Bianca Hewes is an English teacher in Australia active in Edmodo, on Twitter (@BiancaH80), and with her own blog encouraging professional reflection on project based learning, and employing technology to engage students. She recently asked for stories about project based learning (PBL) to support her graduate research. Here are my responses to her questions.
How have you used PBL?
About 15 years ago I started contextualizing the curriculum in a problem based scenario that presented relevant challenges. Engaging with curricular content would increase the likelihood of the student meeting a successful outcome in the scenario. In this way, the projects were also like games - expressions of content knowledge, demonstrations of problem solving ability.
Why do you use PBL?
Having a context and purpose for learning makes the activity more engaging and more likely to be remembered. The desire to learn something is related to the need for understanding - the project creates the need, and the game elements initiate the desire.
What works? What doesn’t?
Leaving expressions of learning open is important - don't want the project to be a series of hoops through which students jump. Have to focus on meta skills like planning, organization, group work, time management, goal setting, communication, and accountability almost more than the content outcomes themselves. I find I directly teach the aforementioned skills while students identify, gather, and process the specific content outcomes in the context of their project.
Have to have some kind of rubric for assessing (formative and summative) different kinds of projects. Co-constructing criteria is more of a challenge as each person/group's product may be so wildly different from each other. Two layers of assessment are appropriate - one for content knowledge, and another for process.
What are your strengths as a PBLer? Your weaknesses?
Because I've been at this same grade level for more than ten years, I have a broad and deep understanding of the curricula and it is much easier to see and make connections across content areas to create integrated project based units. When students are all over hither and yon working on different aspects of their project, staying on top of progress is a challenge. We have this year physically restructured the classroom to accommodate a gamestorming approach where students have a public workspace wall and desks with supplies and computers to collaborate. Helps me when work is out of the binders and folders and up on the walls.
How have your students responded to PBL?
Students always love the new scenarios - there is a lot of excitement, talk, and planning initially. As the project unfolds and obligations to produce increase, some find it harder to stay on top of things. Some need help visualizing the large picture and end product and perseverate on micro elements, while others have grand visions and need help managing the details.
Have you done cross-curricula or single-subject PBL?
I teach grade 8 all subjects, so integrations is the way I roll 🙂
Is there are team in your school dedicated to PBL?
There is nothing formally established with this in mind. With my teaching team we consider ourselves one group of kids with two classrooms and three teachers. We all teach all subjects and while we may take the lead in a subject for different projects, we are always on the same page at the same time working on the same project collaborating and working with students.
Is your whole school a PBL school full of massive cross-curricula projects all year long?
No, but we're not far off... lots of innovative things going on here. Diversity can also be a strength when underpinned with a strong core philosophy.