Final thoughts on Project Based Learning

I began EdTech 542 not even knowing the definition of Project Based Learning. I couldn’t have had even a one-minute conversation about it. I took this course as part of my Technology Integration Certificate, but it wasn’t a class that jumped out of the course schedule and piqued my interest. Now, after only eight weeks, I feel I have an educated and applicable understanding of PBL concepts and many great resources to refer to as needed. I have seen my classmates create comprehensive PBL projects on a wide variety of topics. I have grown in both content knowledge and supporting technology tool expertise. I have designed a PBL unit from the ground up and feel the final product is ready for any teacher to pick up and implement. I feel the topic I chose is applicable and will instill strong content knowledge and 21st Century skills. In short, it’s been a journey.

What do I now understand best about Project Based Learning? What do I understand least well?
The most critical things I learned were the basic eight elements of PBL units. Each of them makes sense to me and I tried to build my own project around them. I am still trying to wrap my mind around content area curriculum and corresponding assessments, which does not come naturally to me since I am not a certified teacher. I really liked starting backwards and designing the assessments first. It was good practice and kept me focused on what I really wanted the students to take away from the project.

What did I expect to learn in this course? What did I actually learn? More, less, and why?
I expected to learn the academic rationale behind PBL and I did. I didn’t expect to see so many good examples of PBL projects in action, as we followed each one through the process. That was really helpful and made the end seem attainable. I was most impressed with the idea of authenticity. I feel so strongly that education should be real for students. I get so frustrated when there is such a disconnect between what is learned and what is remembered, what is taught and what is applied. One of the reasons I really enjoyed this class is because PBL is the type of learning I always wanted when I was in school and seldom received. I’m determined to do better with any student in my care.

What will I do with what I have learned?
I recently saw an old friend who has been a teacher for the past 10+ years. She is a big advocate of PBL and incorporates it into all that she does. She is an expert with years of experience using the PBL principles I just learned. I am certainly not at that level, and do not have a class of my own to apply my new knowledge. However, as I dive into my new job as K-12 Technology Integration Coordinator, I am glad I have some PBL knowledge behind me. I will be able to offer teachers ideas, encouragement, examples, and support as they try to implement more PBL in their classrooms.

For me, Project Based Learning is an exciting opportunity to instill both content knowledge and 21st Century skills in students. If the project is planned and implemented well, students will emerge not only more educated but more confident. They will remember more longer since they have authentically applied the knowledge in a real scenario. It is a win-win for everyone.

PBL Reflection and Assessment

I always loved the last night of girls’ camp. We sat around the fire, expressed feelings, supported each other, and reflected on the experiences we had shared together. After an intense week of crafts, hikes, food, skits, and certification skills, it was nice to gain some closure.

The same concepts apply to Project Based Learning. PBL units are intense. They take a great deal of time and energy on everyone’s part. Students invest much of themselves as they dive in and take responsibility for their learning. As a result, students grow in knowledge and collaborative skills. After all of this effort, it is nice to bring some closure to the unit as well as reinforce what the students learned in the process.

Teachers must plan time to debrief and reflect on the entire PBL experience. This involves both teacher and student reviews. Students need to be given an opportunity to discuss and reflect on what they have learned. This will help them realize what they have learned along their journey. Students should also have a chance to fill out a form or survey evaluating the unit. Teachers should take time while the unit is fresh in their minds to make adjustments that will help them the next time.

For Project: Me, I have answered three questions:

  • Who will be involved in the post project assessment process?
  • What will the process look like?
  • Is it just a one-time assessment?

Student Reviews:
For Project: Me, the last day will be spent in celebration. Students will watch the student-produced Day in the Life of Me photo project. They will be given “uniqueness” awards and participate in a class discussion on what they have learned and their observations. They will also complete a survey.

Teacher Review:
The teacher will read over student surveys, reflect on notes taken during the unit, and make any adjustments needed on an evaluation form. This will help them adjust timing, content, scaffolding, and assessment needs for the next time they teach the unit.

While the assessment and reflection process will likely take place during one class period, it is important that the teacher refers back to the project and ties it in to other units whenever possible. The technology tools introduced during the unit can be used in other units. Reminding students what they have already learned is an important way to help solidify their skills.

If done well, students will enjoy the chance to reflect and discuss the PBL unit. They will feel a sense of pride and authentic accomplishment.

Teachers as Facilitators

I was in high school chemistry when I first heard the term “facilitate.” I adored my teacher because he was the first one who ever believed that he was to sit more on the sidelines and less front-and-center. He left the responsibility on me to learn. He taught us that most of our education had involved “spoon-feeding” and “hand-holding” and he wasn’t going to do that. I liked this new approach but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I felt a little bit alone, like I had just been dropped off by my mom at my first day of Kindergarten. By the end of the year, I had studied more chemistry than I knew existed, but I also gained an academic confidence I didn’t have before. I am still grateful to him for his efforts.

