You and your students are in the middle of discussing plans to help a few local businesses improve sustainability practices. Group conversations are a bit noisy, but highly productive. All in all, the second day of your first project with your students is going really well on the engagement front. Then a fire drill begins, work stops, and your students lose both class time and focus.
Maybe this isn’t even your first project; maybe you’re a seasoned PBL pro. No matter where you are in your PBL journey, you’re going to face challenges like class disruptions. Some will be ones that are in your power to head off, but others (like that fire drill) will be unavoidable. Managing those disruptions is not only possible, but gives you an opportunity to help your students get even more out of their class time.
Disruptions happen and it’s OK! It’s frustrating when things don’t go as planned. You’re likely to be thrown off your game from time to time. It’s OK to feel disappointed, but remember your students can still be learning as plans change. Explain the situation to your students. Maybe a project didn’t go as planned, maybe the internet was down, or maybe there was a behavioral issue you needed to address. Students will learn from how you handle the disruption and will gain valuable social skills in the process.
When it’s time to resume work, bring the issue into focus if necessary. If you were dealing with a behavioral problem, this is the perfect time for discussion on expectations. Yes, you might be taking a bit of time away from your original plan for the day, but you’re also giving students an opportunity to solve problems and take responsibility. When the issue is non-behavioral, like technical difficulties, take a moment to explain the problem and what the new plan will be going forward--which brings us to the importance of having alternatives prepared.
Have a back-up plan (or several). The alternatives you plan ahead of time may be as straightforward as changing the pace of your planned project, or as complex as having different activities prepared. Luckily, flexibility is part of what makes PBL work, so altering the pace to effectively cancel out a half day of work that got away or moving on to something different isn’t a big deal.
If you start out keeping in mind that projects may (and often should) go longer than one class period, dealing with a pace change won’t be much of a hurdle. PBL is a marathon: expect to make pace adjustments along the way. In fact, extending a project longer than you may have originally anticipated can add an extra feature: reflection time. Time for students (and the teacher) to reflect on a problem or project plan helps students understand where they’re feeling good about their work and where they have more questions. You might even find that this unscheduled reflection time promotes more discussion between students and teacher.
When there’s an unforeseen technical difficulty, you’ll want to have some alternative activities in your back pocket that can be implemented on the fly. Different practice games and open-ended activities for creative play will use the time productively with something engaging while preparing next steps. Another unforeseen problem could be a project that doesn’t turn out as expected, but that’s not necessarily a pitfall. Unexpected results are part of what makes PBL a comprehensive method: students are learning from successes and failures, especially when things don’t go as planned.
Reassess how perceived disruptions affect your class. Let’s say your students are working in groups, and one corner of the room is particularly noisy. If all the students are eagerly working away, then that louder group isn’t really a disruption. It’s important to remember that a PBL classroom will look quite different from a traditional one. You may find that students aren’t at all hindered by what you might have previously viewed as a reason to stop class. As you gain experience with PBL, you’ll become even more perceptive about what an organized work period looks like and that it will definitely look different than a lecture.
Handling different types of interruptions also becomes a valuable tool for you. Keep tabs on what works (and what doesn’t) when you change pace or turn to an alternative. Having those notes will make adapting lessons for next time that much easier.
Last but not least, consider your long-term goals for your students. Disruptions here and there aren’t going to derail their progress. Real life is messy and full of distractions, and having those challenges occur during class time is an opportunity for students to learn about real life and cope with adjustments.