Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 2)

This is the second part of my ramblings on the Australian Curriculum’s General Capabilities and Project Based Learning (PBL). The first part is here. What is PBL? Read about it here.

At my school, this is becoming our central focus for the implementation of the new NSW syllabi. I think it’s because my principal is really keen on it – she’s also an advocate for quality feedback and valuing skills over content. Pretty awesome for our students to have her as our leader, I reckon. I think critical and creative thinking are life-long skills that all people should master; it’s this type of thinking that can lead to a happy and successful life. Of course, teaching critical and creative thinking skills is a conundrum to teachers who feel pressured to cover a lot of content. Luckily for people using PBL as their main pedagogy, critical and creative thinking is much easier to teach … well, I don’t even think it is ‘taught’ during PBL as much as it is developed and refined.

In the style of PBL that I’ve developed over three years, I break down projects into three main parts: inquiry/discovery/research, create/compose/produce and present/share/promote. Of course, the first part of the project doesn’t really stop … inquiry is an iterative process and necessary at all stages, really. I should probably create a picture to show that one day, lol. I use a lot of visible thinking strategies at all stages of PBL, and these are implemented to develop and strengthen critical and creative thinking. Making your thinking visible is, I believe, an important 21st century skill. I’m not saying this type of thinking is new – um, hello Newton, da Vinci, Shelley – I’m just saying that it’s even more important in our world today as our problems become more complex and more immediate. Strong critical and creative thinking is necessary if our young people are to thrive in our kinda ridiculously fast 21st century world. If we spend time making thinking visible – showcasing to ourselves and our peers what we’re thinking, how we’re thinking and why we’re thinking like that about a topic, product etc – then we are valuing critical and creative thinking; we’re having conversations about it in class. It’s not a case of, ‘Oh, I don’t/can’t think that way.’, it’s about empowering our young people to see that they can and do think this way.

So, over the years my PBL projects have seen my students develop their creative thinking through composing and designing awesome products like podcasts, websites, rap battles, narrative poetry, collaborative novellas, machinima, short films and anthologies of personal essays. This process is predicated on revision and reflection. Visible thinking strategies for brainstorming and planning that my students frequently use include star-bursting, KWL tables, think/pair/share, think/puzzle/explore and mind-mapping on portable whiteboards. Another excellent creative thinking activity is whole-group ‘what if’ question-asking when students present plans or drafts of their work to their peers.

As previously mentioned, projects necessitate in-depth inquiry. Students are developing their critical thinking as they learn to curate information found on the Internet (and sometimes even in books!). There are lots of protocols available to support students in their ability to judge the quality, credibility and relevance of information that they find on the web. PBL means that students aren’t being taught these skills in a ‘one-off’ lesson, rather they are using these methods time and time again at the beginning stages of their projects. We need to have young people who are critical of the content that is delivered to them via the media – this is essential in a media rich age where consumerism has become the natural state for our young people. A great activity is to actually teach students how to use google – people expect that this knowledge and skill is a given. It is not. Here’s a great website and poster for your classroom wall. My students have also started experimenting with the question formulating technique (QFT). This is a strategy that supports students in their question asking as they learn to identify open and closed questions and how to develop the best questions to ask. The QFT has resulted in some great ‘punk questions‘ which students have made visible to their peers through writing with whiteboard markers on windows and posting punk questions to the walls of the classroom.

Finally, giving students the freedom to pursue their interests in projects (even if all you feel you can allow is choice in product or audience), allows them to think more deeply about their own passions. Passions are the drivers of creative and critical thinking. There are a number of stages within PBL where students can be given a voice – what is the significance of the topic to their lives, what are their concerns about it, are we missing something pertinent to them as human beings – two being the crafting of the driving question (use the BIE tubric to help) and through daily reflection of their feelings about the project and their learning. To discover student interest you could do one of these activities: get them to write you a letter introducing themselves to you, get them to list the five things most important to them in their lives, do circle time where you focus on favourite ways to learn, favourite activities or what they want to do when the leave school OR get your students passion blogging once a week about what they value the most right now.

All teachers want their students to go off and live happy and successful lives. Just what successful means and looks like varies massively between our young people. This is something that we, as teachers, need to accept. Successful for all students is not a Band 6 in the HSC or top bands in NAPLAN (that might be success for you as teacher). In fact, success for many of our students is simply to be happy and healthy. To feel safe and to feel valued. I really like this capability because it requires we teachers to see the human being behind the student. Does that make sense? Well, maybe it’s better if I quote the ACARA document:

the Melbourne Declaration on Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA, p. 5) states that ‘a school’s legacy to young people should include national values of democracy, equity and justice, and personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience and respect for others’.

This capability is about considering how our young people are developing emotionally and socially. It’s about being great role-models and facilitating learning experiences that ensure these young people are being given the opportunity to develop their self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and social-management (these are the four elements of Personal and Social capability as outlined in the AC document, here). According to the AC, if you just teach the document, students will develop all of these aspects of personal and social capability. This may be true, but I’m slightly cynical about that. Covering content can easily be done through more traditional transmission-style teaching practices (insert jibe about worksheets) and does not necessarily mean that this capability will be explicitly targeted in the learning experiences being created.

The best type of PBL is real-world and authentic. As Suzie Boss says, PBL gives students the opportunity to contribute to and change (even slightly) their world. Boss says all projects should target one of the three As: action, awareness and advocacy. According to Lee, we should add two more: activism and anarchy. (Hehe!) Essentially, if a project is going to be significant and engaging and valuable, it will allow students to develop a sense of themselves and their role within their local and wider community. Students will work on real-world problems in their community or wider society (such as transport issues, employment, youth homelessness, environment issues, bullying, depression etc) and contribute to solving these problems in some way. My students have engaged with their local community through our projects, for example students raises awareness of human trafficking by writing an article for the local newspaper, they took action on depression and bullying by composing and publishing poems online and they will be advocating for the valuing of imagination to Year 5 and 6 students at our local primary school in May.

By giving our young people a voice through seeking a public audience for their learning, their compositions and their concerns, we are helping them to develop a better sense of themselves as active and effective contributors to their local and global communities.

(The final two capabilities will be outlined in the final part of this series of posts. Sorry it’s a bit massive, lol!)

7 thoughts on “Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Project Based Learning and the Australian Curri...

  2. This is awesome Bianca, not only for your clarity on what the General Capabilties should look like, but also how taking a new approach to teaching and learning honours both the intent of the AC/NC and ultimately the authentic learning that the kids experience. I’ll certainly recommend this to my English HT and to my wider network as food for thought.:-) Jonesy

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and resources. It helps to make sense of the jumble in my head and it gives me a lot to think about as I am at the beginning of the PBL journey.

  4. Thanks so much for your insights into the General Capabilities. I will share this with my HT and colleagues as it has really helped me to get my head around what these capabilities can look like in the classroom. I will definitely be using this as I continue to integrate PBL into my units.

  5. Pingback: Assignment: Blog Post 2 | The Geeky Librarian

  6. Pingback: Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 3) |

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