Thursday, February 2, 2012

Mommy, Look What I Can Do: Using Project-Based Learning in Education Today

The Thambo Project
Project-based learning is a hot topic in the world of education today. With the current generation going through school being the most "plugged in" and fast-paced to date, traditional teaching methods (ie, direct teaching, lecture, "teaching to the test") simply, for lack of a better expression, can't hack it. Educators are now looking for fresh approaches to teaching content to students, ways in which students don't just sit in their desks, silently passing class time without an inkling of interest. Cue project-based learning, or PBL. Aaaaaaannnnnnd, action!

The Buck Institute (an organization that is committed to PBL professional development and promotion), defines PBL as: "students going through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student 'voice and choice,' rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products and presentations." (Buck Institute Website)

Now, in education, there are 2 types of PBL (that are referred to as such): project-based learning and problem-based learning. Project-based learning focuses on a design structure that requires public presentation or performance as an outcome. So students would have to actually create something that could be exhibited to an audience (such as an art exhibit, or maybe building a structure, or creating a service in the community). Problem-based learning does not necessarily have to feature this presentation element in its overall design; however, it must still focus on inquiry for its overall purpose (Robert Ryshke, Center for Teaching). 

John Larmer and John Mergendoller (John and John, well isn't that precious?) write about the Seven Essentials for Project-Based Learning, featured in Educational Leadership's September 2010 issue, Giving Students Meaningful Work. When planning for instruction, teachers can be sure to include the following 7 elements, and  have a better chance of success in the PBL activity. 

1. Give them A Need to Know: Launch a project with an "entry event" that sparks their interest and gets them curious about the topic, and what is to come. This way, students will have an idea of the context of the project, instead of just thinking it's another "thing we'll be tested over."

2. Give them A Driving Question: Every good PBL is centered around a focused question which provides the foundation for inquiry. "A project without a question is like an essay without a thesis." Without this element, students aren't going to know what their goal in doing this project even is! What's the point!?

3. Allow for Student Voice and Choice: Remember when your teachers would just tell you what to do, without even taking into consideration that what they were assigning seemed, to teenagers, like the most BORING THING EVER? Let students be involved (to an extent, but not so that the project loses feasibility or focus) in choosing a topic for a driving question, or deciding what products they'll create, resources they'll use, and how they'll manage their time. This will make them feel less oppressed, and strike more interest! Ha, I rhymed...

4. Plan for some 21st Century Skills: Today's projects should give students a chance to practice not just their familiarity with technology, but such 21st century skills as communication, collaboration and critical thinking. Because they're going to be living and working in a world filled with potential (and the need for!) innovation.

5. Encourage Inquiry and Innovation: Work with students to generate more detailed, specific questions branching from guiding questions, so they will be able to explore different facets of a topic or issue. Raising new questions calls for synthesis of new information they have been gathering during the initial question exploration, and also leaves room for further inquiry. Students find it meaningful if they engage in real inquiry, rather than just regurgitating what the teacher has asked.

6. Give Feedback and allow for Revision: You like to get comments from others on something you've done, don't you? It is often helpful to hear what others have to say about a project you've been working on, and constructive critique is a great way for students to see how they're doing. Teachers should formalize a feedback and revision process, so students are guided and encouraged to create high-quality work.

7. Give a Publicly Presented Product: Nothing makes students feel more proud than being able to show their work, their good, hard work, to an audience. Whether it's peers, parents, or other teachers, giving students the opportunity to share what they've learned and created through a PBL endeavor solidifies the experience. "Schoolwork is more meaningful when it's done not only for the teacher or the test." 

My dad is an educator; he is the principal of Prairie Point Middle School and 9th Grade Academy in Cedar Rapids. As he has been "in the business" for nearly thirty years, he has seen how rapidly education has been able to change, how far it has come since when he first started teaching. Since he takes a general interest in the face that I too am becoming a teacher, Dad likes to send me weekly emails of educational headlines, and things to pay attention to in the world of teaching. Appropriately, just last week I got an email with some headlines/ topics all about PBL!

The ePals Global Community website gives a slough of great examples and ideas for project-based learning. Several of these include Digital Storytelling, Holidays and Festivals around the world, and many more. The great thing about this resource is that each of the PBL topics draws out essential questions to ask students during each unit.

Another great example of PBL is happening at that very same Prairie Point Middle School where my dad is principal. Students in eighth grade Family and Consumer Science (FACS) class do many different hand-on projects during the year, but a favorite is the quilt-making unit. Students work in teams to design and create custom-made flannel quilts, and then donate them to local homeless shelters and children's relief organizations. Who's the mastermind and director behind these students' nimble stitchings?

My mother, of course!

My mom and her students do a quilting unit, where the students create these quilts and donate their finished products. The students start with a plan, asking themselves "how can we collaborate to design and create the highest quality flannel quilt?" They challenge themselves to work in groups, collaborating on how it will look, who will sew what squares, what they'll do to construct the overall quilt, and how they'll deliver a presentation of their progress and end product to parents, teachers, other students and the community. They also have the satisfaction of donating these projects to Project Linus, where children who may not have even had the opportunity for the simple comfort of their own blanket. My mom tells me that her students are very receptive to this project, they work well together, and are very proud of their quilts when the project is finished. They displayed photographs and write ups in the hallways of the middle school for parent-teacher conferences, so parents could see their children's hard work and dedication. Mom also told me that the students feel accomplished and like they've done something to really help on a personal level, AND they learn valuable math and tactile sewing skills in the process!

PBL seems like a great choice for teachers to use in their classrooms to engage and interest students, and bring them to the inquiry process.

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