**Disclaimer: during these posts I will be referring to the General Capabilities as outlined in the Australian Curriculum. However, I am a NSW English teacher and therefore I will be implementing the new NSW K-10 English Syllabus in 2014. All AC content (including the General Capabilities) is embedded within that syllabus document created by the Board of Studies. These posts, however, are designed to be relevant and accessible to all teachers in Australia, hence my reference to the Australian Curriculum and not the new NSW Syllabi.
There’s a lot of talk about the Australian Curriculum at the moment – some positive and some negative. I know that I often come across as a negative person on this blog and via social media, but I’ll say confidently that I am optimistic about the Australian Curriculum. Why? Because it is an opportunity for change and renewal, two things our schools desperately need. I’m also excited because of the AC’s clearly articulated awareness of the need to change our perceptions of our learners and our practice as teachers. This is articulated through the General Capabilities and the Cross-Curriculum Priorities. In this post I’ll only be focusing on the former, however. If you don’t know what the General Capabilities (GC) are, check out image below, taken from the AC website (click on it to enlarge). I love the central description of our goal as educators for our students: successful learner, confident and creative individual and active and informed citizen. It really gets to the heart of my personal philosophy as a teacher, that my job is to help shape great human beings. But since the term ‘great’ is relative, I think it’s safer to stick with what they AC says, lol. As I go through the GC, I will show how each capability aligns with elements of BIE’s ‘8 Essentials for PBL‘ (Voice and Choice; Significant Content; In-depth Inquiry; Public Audience; Revision & Reflection; Driving Question; Need to Know; 21st Century Skills) and, where possible, give examples of how I have engaged with each capability in my PBL English classroom. It is my belief that PBL is a pedagogy that provides students with the opportunity to strengthen, develop and demonstrate each of these capabilities.
As an English teacher, I’ll happily argue that this is one of the most important capabilities in the list. The most important? Yeah, it probably is. I think literacy is the need to know for all young people. Being literate opens the door to the other capabilities. Without being literate, it’s very difficult to contribute and participate meaningfully in society. It’s not impossible, it’s just very difficult. Remember as well, that literacy includes visual literacy and critical literacy as well. During project based learning, literacy is developed through both explicit instruction and through more constructivist, constructionist and collaborative learning strategies.
A key driver of all successful projects is significant content. As I’ve explained previously (add link), content may be deemed significant by the teacher (as in, it’s in the curriculum), by the students (personal interests, contextually relevant or real-world problems) or both (negotiated curriculum where teacher discusses with students the content to be covered and through negotiation a compromise is reached where individual interest, contextual concerns and real world problems are connected meaningfully to the content the teacher is ‘required’ to cover). If the content is deemed ‘significant’, engaging, relevant, real-world and interesting by students and the teacher, then greater learning outcomes should be expected. How does this relate to literacy? If young people feel passionately about the content they are more likely to push their literacy skills further (reading and writing more complex texts). I’m sure many teachers would be surprised at the technical and complex vocabulary of many gaming and coding websites that teenage boys read.
Furthermore, a key aspect of PBL is the process of planning, drafting, peer/self assessment and revision. When applied to written or spoken products, this process has a significant impact on students’ literacy skills. This process becomes more pertinent for students when they are producing the product for a public audience – online or face to face.
As an English teacher, my students frequently engage in this iterative design-like process. I have even developed a feedback-feedforward peer and self assessment method to support student learning even more. You can read about it here.
Oh, and remember, literacy is not just the domain of the English teacher. ALL teachers ate responsible for it – the Australian Curriculum makes that quite clear. Scared? Well, looks like it’s time to do a cross-KLA project and invite your favourite English teacher to join!
Just like literacy, numeracy is the responsbility of all teachers. This terrifies me a little because numbers simply aren’t my friends. BUT, just because I don’t get into Maths, doesn;t mean my students don’t. PBL provides students with the opportunity to think in a more open way about their subjects. The segregating of subjects is an unfortunate consequence of the traditional schooling model. 30 minutes on a sport bus trip chatting with colleagues from other faculties and you’ll discover wonderful connections between your subjects. My colleague (a Maths teacher) and I got excited talking about poetic metre and imagined all sorts of other cross-overs between English and Maths. The moment we stop talking about covering content and we start talking real-world applications of our subjects, we realise the need to see our subjects as interrelated. This links back to what I said above about significant content, when we are driven by interest and real-world application, not only does engagement improve, but so too do learning outcomes.
The trend in the US at the moment is STEM – that’s the integration of the study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Through multidisciplinary projects, students are mastering STEM skills that they identify they need to know in order to be successful. Moreover, these projects drive students through a process of in-depth inquiry as they determine what they need to know and just how to find out this information or develop these skills. You can look at some truly impressive STEM projects here.
