Many times in project-based learning, it is called the “messy middle“. This is the time after the project has been launched, students identify need to knows, groups develop norms, and scaffolding has commenced. Now, this framework will focus on strategies team teachers (two teachers, two content areas, one class) can use to design a coherent approach to scaffolding student success, but can be used by any project-based learning facilitator.
Before We Start
Planning in a team teaching environment can be just as much a marriage as it is an intense business negotiation. Each teacher needs to make compromises, swallow some pride, and become experts in their counterpart’s discipline. Before even thinking about the project planning process, it is vital that the team teaching pair create a shared set of agreements and norms. (see example below)
Now I know some team teachers will say, “we get along great, we don’t need to write it down” or “this is a waste of time, let’s just get started”. However, this process will provide a centralized reference point for when things get difficult. It becomes less about the other person’s opinion and more about the agreements each partner has committed to.
Research shows that teenagers have very short attention spans. This data should inform the way we structure the scaffolding supports we offer students, but many times our actions go against the research. By approaching the “messy middle” through the lens of learning modalities instead of by activity, will allow team teachers (and all teachers) to adequately design scaffolds that fit the type of modality they wish students to engage in. Many times, team taught classes can have 50+ students in the room and that can be a daunting challenge for even two teachers to tackle. The following framework will help the teaching pair think through their approach to project design and implementation.
Learning Organization Modalities
Now you can create fancy names or themes to plug these modalities into, but for the time being, I will be straightforward about outlining the options. With that being said, I will not address both entry and exit opportunities for students, as those are valuable, but are exclusive of this conversation. The following five structures can help you better organize your approach to creating opportunities for student voice and choice, develop sustained inquiry over time, and assess both individual and group contributions to the project.
- Whole Group
This modality should only be used when necessary. This is when all students are engaged in the same activity at the same time. One pitfall we encounter with the whole group modality is teachers generally rely on frontal instruction or give unstructured work time. Here is a great piece from Rigorous PBL by Design author Michael McDowell that highlights the need for direct instruction in PBL, but warns against confusing it with frontal instruction.
- Split Class
This modality is when one teacher takes half the class for an activity, the other teacher takes the other half, and then the groups switch. This modality allows for equal focus for each teacher to support all students. No again, let’s not get this confused with each teacher taking half to go lecture and then switch. The scaffolding activities in a split class setting can be of a wide variety. For example, one teacher might lead a workshop on citing resources, while the other teacher guides students editing their videos for the culminating event.
Stations can be an effective way to organize multiple scaffolding activities into a single learning opportunity for students. In the station modality, 3-5 station activities are created for students to engage in moving forward with their need to knows to answer the driving question. Teachers can take on a variety of roles during stations. They might facilitate a station, serve as a coach for a scaffold, or rotate around the room from station to station. Here is a great post from educator, Catlin Tucker on shaking up the rotation station model.
- Breakout Workshop
In this modality, targeted instruction or scaffolding is provided to a specific group of students for a very specific purpose. Breakout workshops can be optional or mandatory. For example, during the first benchmark of the project, team teachers might have identified 15 students that need additional support on applying ecosystems to the project context. One teacher stays with the larger group, while one teacher facilitates the breakout. Here is a great resource from MindTools with things to consider when planning a breakout workshop.
Last, but not least is conferencing. In this modality again, one or both teachers might conference with individuals or groups to provide feedback. Conferencing is a great modality to use when groups are prototyping or applying their learning. Depending on if one or both teachers are conferencing will impact how you would want to design and what tools you give the rest of the groups to use to progress through the specific phase of the project.
I know that this is not an exhaustive list of modalities to use when managing the “messy middle” of project-based learning. However, it is important for team teachers (and all teachers) to have a coherent structure to navigate what modality best serves the need to knows students have at that point in a project to successful engage and deepen the learning that occurs in a project.