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How Do You Know When Your Project-Based Lesson is Really Higher Order?


When I started teaching middle school science, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a premium placed on being able to display student work in the classroom. My principal wanted to see it, my peer coach would come looking for it, parents liked to see it. And let’s face it, a classroom with lots of colorful student work on the walls inside and outside my classroom looks good. So even though I was blessed with a dedicated laptop cart that I used extensively, I also had my students do a lot of their creation work by hand. One of the projects that I had my students do was to create a giant periodic table with pictures of each element and a detail page behind each picture. As a class we spent a full week working on it, and the students loved it. Everyone contributed and when it was done it was awesome! But despite the “creative” aspect (top level of Bloom’s!), and the accolades I got from administrators, teachers and parents, when we were all done I knew that it really was not higher-order learning. I thought about a number of ways to improve it and increase the rigor, but ended up doing a different type of project the next year that wasn’t so flashy, but was a better way to get my students to think deeply.


I thought back to that experience when I listened to a recent podcast from Jennifer Gonzalez of Cult of Pedagogy. I’m a big fan of CoP and back in May she did a podcast called “Is That Higher Order Task Really Higher Order.” In it, Jennifer talks about a type of project called “The Grecian Urn” which is a project that looks great but consume a lot more time than in gives back in learning. You can learn more about that type of project in an earlier podcast called “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn.”


The lesson that I learned from my Periodic Table project, and was reminded about in the podcast, is that a classroom project can look good, can engage students, and can create some awesome artifacts for display, but can still not challenge students to think deeply and engage in higher order learning. Technology projects often fit this example - if students are spending more time learning how to use the technology than they are actually engaging in critical and creative thinking, then the technology is not adding any value, it may actually be taking it away. Some of the very best project-based learning activities don’t use any technology at all, they engage students in collaborative work that involved talking, drawing, writing, designing, planting and building. This is important for us all to realize and something that we think about a lot at Kaʻana Solutions. Technology is only a useful tool when it allows us to engage in deeper learning, through collaboration and creative endeavors.

Jenniferʻs podcast is a thoughtful look at what higher-order learning is all about, and how to design rigorous project-based learning. For teachers who are interested in upping the rigor of project-based lessons, one thing to try is sharing lessons with each other and providing feedback. Where are the opportunities to raise the rigor, to make the learning higher-order? Through this process you can avoid the Grecian Urn, and avoid deploying technology when itʻs not necessary. Feel free to share more of your ideas in the comments section below!

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