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I want to make something clear before we dive into this topic. I made huge mistakes in classroom management as a teacher. I let certain disruptive behaviors go unchecked because I was tired and I didn’t want to put out another fire. I had moments when I shamed a student or yelled at a class. I won’t even use the term “raise my voice” which sounds nicer. I yelled. Each time, I apologized and continued to grow. But the reality remains: I had tons of moments when I failed in this area. So, I feel a certain reticence when tackling the question, “How do I handle classroom management in a PBL unit?”

And yet, I also realize that my mistakes, as cringe-worthy as they may be, were also learning experiences. Teaching is an iterative process filled with experiments. I believe we can learn as much from the failures and mistakes as we can from the successes. So, with that in mind, I’d like to share what I learned about PBL and classroom management from my twelve years teaching middle school and my last three years working with new teachers who want to try out PBL but are nervous about the classroom management implications.

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Why Classroom Management Matters

When I was new to project-based learning, people told me to “embrace the chaos.” I tried my hardest to embrace this mindset. Our class would be a vibrant space filled with noise and chaos and movement. I told students that during our project time, they could go wherever they wanted to go and talk whenever they wanted to talk.

This lasted three days.

I had students wandering around the classroom for the entire class period, socializing with friends and never actually working on their projects. The room became ear-splittingly loud. Meanwhile, I became edgy. The chaos felt off-task at best and unsafe at worst. At one point, another teacher walked into my classroom and said, “Why did you kick Alejandro out of class? He’s normally so quiet.” But the thing is, I hadn’t kicked Alejandro out. He had walked away because he felt anxious in the chaotic space.

Alejandro wasn’t alone. I printed up a quick survey (these were the pre- Google Forms days) to see how students felt about the classroom environment. Two-thirds described having a hard time concentrating on their work.

The next morning, I had coffee with my mentor and lamented, “I thought the project was authentic. I thought I could create a student-centered environment. I thought they would just know how to behave during a project like this. But, I don’t know, maybe I’m not able to create that kind of environment.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and said, “You ever work on a project when you’re at Starbucks?”

I nodded.

“Okay, watch the people in Starbucks. What trends do you see?”

I described people sitting at the tables and occasionally standing at a tall table. They moved to get coffee, to use the restroom, and to order items. However, they weren’t running around. Instead, it was relaxed.

Although the environment was noisy, it was mostly due to the work of grinding coffee and blending beverages. Most people were talking at a reasonable volume. They followed unspoken norms that allowed for communication and work. He then challenged me to think of all the spaces where I had done my best individual and collaborative projects. These were spaces designed for communication, deep thinking, and deep work. Some of these spaces were silent and others were loud. However, they were all spaces where I could focus.

I realized something critical at that moment. If we want students to engage in authentic projects, we need to design systems and structures that facilitate collaboration and creativity. For all the talk of “embracing chaos,” it turns out classroom management is a vital part of authentic PBL.

Myths About Classroom Management and PBL

The following are some of the common myths about classroom management and PBL.

Myth #1: Structure ruins creativity

This was the myth I bought into when I first embraced the PBL process. Like I mentioned before, I created a classroom environment free of constraint. Go where you need to go. Be as loud as you need to be. Take the John Mayer route and run through the halls of your high school and scream at the top of your lungs (yes, I just paraphrased John Mayer). This came from a genuine recognition that school structures are often arbitrary and overly restrictive. However, I had gone to the opposite extreme of classroom management anarchy. I mistakenly believed in a false dichotomy between student ownership and classroom expectations.

Reality: Well-designed structures facilitate creativity

Architects often design spaces with two competing goals: craft spaces to reflect the way people will use them (starting with empathy) and create spaces that will create desired behaviors. Take Panera, for example. The physical layout reflects the need for both open and closed spaces with plenty of “breathing room.” They designed it to reflect the way people actually like to collaborate (the empathy-driven approach). However, they also have visual cues and physical structures that lead you toward specific locations the moment you walk in the door.

The same should be true of the structures in a PBL classroom. As educators, we can work like architects designing the structures that will facilitate creativity. We can start with the empathy-driven approach by asking “What would this be like to experience this as a student?”  It can help to imagine you are a student and spend some time thinking through what you might think and feel during an entire PBL Unit. You might even create student surveys to gauge what students need in order to thrive in a PBL environment.

From there, we can design systems that fit the needs of our students. For example, students need to move and they need to have the chance to stand up. However, they also need the opportunity to focus without distraction. So, we can create standing centers at the edges of the classroom. We can create physical pathways that allow for movement of materials.

However, we can also embrace the ideas of UX Design to guide students through the process. Students should be able to know where to find materials and where to go to get help. This goes beyond the physical structures. Students need to have pedagogical structures for things like brainstorming, ideating, research, and collaborative decision-making.

Myth #2: You need tons of transitions or students will be off-task

This was one of my biggest fears when starting out on my PBL journey. I had always transitioned every 15-20 minutes to prevent students from getting bored and checking out. I kept my lessons fast-paced with tight deadlines. So, when I switched to a project-based approach, I initially broke tasks down for students and kept the same tight time deadlines. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was creating a stop-and-go approach to projects. Although I wanted students to work quickly, they never truly hit a place of deep concentration because we were frantically moving from task to task, only to stop, wait for directions, and move on.

