safe framework to allow students to take risks and make mistakes while strengthening their decision-making skills. Furthermore, within the framework of authenticity, voice and choice must be limited at times just like in the real world. Adults often work under numerous constraints: We can’t always choose our co-workers or partners on projects and we’re limited by budgets, deadlines, guidelines, etc. As teacher facilitators, it is incumbent upon us to consider the purpose of giving our students voice and choice, and not just offer it because it’s what the boys want, or what we think we’re ‘supposed to do’ in PBL.
Reflection should be ongoing throughout the project, not just reserved for the end. Students who can explain why a task is important to the completion of their project are integrating new knowledge with prior knowledge and experience. They are sharpening their analytical skills and expressing deepened learning. They are taking ownership. They are learning to take pride. They are learning to understand themselves better – what works for them and what doesn’t; what their learning styles are; what their strengths are and how they best contribute to a group. They are learning that their ‘voice’ is important – that teachers actually want to hear their opinions! We demonstrate for them that after we act, we think about our actions and their outcomes, and that helps inform us about future undertakings. Especially as frum Jews, isn’t this a skill we want to inculcate in our boys? Why wait until Rosh Hashana to embark on a major cheshbon hanefesh? Wouldn’t it be beneficial if we train our students to take stock of their actions frequently and regularly, in all aspects of their lives? Reflection puts the locus of responsibility back where it belongs – internally.
“One and done” has become a popular catchphrase of our generation, and a fixed mindset among our students. Our boys want to do the bare minimum to satisfy the requirements of any assignment, not prolong the agony of dealing with it! They want to do it, turn it in, and be done with it. The end. While that may satisfy them in the short term, what about their underlying need to be perceived as smart and skilled? The last thing our boys want is to have their shortcomings on display and detract from their “perfect” image. They secretly dread being made fun of for silly spelling errors or misinformation. They want to be taken seriously. The truth is, if the boys know they are going to be presenting their product to an audience, they want us to help them make sure they won’t be embarrassed. However, they don’t necessarily want to do the work involved to perfect their product.
What if we made that process routine? What if it was as much a part of their schoolwork as it is a part of their sports? How many hours are boys willing to spend shooting a ball into a basket over and over and over again to perfect their shot – and look cool doing it? What if we had them really believing that if they put half as much effort into perfecting their presentations, they would feel as cool and confident as any pro? What if we taught them to take pride in producing quality work? And that if they really mastered their material, people will give careful consideration to their ideas and they’ll be taken seriously. Also, if we give them opportunities to practice with their peers and teachers, it will give them the confidence they need to communicate comfortably and appropriately with adults who may be outside their comfort zone.
What if we made it meaningful? What if we taught them norms that gave them a surefire script, they could follow in all their communications with others? What if we were indoctrinating them with middos while also imbuing them with resilience? The process of critique and revision done well provides for all of that. It teaches them to first look for the positives in others and compliment them on it. It teaches them how to
receive genuine praise and not react with false ‘humility.’ It teaches them how to gently correct and redirect if someone is missing the mark, in a way that makes it clear that they are “on their team” and trying to help them succeed. We ingrain in them that being critiqued does not mean being criticized! That we can tolerate being told we’re not perfect, and still not fall apart. All of these concepts are rooted in Torah and mussar and are essential psychological precepts as well. These are skills that do not come naturally to today’s generation, but are invaluable, vital skills that all the more so must be modeled, taught step by step, and practiced repeatedly if we are to hope they will grow into mature adults with a healthy sense of self-esteem.
Having a public product ups the ante for students and inherently puts pressure on them to do higher quality work. No one wants to look bad in public, especially not middle school, image-conscious boys. When boys are just required to turn in their work to the teacher or make a presentation to their classmates, they typically don’t care as much as they do when sharing their work with people from the “real world.” Additionally, this is the rare opportunity for them to meet the needs we outlined above: They get to interact with adults in a way that allows them to steer. They are the experts! They get to strut their stuff – in a positive way. If they are well-prepared, they can present with confidence and competence. A public product has an additional benefit for the school: it’s good public relations. It’s impressive to parents, community members and people in the world at large when they see high-quality student work in a project. The school’s test scores might tell the story, but student pride, passion, empowerment, and enthusiasm illustrate it and make the story come alive.
Aside from the seven design elements of PBL, its central focus is on key knowledge, understanding and success skills. While all our projects are designed around meeting grade-level common core standards, that’s not what makes PBL stand out. Knowledge – and even understanding – can be imparted in many traditional ways. What’s unique about PBL is the way it weaves success skills in with knowledge and understanding, and has lasting value way beyond the classroom. Our boys who participate in PBL units learn to take initiative, work responsibly, self-manage, problem-solve, collaborate and communicate ideas effectively. They learn to apply knowledge to novel situations. These are 21st century skills that are valued highly in today’s world. PBL delivers a well-rounded, mind-expanding educational experience. I speak not from theory, but from experience. I recently went to view an exhibition night produced by our 8th grade boys and took the opportunity to speak with many of them individually to get their reflections on their work. There was passion in their voices, and a genuine pride in what they produced. One boy was eager to tell me that he spent over 20 minutes trying to figure out how to create the stand on which to display his model – and he was motivated to stick with it until he’d figured it out because that’s what he learned to do from participating in Invention Convention in 6th grade!
I know firsthand how difficult it can be to engage and motivate our boys and have them produce quality work. And that’s exactly why it’s so important for the school’s leadership to encourage and support the PBL methodology which imparts these lessons to them when they’re young and still malleable. Despite all their ‘kvetching’ and (feigned) indifference, it’s obvious that these boys are learning content and skills, and most importantly, learning to have faith in themselves! What we invest in them now will b’ezras Hashem continue to pay dividends in innumerable ways in the future.
Huvie Schabes, PBL Coach, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. Mrs. Schabes has been involved in chinuch habanim v’habanos in both Judaic and General Studies for over 25 years k”h. firstname.lastname@example.org