Just like most schools these days, we have a number of students who are not coming into school. There are lots of reasons for this, but I’m happy if the main reason is parents making the rational decision to keep their children home so they can effectively enact social distancing. They are taking very seriously the threat of COVID-19 further spreading into our community.
Reduced numbers of students may disrupt learning that requires students to work in teams, but this disruption only needs to be temporary. In fact, I’m confident that collaborative learning will be able to continue effectively even if all students are isolated at home due to school closures. Why? Well, if schools are serious about project work, they will have created a culture in our schools where students and teachers value the work as reflecting that which is done in the non-school world (in industry projects, and in our personal lives like planning birthday parties). Despite many businesses already moving to working from home, many projects continue to move forward. I have no doubt that the project work already started at my school will continue when schools are finally closed. Let’s have a look at how and why project work will continue when students are learning from home, with examples from a couple of the projects I’m running with students to see how.
- We have established and will maintain a structured approach to all projects. My school uses the inquiry learning model designed by me and Lee. This is a highly structured model which clearly indicated teacher and student roles at the three different stages of a project – discover, create, share. Having this structure means that when lessons move online, teachers can use the language of this model to remind students of the type of work to be completed. Currently my Praxis iii students have moved from the discover stage into the create stage. We have spent the last couple of periods whittling away at our mass of ideas for our fantasy world generated through research in the discover stage, drawing down to the final outline of the world – physical layout, people (culture), magic system, nations (places), history. Each student has taken responsibility for fleshing out a nation, before seeking group feedback.
- Online resources are organised according to our discover, create, share model. Projects begin with the handing out of a project outline, and this guides the students through the learning experience. Working from home, students will continue to be guided by this outline. We have a blended learning environment at our school, which means we have established online spaces for collaboration and organisation of resources. For our year 10 ILP students (www.ilpmanly.weebly.com), I created a website to help them direct their own learning process – students work at different stages during ILP and the website has been invaluable for them and their teachers. In Praxis and Praxis iii, we use Google Drive with a series of class folders created to reflect each stage of the project and team folders for their individual work.
- Our students care about the work they are doing, so they’ll keep doing it. Yesterday I received an email from one of my year 9 students asking if he can Skype into our Praxis iii lesson. I replied and said I would see what we could do, and by the time I arrived to period 4, the student’s face was up on a peer’s laptop – how keen is that? This student demonstrated to me that if you design engaging projects that meet the interests and needs of your learners, that they’ll be eager to keep learning, even when they’re at home. In this instance we were fortunate to have Skype available, and we continued our lesson with our virtual student participating.
- Allocation of individual responsibilities within teams. This is something that is typical and expected of effective teamwork. At each stage of a project, students negotiate and allocate roles for different tasks to be completed. These tasks can often be completed individually, and submitted to the team for feedback via an online platform – asynchronous or synchronous, it would be up to the teacher. Currently our year 7 Praxis students are working on a game design project. We are still in the discover stage of the project, just heading into researching the needs and interests of their users. At school this would be done individually based on negotiated inquiry research questions. This process would be repeated with their choice of game type (video game, card game, board game) with teams generating questions and individual students researching the answers. As we move into the create stage of this project, students would likely brainstorm their ideas collaboratively within a Google Doc which the teacher could access – this could also be done in Google Classroom or Edmodo. From this they would decide on their idea, and allocate responsibilities for students to create different aspects of the game.
- Following the learning calendar already established at the beginning of the project. Another feature of this type of learning is using a calendar to plan out how long the different stages of learning will take, what specific tasks to do within those stages, and indicating when work needs to be submitted for feedback from the teacher. At the beginning of this term I gave out project calendars to my ILP and Praxis classes, so students know exactly what they need to be working on each week, and what progress I expect to see when. Obviously there is flexibility within this, dependent on how quickly students and teams work, but I keep the check-ins consistent. For us, students will share the work to be checked via Google Drive – using the ‘share’ feature so the teacher gets an email, or adding the file to be checked into a folder indicated by the teacher (I do this with year 12). With my Praxis iii class, we have a very loose calendar – just the weeks allocated to discover, create, share – and we’ve been creating our work focus as we go. That will change if we are working from home, where I will write up a more specific learning calendar to guide them through the project stages. I’ll probably do this in negotiation with them either in person before school is closed, or online via Skype. I am actually looking forward to that Skype or Zoom session, my kids are hilarious.
I guess I should just say here, even though I think it is obvious, that projects don’t need to continue if it’s not feasible. Like, if your students are meant to be building some huge physical thing and they don’t have resources at home to continue to do that. Or, if your students don’t have access to a computer or the internet a couple of times a week (that’s all they’d need for most project stages if the project doesn’t involve heaps of online research). I fully understand equity issues, and appreciate that what I’ve written above may not work for some.
Anyway, let’s hope the schools in Australia close soon and we can see if I’m right, haha! I’m looking forward to getting to know my students in a different context, but more importantly I am hopeful that we can keep them all safe and healthy. Having a project to work on that you’re really passionate about can make being socially isolated less overwhelming. I hope that will be the case for me and my students.