Last Friday I said goodbye to my Year 10 class. It was a sad goodbye for me as I can honestly say that teaching this class has been one of my greatest pleasures this year. It is with this class that I indulged my interest in Project Based Learning. I joked with them that they were my guinea pigs, and more than once I panicked a little thinking that my pedagogical experimentation might have negative consequences on their learning … if not this year with me, but in other classes in the future. It is a bit cruel to sorta train them to learn a specific way, to approach learning in a new way, to expect more from their learning, knowing that I won’t be teaching them next year and that my style is a little bit, uh, unconventional.
During our last lesson I asked them to do me a final favour. To write me a letter. To tell me, in their own way, in their own voice, how I did as a teacher. To evaluate my teaching. The letters took them about ten minutes to write and then we ate junk food and played handball. It was a great lesson. My favourite part was us joking about how to justify playing handball instead of ‘learning’ in the classroom – we had just finished watching Dead Poet’s Society, so we decided that we would tell passing teachers they were revising poetic devices as they played. Each time they hit the ball, they had to call out a poetic device ala Mr Keating and his football-kicking, Shakespeare quoting students. Hilarious.
Reading through their letters was a wonderful experience, not simply because they said some moving things about their time in my class, but because they taught me some things about learning.
Year 10 taught me …
1. Engagement is the key to learning. I guess we all knew this anyway but I felt joy seeing the word ‘fun’ recurring in the letters my students wrote to me. I don’t know how high on the priority list ‘fun’ is for many teachers.
2. Quality teachers are an essential ingredient to mastery of content and skills. An enthusiastic and dedicated teacher is required for PBL to ‘work’. A passionate teacher makes learning engaging. Using humour to teach and manage behaviour is appreciated – yelling and a tone of superiority are not. Respect is earned – for both teachers and students.
3. Variety of learning experiences challenges and engages students. Students should be given the opportunity to work on independent projects as well as group projects. There should be a blend of student-centred and teacher-centred learning.
4. Students prefer a structured lesson as this helps them understand the learning goals and expectations for that lesson. Make learning visible – write it on the whiteboard or project it on your IWB. Make students accountable for planning as well – daily, weekly and project plans help students feel confident as they know what is expected of them. Even the arrangement of the classroom furniture helps structure learning expectations and outcomes – my students cheered my use of the cave, wateringhole and campfire metaphors.
5. Teaching needs to be visible. My students thanked me for being enthusiastic and dedicated. They saw how hard I was working to help them learn – but I didn’t try to make them feel guilty for my hard work or expect them to praise me. I openly discussed my role as a teacher, my ideas about teaching and learning and gave students the opportunity to give me feedback on my teaching throughout the year.
6. Group work might be challenging but it teaches students how to cooperate, listen and contribute ideas. My students found group work really hard at the beginning of they year – lots of trial and error to find the right way to ‘do’ group work. We experimented with small groups, gender groups, large groups, friend groups and ability groups.
7. Project lengths should vary depending on the content and skills to be mastered. The five week unit is so arbitrary it frustrates both the teacher and the students. This year I was confined to a pre-established assessment schedule and we all felt this made some projects too rushed and others too drawn out. Projects need to be both well-planned and flexible to account for a variety of interruptions, delays and exciting real-world twists.
8. Assessments should be engaging (fun) and creative, giving room for students choice and voice. My students all commented that the assessment tasks completed this year were enjoyable – why? Because the assessments were the projects … they worked together in class to master a set of skills and content and then demonstrated this mastery through products and presentations. They got to choose what they made and how they presented it and to who. There was minimal ‘night before’ completing of assessments.
9. Projects need to have effectively timed ‘teacher/expert instruction’ built-in. Teacher instructions need to be really clear, accessible for all students and understanding must be checked before moving on with task/project. This is especially important for using technology or more challenging products like extended writing compositions.
10. Students like being given a voice and listening to the ideas of their peers. Too often the primary voice in the classroom is that of the teacher. This year we spent a lot of time listening to each other’s ideas on all sorts of topics. We did this using different strategies like: circle time, Socratic circles, debates, fish bowl, silent edmodo discussions and small group waterhole chats.
Final note: Year 10 for many teachers and students is about the School Certificate – an external examination run by the Board of Studies. It is essentially a literacy exam comprised of a series of multiple choice questions, short answer questions and two written responses. I am pleased to say that despite the fact that my class was highly unconventional with minimal ‘teacher teaching’ time, no ‘teaching to the test’ and significant blocks of student-centred project work, all of my class did very well in the exams. They didn’t let the exam determine their learning, but they pwned the exam anyway. I am so proud of them. They are beautiful young people.
Thanks Year 10 🙂