As an English teacher, running projects in just one subject area, my students still develop and apply their numeracy skills. Sometimes my projects require students to conduct in-depth inquiry through surveys and analysing the data they collect. They also engage with the data collected by others (often accessed online) and use this to support their findings about their topic. It seems silly, but even everyday numeracy comes into play as students estimate and calculate the amount of food and drink needed (and related costs) when planning the presentation of learning to a public audience.
Project-based learning necessitates in-depth inquiry. A significant part of both qualitative and quantitative research is accessing numerical data – be it graphs, statistics, tables etc. This applies to all subjects. If we don’t give our students the opportunity to engage with significant content through in-depth inquiry, we’re missing a wonderful chance to allow them to appreciate the power and importance of numbers, not just in Maths class.
INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION CAPABILITY:
Whilst PBL isn’t about technology (you can easily complete an awesome project without access to any technology, I know – I’ve done it!) it certainly is enhanced by access to a range of ICTs. I think what’s cool about PBL is that ICT capability develops naturally as part of the students’ learning. It’s not about learning to use a particular online tool or program just for the sake of it, or because it might make boring work a little bit more engaging. The early stage of all projects is in-depth inquiry – this is the stage where students are driven by deep and personally-developed questions about the project. Like everyone in 2013, students will begin their research on the Internet. This phase gives teachers a wonderful opportunity to model effective research skills and the importance of curating information using a variety of online tools (social bookmarking sites and tools like Pinterest, Scoop.it are popular at this stage). Students learn this skills not because the teacher has determined it’s good for them, they learn them because they need to know them in order to be successful with their project.
Collaboration and communication are key to PBL because students spend most of their time working in small teams. We’re told so often that these are the 21st century skills for young people to master – the workforce is collaborative and globalised therefore our students need to be able to work in a team and to communicate effectively with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This is where a online classroom is essential – not a space where resources a access, but rather a space where students can collaborate and communicate whenever they need to. I’m an edmodo fangrrrl and everyone knows it. This social network for education allows students to develop their digital citizenship (communicating with courtesy, compassion, and clarity) in the eye of their teacher and they can communicate with their teams whenever they need to. Teachers can easily assess the development of these 21st century skills and quickly give feedback to praise good behaviours and redirect negative behaviours.
ICTs play a big part in the revision and reflection process of PBL. In all projects, students are required to draft and revise their work. This process is enhanced through the use of tools like google docs (great for collaborative writing and planning) and more familiar programs like MS Word where students can use track changes and comments to illustrate their revisions. One of the core routines of PBL is goal-setting and reflecting on learning. This process can be done in a workbook, but it’s far more effective when it’s done using a site like edmodo or blogs. Blogging throughout a project really allows students to appreciate that learning is a process and that improvement happens over time. Blogging gives students a place to voice their concerns about the project as well as the joy of successfully solving a problem of creating something amazing. You can read about how I use the think, puzzle, explore protocol for students blogging here.
Finally, the most obvious use of ICTs during PBL is for the creation of the product and accessing a public audience. Allowing students to have a voice and choice as part of a project is essential to ensure engagement and relevance of learning. This voice and choice typically comes into play around the product that teams will be produce to demonstrate their learning. If you’ve seen BIE’s ‘PBL explained’ video, you’ll know that students might choose from a range of forms, some including ICTs, such as videos, websites and online magazines. Sometimes I don’t give students a choice. I love setting a challenge for my students, so they need to create a type of text they know nothing about, forcing them to develop their ICT capabilities. This can make some students uncomfortable, because they’re really being pushed, but ensuring that you’re there to provide support just in time means that this is responsible risk taking. My students have created cool products such as websites, podcasts, short films and online fiction – things they would normally not get the opportunity to do in English.
Of course, all of these products would mean nothing if they didn’t have an authentic, public audience. Teachers are time poor (and our students are too!) so having access to an online audience rather than an after-school audience of mums and dads, can be really helpful! The best thing to do, in my experience, is to connect with another class from somewhere else in the world – even if it’s just the primary school 40 minutes away. We have a range of technologies at our disposal that can facilitate this connection – skype, edmodo and YouTube have been our favourites. If connecting with another class sounds too risky for you, do a bit of networking and see if you can get a guest expert to Skype in to hear your students’ final presentations. Our young people need these experiences – their learning should not be confined to the four walls of the classroom!
In the next post, I’ll look at the last four capabilities and how I think PBL provides students with the opportunity to strengthen, develop and demonstrate these capabilities.