Reality: Students need to engage in deep work to hit a state of flow

Students actually accomplished more when we took out the transitions and focused on longer stretches of time to engage in the project work. This is a key idea behind what Cal Newport describes as “deep work” (I highly recommend the book), where people spend 1-3 hours without distractions. Here, they often hit a state of creative flow, where they attain hyper-concentration and fixate on their work. When this happens, they learn at a deeper level and they retain more of their knowledge.

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But these moments of flow, whether they are in groups or individually, can also work as preventative classroom management. When students focus on their projects, they are less likely to disrupt the learning.

Myth #3: An engaging project means you won’t have discipline issues

When I look back at my worst moments as a teacher (those times when I shamed a student or yelled at a class), it was almost never during a project. A well-constructed project is one of the best preventative classroom management strategies. However, it’s a myth to think that you can focus on the pedagogy and ignore classroom management. Even in your best PBL units, you will have discipline issues you need to deal address.

Reality: You need clear expectations

When you first launch a PBL unit, you will likely have students who have never experienced project-based learning. They will need to know how it works and what they are expected to do. Because it’s so different (more collaborative work, more creativity, and often more hands-on learning) you will need to clarify the expectations. You might need to generate a list of rules or norms together with your students. You will likely need to model and practice procedures with your students. The goal is to make it clear, visual, and memorable for students. Although this can feel less exciting than the actual project, it’s actually a vital part of the process.

Myth #4: PBL classrooms are noisy all the time

I get it. Some tasks are inherently noisy. It’s hard to have students doing physical prototyping in silence. The class is going to get noisy during the collaborative part of ideation. However, a project-based classroom doesn’t have to reach a deafening volume all the time.

Reality: The noise should never get in the way of the learning

It’s easy for one group to get louder and then other groups start talking louder until it slowly creeps to a level that prevents groups from working effectively. This is why it’s okay to have expectations of a general volume level during collaborative work. I’ve seen teachers use volume level charts (like a noise meter). When I taught middle school, I would do a thirty-second silent time-out when the noise got too loud. It worked like a reset button.

It also helps to create moments of strategic silence throughout a project. You might start the class period with a silent warm-up and end with a silent reflection. Or you might break up the project process to have students engage in silent thinking or quick writes to boost metacognition. You can also embed quiet individual tasks into the project process. For example, students can engage in individual research to gain extra background knowledge. During the ideation process, students can brainstorm in isolation before meeting with their groups. They can also create their own SWOT assessments on their own before meeting with their groups to test and revise prototypes.

Myth #5: You need a system of punishments and rewards to keep group members accountable

We’ve all been there before. You do a group project and suddenly one member disappears. Another member has tons of opinions and ideas but doesn’t want to do any of the work. So, you end up doing the entire project by yourself. For this reason, it’s tempting to create rigid rules and consequences for group members in PBL units.

Reality: The best accountability is interdependence

There is a time and a place for external accountability. PBL expert Trevor Muir has students sign group accountability contracts at the start of each PBL unit. However, I’ve found that students are more accountable to one another when they have to work interdependently on their projects. Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas.

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I often think of the LAUNCH Cycle as a roadmap for interdependent student ownership in creative projects. Here’s what this looks like:

  • Students tap into their own awareness and background knowledge during the Look, Listen, and Learn phase. Here, each member has the opportunity to share what they already know.
  • Students own the inquiry process as they ask specific questions in the Ask Tons of Questions phase. Each member can contribute their own questions to the entire group’s set of questions. Each member can add questions, regardless of their skill level or prior knowledge.
  • Students work interdependently to find specific facts in the research phase.
  • Students are generating their own ideas individually before engaging in the Navitage Ideas (group ideation) phase.
  • Each member of the group has a different role in the project management process and they all discuss progress collectively as a group
  • Every student has the opportunity to engage in assessment in the Highlight and Fix phase. I love the interdependence of the 20-minute peer feedback system here.

Being Proactive About Classroom Management

  1. Think about the procedures you will need to teach ahead of time.  What procedures and expectations will you need to teach ahead of time? How will students get materials? How will you handle noise? How will you handle movement? Are groups allowed to talk to one another? If so, what does that process look like? How will you handle students finishing at different rates? What kinds of “brain breaks” will you offer to students who need to walk away from their projects? How will you help students define these expectations together as a classroom community?
  2. Think about the space. How will you differentiate the space for different tasks? How will you design spaces for different types of learning? What will you do to encourage a free flow of movement? What visual cues will you create to help students navigate the space? What materials will you use? Where will you store these materials? Where will students put their physical products when they leave the class period (or move on to a new subject)? It helps hear to do an empathy exercise where you picture yourself as a student and ask what a student might be feeling or thinking.
  3. Think about the roles within the classroom. What types of group roles will you have?  How will your role change as a teacher? How will you spend your time when students are in the prototyping phase?
  4. Consider how you might communicate this shift to stakeholders. Are you comfortable having administrators and other leaders walking into your classroom during the prototyping phase? What kinds of fears might certain teachers face if they saw something that looked chaotic? What do you need to do to communicate the PBL process to parents/guardians, fellow staff members, and administrators?

Classroom management can actually be easier in a PBL classroom. With increased engagement and clear expectations, you often find yourself doing student-teacher conferences rather than redirecting behaviors. However, this requires an intentional, proactive classroom management plan. When this happens, all students are able to work collaboratively and creatively on the epic projects you have designed for them.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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