I am beginning an exciting new role as the K-12 Technology Integration Specialist at an international school where I live. I will not be in the classroom but will mainly support other teachers in their use of technology. I certainly see my role as a facilitator, which by Merriam-Webster’s definition is “one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision.” I like that. The keywords to me are help, outcome, indirect, and guidance.

So what are the skills successful facilitators need to have?

Jennifer Tylee (1999) notes that part of facilitating student learning is to create opportunities for students to learn by assessing the students, planning the learning, implementing the plan, and evaluating the process. Teaching is still part of it and instruction is important. But facilitation is often more about the how than the what. Facilitators need to encourage students to take responsibility and delegate tasks, be warm and uplifting, promote consensus during discussion, assist in goal setting, draw conclusions, and generally guide the overall process (Embedded Learning Academy, 2009). Facilitation requires teachers to be more engaged, more involved, and more mindful of how the students are doing than they may be used to in a lecture-type setting. I foresee that some teachers will struggle with facilitating PBL more than others, depending on what type of classroom culture they have.

If given enough support and encouragement, students will develop competencies and skills they need to be successful. They will retain information longer and perform better. If they are new to Project Based Learning, they will likely need more support and scaffolding than if they have been doing PBL projects for awhile. I’m hoping to offer support and encouragement to teachers who want to do more PBL projects but don’t really know how or where to start. I am hoping a few will be motivated enough to give it a try, and will be encouraged to continue because of their successes.

References:
Embedded Learning Academy. (2009). Facilitators. Retrieved from http://www.embeddedlearningacademy.com/pde/facilitators/index.html

Tylee, J. (1999). Teacher as facilitator. Retrieved from http://www.education4skills.com/jtylee/teacher_as_facilitator.html

Giving Project-Based Learning a Chance

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There is no golden ticket to the solid, well-rounded, 21st Century education our students need. While we hope they will become critical thinkers and problem-solvers of the highest order, the truth is that it takes a village to get them there. Instruction, while based on solid pedagogical practices, is still a bit hit and miss and involves a lot of trial and error. Project-Based Learning (PBL) is a certainly start.

When designed well, PBL can be an excellent way to help students acquire not only content knowledge but the practical application behind it. If students see a real-life authentic application of what they are learning, and if they can use what they learn to benefit those around them, they likely will remember it longer. Their learning experience will have positive meaning and they will likely be more motivated to use a similar approach in other content areas.

However, PBL is easy to criticize because it is not widely understood or practiced. It looks different than a standard learning paradigm and it takes an experienced teacher to implement it well. On the surface it looks less organized, less content-driven, and guided by students. A good PBL unit, however, has been planned and organized well and is based on solid content area standards that are communicated and assessed throughout the project. PBL promotes student inquiry and gives them freedom to lead their own learning experience, though they are scaffolded throughout the process and offered many tools to help them.

An obvious downside of PBL is that it takes a significant amount of time to plan and implement well. For this reason, many teachers and schools don’t see it as a practical option, as it takes time and resources they don’t feel they have. However, schools and individual teachers can start somewhere and start small. With a little research and determination, one project can be tried, then another, then another, until teachers and students demonstrate desired outcomes. As success stories spread, others will be more likely to give PBL a try.

The Buck Institute for Education lists three areas for further research on PBL: Synthesis (summaries of research conducted across multiple sites or multiple studies); Outcomes (research that can range from improved attitudes to standardized test scores); and Practices (differences in use of PBL, including tools and professional development designed to improve teaching and learning). There is significant research to show that PBL increases academic test scores, results in more effective learning, contributes to longer retention, improves student 21st Century skills, and is especially helpful for lower-achieving students (BIE, 2009).

If even part of these outcomes prove true, then PBL is worth a shot. Students truly deserve the very best we have to offer.

References:
Buck Institute for Education. (2009). Does PBL work?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/research/study/does_pbl_work

Designing Integrated Curriculum

I was fascinated by this video that highlights a school’s efforts to design a PBL unit that spans various content levels. It shows the possibilities and offers a working example of what can be done.

I’ve spent a great deal of my life in learning environments, either at church or in school. Since I was young, I’ve had little patience with what I now know as segregated learning. The purpose of learning should be relevant to my life in some way and be connected to things that really matter to me. It should help me know more, do better, and be better. We live in an integrated and multitasking world, not one where knowledge is compartmentalized and isolated. Textbooks are titled by subject, but life most certainly is not. Project Based Learning is founded on authenticity and relevancy.

