Managing Project-Based Learning – A collaboration with Stephan Hughes (the first of many, hopefully)


Implementing project-based learning in a content-based syllabus has become the order du jour in educational contexts in general and in ELT in particular. Academic directors and coordinators face the responsibility of delivering meaningful, student-driven, student-generated learning opportunities, which, in turn, will foster the much sought-after skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. This post outlines my role as coordinator responsible for implementing projects in a language centre as a prelude to André Hedlund’s narrative of his experience with projects at CCBEU Goiânia.

Based on the core design elements of PBL, the text analyses, therefore, the implications in managing projects and ensuring minimal success. The first important point to consider in any project-based or program-oriented learning program is success and failure co-exist – we expect students to achieve pre-established goals while at the same time are prepared to redesign the project if the steps do not go as planned. PBL makes room for activities to take different turns in accordance with the profile of the teacher and students involved. This is why any project used in a learning context must have the so-called EVALUATION stage, in which teacher, students and other stakeholders give their appraisal of how well the project achieved its original goals.

That said, as someone acting in the back office, I believe there are nine stages prior to the Evaluation mentioned above.

CONCEPTUALIZATION – As coordinators, we have to apprehend the rationale in order to clarify teachers’ questions and allay their fears especially if they have never done anything like that before.

TIMETABLE FIT – We have to find room for these new project-based activities in a pre-established schedule/outline based on content

TAILORING AND PARAMETRIZATION – The next step involves choosing themes relevant to the age groups and in line with national or international standards, e.g. The UN Global Goals

DEFINING REACH AND IMPACT – We need to think how such a project can cause an impact on learners’ life skills, on family, on the school, and on society.

BENCHMARKING – Looking at what other schools or groups are doing can make a huge difference in the design and relevance.

DEFINING ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES – Knowing who is responsible for what and how these roles interweave is a must for the coordinator

DESIGNING A WORKFLOW – The coordinator can do this in advance or can work in tandem with teachers and/or students to determine the number of tasks and the time each task will take over the course of the period.

CHOOSING COMMUNICATION TOOLS – in the age of instant communication, using online tools and apps can be the key to meeting the initial expectations

MONITORING PROGRESS – The online apps above can also facilitate status updates and adjustments along the way instead of at the end of the project

EVALUATING RESULTS – Everyone directly involved should have a chance to assess the effectiveness of the project and to reflect on what they gained from the experience.

My Experience at CCBEU Goiânia

This section will attempt to illustrate Stephan Hughes’ thorough introduction through the experience I’ve been conducting at my school in Goiânia and align it with his nine stages. However, before I dare explore the subject in more detail, I must highlight 3 impediments that kept me from successfully implementing PBL last semester. These are insights I gained the hard way and cannot be taken lightly if success is what you are after:

  1. PBL means long-term commitment. Having your students work on a project that will be designed, executed and exhibited in a week or even a month is not the idea behind PBL.
  2. PBL is all about them. When you are the one who picks the project and tells them what each one needs to do, you are certainly missing the point of what PBL means. The project will arise from your students and only then will they be able to call it THEIR project.
  3. Will the transition be smooth? Don’t take it to the bank. It takes time to get your students in the PBL framework and the key aspect that helped me was to share with them as much as possible about PBL
  4. PBL should impact their communities, be it local, regional or global. There should be an external audience that will follow what they are doing and learn from it.

As a teacher, unlike Stephan’s role in this entry, I had to make sure my students felt prepared to embark on the PBL journey. I carefully chose articles, videos, and interviews that promoted a view I profoundly believe in, that of PBL as a learning catalyst. In order to do so, in the first three weeks of class, I showed examples of schools that had successfully used PBL and how that affected learning outcomes (BENCHMARKING). We also discussed the Brazilian educational reality (with saddening international ranking statistics) and my students started to think critically about what our content-based schooling system has been promoting. Little by little, through PBL’s own tools, such as investigation, collaboration, and critical thinking, they realized that working with projects, rather than memorizing absolute truths to pass a standardized test, had a real-life connection.

