Reflections on using Project Based Learning in a diverse classroom

Every classroom is diverse. Granted, some may be more diverse than others, but all classrooms are filled with individual students who need individualized instructional strategies. Diverse classrooms may include EFL/ESL students, students with a disability, students who are gifted, and students who come from various nationalities–making it impossible for a teacher to meet all student needs all the time. Problem Based Learning (PBL), when implemented well, has great potential to reach diverse students.

I am currently attending a conference with my 10-year-old son at the University of Nevada in Reno for profoundly gifted students and their parents. I have watched, learned, and listened, and I am in awe of the wide variety of interests and talents all around me. These students have been given wings to fly, to achieve, to pursue their passions. Many face struggles fitting in to the public school system. Others are in private schools or are homeschooled. Many have been exposed repeatedly to PBL and some have become young ambassadors who have created non-profit organizations, websites, and products. I have seen first-hand the power and potential of PBL.

For my assignment this week, I explored dozens of PBL projects. The types of things teachers and students are accomplishing is very exciting. The ones that most intrigued me were the ones centered on culture, identity, and community. One ePals project I really liked is called “The Way We Are.” It is a National Geographic collaborative learning effort that has students explore how they are similar and different with students in their partnered classroom, how does the natural environment affect their lives, and what part the region’s culture plays. The project connects classrooms by grade level or region and has students email back and forth through ePals to explore various questions. Some of the objectives include helping students describe their lives in concrete details, use maps to analyze places, identify similarities and differences, give specific examples of different cultures, and build a relationship with someone from another part of the world. As a culminating project, students will create a digital presentation on what they have learned.

I love this project and would like to do something very similar. Because I have had the unique opportunity to live with my children in various parts of the world, I really believe in exposing students to global opportunity and awareness. There is something very powerful in helping a child form a real connection with someone far away. Somehow it makes the world smaller, more real, and more human. My own children have friends in many countries, and they have a real connection when they hear about world events and when we travel. In the Fall, I start as the technology integration specialist at my children’s international school in Kathmandu, Nepal. The students are in a perfect position to do something like this because they come from many backgrounds and nationalities. Our school is about one-third American, one-third Nepali, and one-third others. There are many factors that make each student unique in their culture and community, and I think it would be valuable to share these things with another classroom. I’m struggling a little with what age group to do it with because I am not a classroom teacher, and the project’s success will depend largely on what teacher I choose and his/her teaching style. The project incorporates national geography standards, but it could easily be adapted to include 8th grade U.S. History or really almost anything else. There are also many social issues in Nepal that could be looked at, so I’m considering some sort of pollution, water, or ecotourism option as well.

An interesting study highlights how PBL has helped diverse 8th grade U.S. History classrooms. The study examines history learning among three groups of learners: students with disabilities, students without disabilities, and students enrolled in an honors class. “Special education researchers demonstrated that inquiry-based activities, such as project-based learning enhance students’ achievement and motivation in social studies classes” (Okolo, Englert, Bouck, Heutsche, & Wang, 2011, p. 418). While this article focuses mostly on Web-based history learning environments like the Virtual History Museum, its observations reach further. Students from all three groups grew in factual knowledge and reasoning about the unit’s key concepts, and efforts made to help students with mild disabilities also improved the learning for all students as well (Okolo et al., 2011).

Truly, PBL allows for great flexibility and encompasses more students. It can help students who are struggling and students who are gifted. There is something for everyone in a well-designed PBL unit that can really make a difference.

I’m excited to move forward from here.

References:

Okolo, C., Englert, C., Bouck, E., Heutsche, A., & Wang, H. (2011). The virtual history museum: Learning U.S. History in diverse eighth grade classrooms. Remedial and Special Education, 32(5), 417–428.

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