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First, I’m going on a tangent because I am super passionate about this. Most parents care. Most parents really care. Most parents really, really, really care (about their child’s education). One of my biggest pet peeves is when well-meaning educators blame lack of parental support for education inequality. This is one of my biggest pet peeves because blaming parents is a class issue. This accusation is usually lobbed at parents from lower socio-economic areas.
There is a brutal lie that goes something like if parents really cared, kids would do better at school. Not all parents are members of the PTO, or check writers, or emailers, or conference attendees, or classroom helpers, or you get the picture. Not all parents have the time, money, or ability to be involved in all the ways traditional school systems define parental support. This doesn’t mean parents want their kids to do bad in school. Nothing could be farther than the truth. All parents want their kids to do well in school. There are other factors to consider. Work hours. Language. Education levels. School culture. Legal status. Bad experiences with the education system.
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So when I write this piece, I firmly mean this to include ALL parents as project based learning (PBL) partners. I think there are ways to include all parents in discussions of a child’s education. You may need to get creative with how, but I think it is possible. I think it is necessary. Let’s at least start with positive assumptions :)
Project based learning (PBL) is different than traditional pedagogical approaches. PBL calls for learners to inquire, to question, to iterate, and to learn deeply. PBL gives students voice and choice. PBL is flexible, collaborative, and generative. PBL includes many different approaches to assessment. Rarely do multiple choice tests and memorized answers fulfill the demands of a successive project. Instead, students are assessed formatively and given chances to improve and iterate before a project is unveiled to an authentic audience.
In short, PBL may be a radical departure from the norm for students, and by extension, their parents. A crucial step to build support for PBL in your school or classroom is to have parent buy-in and support. Here are a few things you can do to educate, inform, and bring parents in as PBL partners.
1. Share Research
I always like to remind new teachers that our profession is exactly that, a profession. Educators study what works (and what doesn’t) in the classroom. Share your expertise with parents. Most will be impressed with your level of understanding, knowledge, and rationale. People care about the why. Post links to research on a class website, in newsletters, or through messages.
PBL research: Buck Institute, Edutopia, PBL Research Series
2. Ask Parents for Areas of Expertise
PBL is not confined to a textbook. The community plays a vital role as authentic audience members. Use a beginning of the year survey to ask parents what areas of expertise they posses. You can also ask what serious hobbies they have. Invite them into the classroom when a project corresponds with a specialty. You never know what or who someone knows.
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3. Show Past Success
If you’ve been doing PBL for a number of years, show off! Display student work, presentations, or projects to parents. Parents are often amazed with the level of learning that PBL allows. If you are newer to PBL, share examples from the web. Show that other people are doing great work and communicate that you want their children to do the same. Sometimes people need to see to believe.
4. Showcase 21st Century Skills
PBL is a great way to create a 21st century classroom. Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication are crucial to today’s world. Explain how PBL places an emphasis on skills students need both today and tomorrow.
5. Be Transparent and Honest
Many teachers, including myself, use PBL because they are super passionate about its ability to transform school. Don’t be afraid to share this passion with parents. If you blog, tell them. If you attend outside PDs, tell them. If you are on Twitter, tell them. Once they see the amount of work, dedication, and enthusiasm you put into each project (and your craft), they will support you.
6. Remind Parents of Their Own Education
Even if parents are a long way gone from their days as students, it is surprising to hear them recall colorful memories. Most parents share science projects, invention challenges, and hands-on activities as favorite school experiences. It makes a lot of sense that teachers want to provide the same learning opportunities for their children.
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7. Provide Suggestions for Home Projects
Parents may feel uncomfortable with the technology used in many projects, or the lack of traditional homework and assignments. Provide examples and ideas for things families can work on at home that mirror PBL activities. Design challenges, coding tutorials, and even board games can simulate the type of learning PBL demands in the classroom. John Spencer shares some great alternative homework assignments here.
8. Rethink Field Trips
I once talked to a teacher who explained how she took her students on a field trip to the LaundryMat. She swore by the experience. She said many of her students were fascinated by the economic realities of their community. If you are able to take more frequent, perhaps shorter field trips around the community, parents may be more willing to chaperone, sponsor, or lead.
9. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
This is inherent in many of the ideas above. Communication prevents many problems and misunderstandings from occurring in the first place. Positive phone calls, personalized notes, and early/late meetings are ways to communicate with all parents. If you share the good things going on in your classroom with parents, they will be happy to support your ideas.
10. Remind Them It’s For the Students
When all else fails, remind parents that you both want what’s best for their children. This is the motivation behind all you do as an educator.