Empowerment and Productivity aka Project Based Learning

I dove into Problem Based Learning this week.  As an administrator sometimes I feel like I am constantly solving problems–lots of people come to me with their problems on a daily basis.  I love Problem Based Learning (PBL) and when I was a teacher I did lots of it, but in a new role I am looking at it from a different point of view.

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I read lots of articles on PBL, but this report (albeit a bit old) hit all the important parts and gave a good summary of what it is, “Project-based learning is a form of situated learning (Greeno, this volume) and it is based on the constructivist finding that students gain a deeper understanding of material when they actively construct their understanding by working with and using ideas. In project-based learning, students engage in real, meaningful problems that are important to them and that are similar to what scientists, mathematicians, writers, and historians do. A project-based classroom allows students to investigate questions, propose hypotheses and explanations, discuss their ideas, challenge the ideas of others, and try out new ideas. Research has demonstrated that students in project-based learning classrooms get higher scores than students in traditional classrooms (Marx et al., 2004; Rivet & Krajcik, 2004; William & Linn, 2003).”

As I read I kept nodding my head as I read obvious statements such as, “In the 1980s and 1990s, education researchers increasingly realized that when students are bored and unengaged, they are less likely to learn (Blumenfeld et al., 1991)” or when the authors stated that students are learning at superficial levels and rarely get to the conceptual levels. I became frustrated because once again in education we know what we are doing isn’t working and we aren’t changing.

The article went on to say that a PBL environment had the following things:

  1. They start with a driving question, a problem to be solved.
  2. Students explore the driving question by participating in authentic, situated inquiry – processes of problem solving that are central to expert performance in the discipline. As students explore the driving question, they learn and apply important ideas in the discipline.
  3. Students, teachers, and community members engage in collaborative activities to find solutions to the driving question. This mirrors the complex social situation of expert problem solving.
  4. While engaged in the inquiry process, students are scaffolding with learning technologies that help them participate in activities normally beyond their ability.
  5. Students create a set of tangible products that address the driving question. These are shared artifacts, publicly accessible external representations of the class’s learning.

Dewey argued that students would have more personal investment in authentic tasks that emulate what experts do in the real world do, however I would argue if they are authentic meaningful problems that are student created from what they face in their everyday lives.

Another two things the article mentions is that students learn social interaction with others and learning how to collaborate through PBL. In my past experience I would say this is one of the biggest takeaways for students.  Upon their reflections they learn more about themselves as learners, but also as part of a group. It’s almost like the content and concepts seep in naturally without them noticing, but the experiences with others sticks out and is brought to the awareness level.

Rubik's Colour Brokah by formerly_of_devon
Rubik’s Coloured Brokah by formerly_of_devon

Now, how does this impact me and my practice? Rewind to a few months ago Lee Crockett came to my school and spoke on the 21st century literacies, with a particular focus on Solutions and Media fluencies. Our teachers’ minds were blown. Fast forward to this week of COETAIL and my mind kept going back to how I could help teachers being PBL in their classrooms. The link connected and I realized that I could do a couple of things tying back to Lee’s workshops.  

The easiest thing to do would be to do a book study of his book and have teachers start looking for PBL connections and ties into their curriculum.  This being the end of the year is actually a good time to review the curriculum, and maybe I could get some eager teachers in a virtual book club over the summer. If not, I think it would be a great idea to have it begin next school year and continue during our monthly staff meetings.  

The other idea I had was to actually do PBL with my teachers.  As I said before, teachers come in with lots of problems that are important to them.  What if, I harnessed their desire for solutions and we spent a day (we have a week of PD at the end of the year) and gave teachers the opportunity to collaborate and solve their own problems.  My vision is to have a big problem dump session where teachers can identify problems they have or we have as a school.  Then teachers can select the one they want to work on in a group and they get down to it.  The benefits are twofold–teachers are experiencing PBL first hand and problems are getting solved!  It is empowering and productive, two of my favorite things.


Course 1 Final Project: Passions Collide

Through this process I’ve learned that I am an idea girl. I can come up with some great ideas, but the plausibility is sometimes questionable. I struggled with this project because add to the dreamer in me and the feeling of loss from being out of the classroom and not having a class to call my own and I had no clue where to start.  Should I do a unit for teachers?  Parents?  The ELL students I work with for 40 minutes a day?  Or the multi-grade students in a free period I help coordinate? The choices were overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start.  So I started…multiple times.  I basically did 3 projects and didn’t like any of them.  Finally I read Rebecca’s final project and the light bulb went off.  Why not start with something I already had and REDEFINE it?

Another thing I learned is that it is hard to plan a global collaborative project. I’ve joined many, but starting one is more of a challenge. I got on Twitter and threw my net out a couple of times (remember how I started 3 projects?) but to no avail. I waited and continued planning, but as the due date got closer I realized things weren’t panning out and it probably wasn’t going to happen. I am not the Twitter queen, but I have some followers and if it was this hard for me to start a global project then how hard would it be for a new Tweeter or someone not on it?  Is there a database for collaborative projects? I know Skype has Skype in the Classroom and I found a Global Collaboration Day, but these weren’t exactly what I was looking for.  I was frustrated and added this as a challenge to tackle in the future.

The actual planning and creating the unit was the most fun (remember I’m an idea girl). I decided to go with the students that have a free period while other students are in Portuguese class.  In the past this has been a waste of time because there isn’t a curriculum and no one has really claimed it as their class.  This year I took on the challenge and came up some ideas.  I did Genius Hour in my 5th grade classroom for the past couple of years, and realized this is the perfect opportunity for students to use this time more effectively. I have introduced the passion projects, but was just going to do the sharing in-house.  This is where my PLN came in handy, a couple of weeks ago a PLN buddy at Lincoln to collaborate with their TEDed clubs, but at that point I didn’t really see how I could work it in. Then I thought although we aren’t another TEDed club, this is a great opportunity for my students to share their projects and receive feedback and also give feedback to their partners’ at Lincoln. I can already see this project growing into something similar to a TEDed forum.

One thing I want to look at after I teach the first round of passion projects is adding a mini-lesson on Pecha Kuchas.  I had to create one in one of my Masters course and it was a huge challenge, it really made me focus and plan out my content and then move on with the overall theme in mind.

Without further ado, my final project.  I would love feedback on how to improve it.  Thanks in advance!