Project Based Learning: Teething Problems

Two weeks ago I decided that I wouldn’t spend the three-week lead up to the School Certificate explicitly teaching to the test. Let’s face it – teaching to a test is boring and ‘learning to a test’ is even worse. I think highly of my Year 10 class – they are a diverse range of learners who also are just great kids. I want more for them.

Being in the midst of planning for a pilot PBL run with Year 8, I decided that I might give a mini-PBL project a go with my Year 10 class. I wanted to be really subversive and get them excited, make them think about education critically as they head towards their school certificate. (Did I just hear a collective drawing in of breath, or was it simply the wind breathing through the leaves outside?) I set my mind to devising an engaging and provocative driving question that would form the basis of our three week project. Here is the question:

How can the Board of Studies redesign the School Certificate English Literacy test so that it assesses the literacy skills relevant to today’s world?

I love this question – it spent a good deal of time in formation in my head and when I finally managed to get it onto the black and white I was very proud of myself. Our ‘products’ would be a letter to the BOS outlining the students’ suggestions for the new School Certificate (if you check out the BOS website there is a note indicating that the SC is under review at the moment) as well as the creation of a youtube video (rant) in which students articulate their ideas about education in the 21st century – especially assessment. Both would be presented to the HT of English and one of our Deputy Principles. If you don’t already know much about PBL (and neither did I a few months ago, so click here for some good stuff) basically you begin with a question and a ‘hook’ lesson to engage your learners. PBL is all about engagement, real-world problems and real-world audiences and group work. My ‘hook’ lesson had two elements: circle time questions relating to learning (personal learning/teaching preference, do we need exams, where do you want to be 5 years after school etc) and a youtube rant ‘An open letter to educators’ in which traditional education is criticised by a college student. The kids LOVED this. They loved circle time the most, but they also liked the youtube rant – one of my students parrots a line from it at me each lesson ‘education is getting in the way of my learning’.

So it all started really well. I got them to deconstruct the question for implied/assumed knowledge – mini-questions sprouted such as ‘what are the literacy skills that the SC tests?’, ‘what are the literacy needs in the 21st century?’, ‘who are the education stakeholders and what do they want to see in the SC?’ etc. I had students divide into groups of 4 or 6 – with equal parts boys and girls. And here is where I hit the snag. The students were very happy to contribute to class discussions during circle time and the more informal teacher at front, students calling out ideas arrangement. Their ideas were wonderful! But as soon as they were asked to create groups with students outside of their peer-group they were resistant. There was a great deal of eye-rolling and pouting. Ultimately I had to don the teacher mantle and direct girls to boys etc. Once this hurdle was jumped I figured we’d be OK. The kids rearranged the furniture into watering-holes (see a couple of blog posts ago) and I provided each small group with both electronic and hard copies of past SC tests plus links to sites on 21st century skills etc. Each group had to answer one of the mini-questions derived from the driving question and they were given two lessons to answer them and plan a presentation to the class explaining what their research/discussions yielded.

So, the day rolled around for the presentations and guess what happened? Yep – you guessed it. Nothing. Not one group was ready to present. They hadn’t collaborated despite having edmodo. They hadn’t done any research. Quite simply, they had done nothing. Were the students engaged in the project? Yes. Did they commit themselves to it? No. My response? Well – as my colleague aptly pointed out ‘I took my ball and went home’. Just like a child whose friends won’t play the game the way they want. I stood there and honestly asked the kids ‘Do you want to drop this project and have me teach you explicitly what you need to know to do well in the School Certificate exams?’ They responded unanimously with ‘Yes’. I can’t say I’m surprised. They have been conditioned by the current education model for ten years. They can talk to me about the stupidity of formal external summative examinations. They can argue passionately about how they would like to be assessed (uh, group work!). That they feel SC and HSC results do not reflect their worth as individuals. But they still know the test has to be sat and they distrust a teaching method that is not teacher-centred. They didn’t have the faith in themselves to learn independently. They chose to be passive learners.

So where am I now with them? Well let’s just say I can role-play traditional teacher quite convincingly. Year 10 have now spent three lessons writing notes from the whiteboard. All tables have been put in rows facing the front and all netbooks have been banned from the classroom. We are all handwriting copious amounts of notes regarding the literacy skills assessed in the SC. There is no talking. No discussing. We have been banished to the cave.

The students picked up on what was happening mid-way through the third lesson. I quizzed them on the information copied off the board. They complained they hadn’t learnt anything – that it wasn’t effective. They weren’t even ‘taking it in’. I agreed. They asked if I could type it up and hand it out as a sheet. I told them that wouldn’t help them with their written exams. They said their hands hurt and I told them that meant they were getting stronger and before long they’d be able to write really fast – an important skills for exams, not so important for real life.

Tomorrow is the beginning of a new week. I can’t sustain the traditional teacher approach. It was funny for a couple of lessons and I made my point. The kids now appreciate the value of our original PBL question.