Then we established three phases (TIMETABLE FIT): Phase I: CONCEPTUALIZATION, DEFINING ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES, Strategic Planning (August- beginning of September); Phase II: Execution, MONITORING PROGRESS, and guidance/correction/feedback (September – Beginning of November); Phase III: Exhibition and EVALUATION RESULTS (end of November).

On phase I, every group had the responsibility of doing something groups rarely do. They had to look at their Scope & Sequence and brainstorm how to conceptualize a project that would take into account the communicative functions and the related grammar structures and vocabulary they were supposed to know by the end of the semester. It was a fun and rewarding challenge. My most advanced groups (with older students) took control of their learning and discussed, as a coherent team, what they could do. It felt like I was in a business meeting witnessing the birth of an innovative idea or product. I taught them the 5W2H (why, what, where, when, who, how, how much/many) technique and they drew a table on the whiteboard and communicated their thoughts and feelings, appreciating the fact that they were given a say and, consequently, a powerful voice (TAILORING AND PARAMETRIZATION). I became a wingman, sitting in a corner, simply adjusting things.

DEFINING REACH AND IMPACT: I saw a clever and dedicated girl conduct the symphony from the board with my 13-color markers.  She has what it takes to be a leader. I observed a young adult who had always looked a bit uninspired and exhausted go on for minutes and more minutes about why they should write a book and how they could do it. He could certainly be a successful author or movie producer.  I watched four young people transform what their book offered into a voyage in the depths of love and how it is celebrated around the world, how the local media cover it, and how they can help people find it. I can see them as future journalists, project managers, psychologists, and, to be honest, whatever makes them want to put a ding in the universe.

Well, here are the projects according to their levels and based on their syllabus:

CEFR-A1 (10yo) – People Around the World – Page comparing different people’s habits

CEFR-A2 (13yo) – My City, Your City – Page comparing what cities in the word offer

CEFR – B1 (15yo) – All You Need is Love – Report on how love is celebrated around the world

CEFR – B1 (adults) – Not Just another Book – Literary book based on the units of their book

CEFR – B2 (16yo) – Life TML – Instagram Account about travel, culture, learning, and society

Phase II is about making things happen. They have their project idea, their plan, the tools they need to communicate with each other via WhatsApp or Edmodo (CHOOSING COMMUNICATION TOOL), and the right motivation. Now, to make their projects flourish, and reinforce the PBL schema in their minds, I had to make some adaptations in the structure of my lesson. I moved from the PPP framework to this 7-stage framework that places a lot of emphasis on investigation:

  1. Conversation (7 – 10 min): We discuss 6 topics that will help them brainstorm and add something to their project;
  2. Revision (5 – 7 min): We actively retrieve what was done in the previous lesson in order for them to keep track of their progress;
  3. Problem (5 -7 min): I show them a prompt (normally a photo) to provoke an insight. This will be the problem they need to solve by the end of the lesson. It is related to their project and, obviously, their book;
  4. Inquiry (10 -12 min): This is the moment for questioning. I normally write 5 questions that will help them think about strategies to solve the problem and encourage them to ask me as many questions as possible;
  5. Investigation (25 – 35 min): This is the most important and communicative part of the lesson. They need to use whatever tools they have in hand (worksheet, cell phone, book, each other, magazine, video) to come up with possible solutions to the problem;
  6. Exhibition and Extension (15 – 20 min): They share their findings and suggest possible solutions. I make recommendations and ask the other groups (in case there are any) to do the same. Then I point out possible extended work with links, references, and ideas (this is how I call homework nowadays);
  7. Wrap up (2 – 5 min): We reflect on our lesson and whether each one played the role they were supposed to. We also establish our next steps;

Stages 3 to 6 are vital to PBL. That’s when our students are provided with the time to engage in their projects during our lesson. However, a major part of the project needs to be developed outside the school, thus maximizing their contact with the language.

So far that’s what we have. I honestly feel that most of the students are excited to be working on their project and that their learning outcomes have improved. We need to work hard for two months now to be able to present our projects to the community and, naturally, their parents. That’s when I’ll be better able to assess how much PBL has contributed to their learning. For now, I’ll leave you with some photos of the process and an invitation to give PBL a shot.

My CEFR-B1+ has already started posting on Instagram.
My CEFR-A2 is investigating how long it takes to get to places in some of the cities they chose.
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