As shown in this video, teachers can work across content areas to develop powerful PBL projects either in a school-wide effort on a large scale or a few teachers on a smaller scale. With a little imagination, every project has elements from another content area that could easily be included. Through such collaboration, teachers would demonstrate 21st Century NETS for Teachers and “collaborate with students, peers, parents, and community members using digital tools and resources to support student success
and innovation” (ISTE, 2008, p. 1). They would be models – examples – of using the very skills they are trying to teach their students.

Since I am just starting my new job in the fall as Technology Integration Specialist, I am not sure how much integrated curriculum planning goes on. I know of a few small projects that have involved two classes, and one school-wide service learning collaboration. I would like to try this type of planning and see if I can assist teachers in this area.

Project: Me is geared for history and social studies, but could also easily integrate math, science, and English. For science, students could incorporate genetics and analyze some of the physical characteristics and biology that make people unique. In Math, students could compare statistics and analyze numerical global trends. In English, students could write personal narratives about an aspect of their lives (religion, family traditions, birth order) that contribute to who they are. If done well, this integrated approach could truly be a win-win for everyone.

References:
International Society for Technology in Education. (2008). NETS for teachers. Retrieved  from http://www.iste.org/standards/nets-for-teachers.aspx

Authentic Assessments

As a parent of four, I know that kids don’t always “get” it. Sometimes when I think they are listening they are not, or I think they are not paying attention and they remember specific details. It’s no different in the classroom. Teachers spend a great deal of time trying to help students learn and remember what is being taught, often with varying results.

How do we know they really get it? More importantly, how do we ensure that students will remember such content long-term and apply it in their lives? The answer lies, at least in part, in authentic assessments.

I’ve taken a great many tests in my lifetime. Most of them I performed very well on, especially ones that were detailed-oriented and involved memorization. I studied and crammed my brain with information, hoping to remember it all long enough to score well on the end-of-chapter/unit/year test. I usually did. But now that I have been out of school for years, most of what I learned I have long since forgotten.

Most students will not remember everything they learn in school for the rest of their lives. Does that mean we, as educators, give up and don’t try? Of course not. We try, we use different approaches, and we do our best.

Project Based Learning (PBL) involves students throughout the entire process, which can include having them help determine what is going to be assessed and how they will meet such criteria. The more students have a say in what they need to learn – and how they will demonstrate they have learned it – the more they will remember.

What Kids Can Do gives the following criteria for authentic assessments (which align very well with PBL essential elements):

Assessment is for students.

  • Has personal relevance for students (e.g., provides a tangible product they can use).
  • Students become more confident and articulate about what they know.
  • Students feel ownership over the process as well as the product of their work.

Assessment is faithful to the work students actually do.

  • Notebooks, works-in-progress, and routine presentations are basis of assessment.
  • Occasions for reflection and discussion are integrated into ongoing project work.
  • Students are assessed on what they know and do, not what they don’t.

Assessment is public.

  • Students’ goals are solicited and become part of those assessed.
  • Criteria for judgment remain visible and accessible to students from the beginning.
  • Performances are viewed and judged by a broad group of people.

Assessment promotes ongoing self-reflection and critical inquiry.

  • Teachers and students both speak of the qualities of good work, and how to attain it.
  • Standards used reflect those of adult practitioners in the field.
  • Categories and criteria of assessment remain open-ended, subject to challenge and revision.

If teachers would incorporate these four principles into the assessments they offer, even those not technically PBL, I believe students would perform better and retain more. Many teachers don’t actively involve students in designing the assessment, so this may take a little encouragement and practice. Teachers need to see the benefits of allowing more student input during assessment development and how it is a win/win.

For Project: Me, I have designed both formative and summative assessments that will help students “get it” and demonstrate that they “got it.” I will guide the students through a scaffolded brainstorming activity early on that will help them determine what it is they need to know and how they will demonstrate they have reached the standards. For formative assessments, they will self-evaluate their reflective journals and project work reports weekly, create a visual project organizer using a technology tool, and create a project prototype for evaluation. For summative assessments, students will complete a short essay test on what they have learned about themselves and uniqueness, self-evaluate their completed reflective journals, and self/peer-evaluate their presentation both for content knowledge and 21st Century skills. By using a variety of assessment tools, students will be encouraged to set goals and stay on task, track their progress and growth, and produce a culminating multimedia project. Such strategies will help students find relevancy in what they are doing, be assessed on what they are actually doing, communicate with an outside audience, and produce quality work. In the end, they will remember this project and will have truly learned something valuable about themselves.

Now, how can I implement such strategies at home…?

References:

Buck Institute for Education. (n.d.) What is PBL?. Retrieved from http://www.bie.org/about/what_is_pbl

What Kids Can Do. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.whatkidscando.org/