Tomorrow I’ll start the lesson with circle time and the question ‘How do you learn best?’ and then move on to ‘What does good team-work look like?’ I’ll then spend time discussing with them the necessary skills required to work well in a group. We’ll try some out with easy tasks. Then I’ll ask them if they want to have another go at our project. I will explicitly teach the skills necessary to work successfully towards completing the project.

This time I’ll be using the worksheets devised by the Buck Institute for Education that help students keep track of their learning responsibilties as part of a group and the project as a whole. I will explicitly teach them to scaffold the work that needs to be completed – to organise their time and plan for success.

We only have a few weeks before the SC exam – I wonder if they’ll trust my judgement and decide to play my way?


15 thoughts on “Project Based Learning: Teething Problems

  1. Hi Bianca

    I work with students on project based, or enquiry based learning in this area. It is amazing how entrenched the idea of passive learning is, even though we are all pretty aware it’s not very effective. Anyway I have had the same experience many times, very little work completed. Hmmph… but in the end there does seem to be relatively quick succes, a term or two and they are thinking in really different ways.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks Concetta for your comment!

      It is SUCH a steep learning curve for the students – they just are NOT familiar with having to think independently and work cooperatively with other students in this way. Funny, they are so good at team work when it comes to sport! Maybe it’s a competitive thing?

      Anyway – I’m committed to trialling this style of learning further at my school as I know there must be a better way for our kids!

  2. Thank you for sharing all that is in this post; the courage to try and implement such a task and reassess when it didn’t quite work out. I hope your students get back on board. I am looking at ways to implement PBL in my language classes and this has been a valuable read for me. All the best with the rest of the project!

    • Thanks :0)

      I completely understand why my students resented such a change to their learning routine. I am determined to better plan and implement a PBL experience for these kids!

      Failure = learning!

  3. Hi Bianca,
    Thanks for this honest account of launching into PBL. You’ve hit the nail on the head with your reflection about why that initial engagement (with your fantastic driving question) didn’t automatically produce excellent projects. Kids might have been interested, but they didn’t buy in. It was your driving question, not theirs. What’s more, they didn’t yet have the project management chops to get them from an idea to a finished product.
    Your response–reverting back to drill-and-kill lessons–is just brilliant. NOW they see the difference, and they’re apt to be motivated to take the next project more seriously. Unfortunately, not all teachers are willing to give it another go if their first project falls flat. What you’re teaching–by example–is the wisdom of learning from mistakes/errors/missteps, and taking those insights into your next effort. That’s a real life lesson.
    Can’t wait to hear how your next project goes. Good luck!

    • Thanks for your comment! It has been a few weeks now since this first trial, and I have to say that listening to my students talk to one another about their HSC (the big end of schooling exam in Australia) is interesting – they don’t want to be drilled anymore. They want to be given the chance to think and design their own learning experiences.

      That’s pretty cool.

      Yep, think I’ll keep at it and keep embracing the failures, lol!

  4. Ah Bianca the joys and the pitfalls,
    we can learn from them all if we stop and reflect
    and you did!
    Thanks for sharing problems and solutions!
    Scaffolding can be a great support at this stage of their learning.
    All the best 🙂

  5. You know, I only just realised after searching around from this post that project-based learning and problem-based learning are different PBLs? Amazing!

    Glad to be revisiting your blog today, as I am just about to throw the next lesson plan out the door that claims to be using student-centred pedagogy, but in fact is dominated by a combination of teacher talk and teacher-prescribed activities.
    ‘Students work on focus questions for 15 minutes in groups’ does not equate to ‘student-centred learning’ people! ARGH!

    • Glad I could be of service to you and your students!!

      I have totally taken on the task of revolutionising my classroom practice instead of sticking my nose into the rooms of others! BUT am doing the latter a little accidentally via my blog and our PBL projects with Year 8 (and now Year 10 thanks to DET DER grant – woot!)

      Having ALL English classes mixed up together into groups and ALL teachers working with ALL students is just an AMAZING experience – scary as all hell, but wonderful! Imagine what the kids must be saying to their parents, lol!

      Get over to eduptopia and check out what’s happening!

  6. Pingback: PBL + me = why? | Bianca Hewes

  7. Hi Bianca, myself and 2 colleagues are heading down to Sydney to visit schools practising PBL> We have just opened a small innovative independent College on the Gold Coast in QLD. Is there a possibility we could come and visit you. We are heading down on the 22nd October. I look forward to hearing from you.
    Thanks Kathy Hadley

  8. Pingback: Reflection #1: Bianca Hewes/Project Based Learning | Window to the Classroom

  9. Pingback: 8 Awesome Project-Based Learning Blogs You Must Follow

  10. Pingback: Project-Based Learning Through the Eyes of the Odd One Out | The Joyous Life of Jess

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