The post below is a response to Kelli McGraw’s blog post ‘Pedagogy or assessment – what comes first in PBL?’
It’s a really great post that deserves a read. Kelli is grappling with the ‘how to’ of teaching at the tertiary level when trapped within a rigid framework of summative assessment. Her dilemmas are, unfortunately, my dilemmas as well. I don’t think my reply answered her question fully but that’s OK cos I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, especially not how to teach at a tertiary level. I did find that as I replied to her questions I was capturing some ideas about education that are perplexing me right now. So to save me time writing it again as a stand alone blog post, I thought I’d just post it here for y’all. I’d really like to get some Challenge-Based Learning advocates to help out with what it is, how it works, why it’s different to Project-Based Learning etc.
It’s interesting isn’t it – the whole assessment as driver for pedagogy? It’s what I would say most English teachers in NSW have been ‘trained’ to do via PD sessions led by the likes of Karen Yager and Prue Greene. When planning a unit of work (and for most of us now this is a ‘conceptual planning model’) the instruction is to design the assessment first and then create the rest of the ‘learning activities’ to lead up to this assessment. It’s not overly a bad model, if done well and in the spirit of assessment for learning – that is the final assessment is a product that students ‘work towards’ with the aid of feedback (peer, self and teacher) throughout the unit leading up to submission of task. BUT serious, serious problems are encountered when the assessment us poorly crafted – essentially it is a task that is simply an ‘assessment of learning’ that is clear to the teacher (as it is typically written in teacher-babble with an impenetrably babbly marking criteria) but not clear to the student and more often than not is simply a veiled HSC-style essay task. Basically the students spend 5-7 weeks ‘working towards’ an analysis essay … if they’re lucky they’ll get some feedback on a draft, so they might ‘learn’ to write an essay analysing (more like technique-vomiting) a text or two.
So what then is informing pedagogy? The HSC. A big surprise? No.
I just wrote this but then had a think and I don’t think it’s right but wanna share it anyway: So whether you’re using challenge, inquire or project based learning it doesn’t matter so much. What matters is the assessment because this will drive your pedagogy. Designing a great assessment is damn hard to do … I haven’t mastered it and don’t imagine I will anytime soon.
Hmmm … your pedagogy will influence your assessment style. (Notice how this point is contrary to what I just said … thoughts in action often are, lol) If you choose an inquiry/constructivist approach to teaching like those you have identified above, then this will shape the types of assessment you set. (ASIDE: The problem is the heavy emphasis on ‘program writing’ that we have in NSW – everywhere probably. I find it inherently problematic to put down on paper exactly what will be taught each lesson for four or five weeks … life is evolving daily with amazing and disturbing things happening on both a micro and macro level – we should remain flexible and open to change. A program is a static construct that forces teachers to ‘stick to the program’ and not diverge from the path – look, great teachers will diverge, program or not, and I know how helpful these programs are to new teachers and to ‘checking’ we’re all being good teacher citizens following the syllabus etc … but I find them annoyingly limiting.) Assessment for learning (feedback) is critical to all inquiry learning – if not included then the teaching approach is flawed. There is no gain in letting students flail around trying to ‘inquire’ without receiving feedback (self, peer, teacher). Project-based learning is very much about the scaffolding I think – getting the students to set goals, plan and reflect on learning is central. The un-packing of the project occurs by assessing throughout the project – beginning (a project plan or initial investigation), middle (product, draft product) and end (presentation of learning/product). It’s easy to see how using this pedagogy necessarily informs your assessment. Our job as English teachers working within the current context of HSC pressure is to work out how a PBL approach can ‘fit’ within the existing assessment schedule. I know I’ve said this before but I think assessment MUST change if teaching is to change.
I guess you left out problem-based learning which is more teacher-directed and unless scaffolded well with embedded ‘expert’ lessons and feedback then it seems to not be terribly effective. It’s great in terms of those ‘soft-skills’ we know kids need, but seems to fail a bit on the ‘knowledge’ stuff.
Because I’m very new to this whole thing I can’t give you any help with the relationship between the three approaches outlined – as I have stated elsewhere, I am skeptical of CBL simply because it has a corporate brand attached (apple) and I find that worrying. I’m sure that it’s a great approach and it appears to have very many similar traits to project-based learning …
I did have a cool site I used to check out that explained the difference between problem, project and challenge based learning … if I find it I will share it with you.
Oh, and I think your last task would be great with a presentation and seems to be a great opportunity for the project-based learning framework … the students would really value hearing about their peers’ lesson plans. One of the really cool things about PBL presentations is the use of questions, get the students to use the ‘I like …’ and ‘I wonder …’ questioning strategy so the presenter is engaged in a ‘defense of product’ discussion.
Sorry for the rant – going to post this on my blog now and see if I can get some challenge based learning advocates to rip me to shreds, lol!