PBL: the shift from passive to active learning

This is a super quick post. I’m even using the ‘Quick Press’ feature of WP to write this! A few recent incidents have prompted this post, quick or not. The first was on Tuesday when I was giving Medal and Mission feedback (M&Ms) to my uni students on their draft project outlines. Almost all of the students had included far too much detailed information on the project outline. Now I don’t know if other people who do PBL give out project outlines. I know it’s something that I worked on and tweaked for a couple of years. I’m still not happy with the format I’m currently using. Anyway, the reason I introduced a project outline into my PBL was because it gives my students insight into the working of the project, the DQ and the main cycles of learning that will (hopefully) take place. It was never intended as a teacher-tool. It is entirely about giving students some control over their learning – to force them to start asking questions about what they need to know.

The project outlines my MTeach students created were much more like teacher documents. They were like lesson plan summaries, in a way. I’m not blaming them, I clearly didn’t explain the intended purpose of a project outline to them early enough. Bad teacher. My feedback to most students was to include less on the outline and assume that students will ask questions. They always do. There is a lot of ‘teacher’ stuff that hangs behind a project outline that the students don’t need to see, really. Like the formative assessment strategies you will be using … these are just part of the day-to-day running of a project. We want our students to actively engage in the learning process – and this is done best by giving less and expecting more.

The second incident involves my colleagues who are trying to incorporate elements of PBL into their teaching. The problem is, I haven’t really ever had a chance to sit with them and go through the process of planning and running a project with them. Therefore they see and use some concrete aspects of what I’m doing with my classes (e.g. the project outline) and think that they’re ‘doing PBL’. But PBL is waaaaaay more than a project outline. In fact, you don’t even need a project outline to do PBL – you might have a introductory video or a website that provides the same information. See, what’s happening is that the PBL outline is being confused for an assessment task and that’s not good. If we see it as an assessment task (in the traditional sense) then we imagine it is OK to give it out to the students mid way through the learning process – or near the end. This is problematic because the outline is meant to frame the learning – it’s meant to prompt students to identify what they need to know and drive how they will learn this. If we give it out half way through the learning process, well students have lost their capacity to control their learning, right?

The final incident relates to the second incident. My son cam home from school yesterday and told me that his class is working in a big space with another two classes. It sounds a little like what is happening at Merrylands East and NBCS. According to my son it is ‘COGS’ which is sort of like the DEC version of PBL. Problem is, my son doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. He said some of the activities are fun, but when asked what they’re learning about and why, he can’t tell me. Big problem. Why? Well we have an example of teachers doing something differently with their students (and probably being really stoked about it) but we have students not knowing what learning is meant to be taking place or why. The key component of learning in the ’21st century’ – student autonomy and control – hasn’t been given to them. If they were using a PBL approach then these 50 or so students would be directing their own learning, feeling super independent and aware of what learning is required and why. Yes, it might be that my son hasn’t understood what is happening – maybe it has been explained – but if a clever kid doesn’t ‘get it’, then something must be going wrong, no?

PBL isn’t just about ‘fun’ and it isn’t just about ‘engagement’. It’s about learning and it’s about students always understanding what they need to know and why the need to know it. It’s about shifting students from passive to active learners. Yes, that can be scary for teachers who are used to planning everything themselves, but it is an essential shift of mind that needs to take place. We don’t want zombies graduating from our schools, do we?


2 thoughts on “PBL: the shift from passive to active learning

  1. Yes, I completely agree. For several years now I have been very concerned for teachers who define a rigid rubric which all students MUST follow. And similarly that teachers are therefore tempted to mark only what is listed in the rubric – ignoring other, perhaps, more important aspects of learning.

  2. Pingback: Chasing Innovative Education » Reflection Week 4: Bianca Hewes – PBL: The Shift from Passive to Active Learning

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