Author Q&A: Chris Fancher and Telannia Norfar Talk Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom
Author Q&A: Chris Fancher and Telannia Norfar Talk Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom
PUBLISHED: Thursday, August 01, 2019 by Andilynn Feddeler

Project-Based Learning in the Math Classroom (grades 6–10) explains how to keep inquiry at the heart of mathematics teaching and helps teachers build students' abilities to be true mathematicians. The authors impart strategies that assist teachers in planning standards-based lessons, encouraging wonder and curiosity, providing a safe environment where failure occurs, and giving students opportunities for revision and reflection. Learn more about the book, project-based learning, and how to implement these strategies in this interview with the authors, Chris Fancher and Telannia Norfar.

Q: Where did the idea for your book originate? How did you develop your book? 

A: Since we started facilitating trainings for PBLWorks, math teachers have asked us over and over again for a book on project-based learning (PBL) for the math classroom. The book serves to meet this much requested help. To develop the book, we asked math teachers what they would like to see as well as looked to see what was not already produced.


Q: What would you say to someone who thinks that project-based learning cannot be implemented in the math classroom?

A: We are math teachers, first. We understand why some teachers believe PBL can’t work in a math classroom. The principles in project-based learning are not what most people have experienced in a mathematics classroom. However, these are exactly what are needed in a math classroom where deeper learning is happening. Mathematics is not following algorithms, but thinking flexibly about numbers. PBL develops flexible thinking by grounding mathematical concepts in an authentic context that students can understand.


Q: What’s the first thing an educator should do when he or she wants to start implementing PBL? 

A: Well, read our book, of course. Okay, in all seriousness, teachers have to work on their classroom culture first. To allow students to take risks and attempt problems that do not lead to simple answers, the teacher must create a culture of learning from failure. When students are working with their peers to solve math problems and presenting their work to their classmates, then the culture is one where PBL can thrive. 

If the culture is already established, then math teachers wanting to start implementing PBL need to have a thorough understanding of the curriculum that is being taught. They need to decide which of their content standards will be worth exploring as a PBL unit. Those standards that merit consideration will be the ones that schools, districts, and states consider as power standards. The final test of these standards is the length of time normally allotted to teaching them. Power standards that require an extended period of time (over 2 weeks) to teach will be those standards best suited to being included in a PBL unit. 


Q: Why is providing opportunities for students to experience failure important? 

A: Unfortunately, failure has become a bad word. However, failure is a normal part of life. It is vital to learn before becoming an adult. Math students rarely get a chance to experience a safe environment where taking chances and accepting failure is the norm. If students are encouraged to attempt difficult problems with the knowledge that they will be supported by their peers and their teachers, then student agency grows. When students are immersed in an authentic PBL unit, there will be opportunities to think critically and potentially fail. The authenticity of the project will help them overcome their failures. With the support of teachers and classmates, students learn to look at the challenges differently. It will take much less prodding by teachers to get students to explore difficult problems or issues, and the possibility of going deeper in their learning becomes stronger. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your work? 

A: We have seen that teachers who pick up the book like the opportunity to see examples of project ideas we have done in our own classroom. Once they get the book home we are hoping that, in addition to seeing project ideas, they learn that much of what they already do can be incorporated in a classroom project. Good teaching should never be put on the shelf in pursuit of doing things differently. Great teachers have things in their tool bag that work and allow students to excel. By looking at their standards in a different way and by bringing in an authentic product the students must produce, excellent learning can become deeper learning. 


Chris Fancher is a Middle Years Programme (MYP) design teacher at a public International Baccalaureate (IB) charter school in Round Rock, TX. He has been with the Buck Institute for Education for 6 years and has facilitated PBL trainings in 15 states, as well as in China and Australia. Telannia Norfar is a mathematics teacher at a public high school in Oklahoma City, OK. As a former journalist and account manager, Telannia found project-based learning a viable method for teaching worthy mathematical concepts. Both authors are National Faculty members for PBLWorks, where they facilitate training in project-based learning.