PBL and the HSC? Yes, it can be done.

My year 12 students have been PBL kids since they were in year 10. Their first project was the ever popular ‘Can cyborgs write poetry?’ then they moved on to ‘Why do emos write poetry?’ and became obsessed with the immersive Hunger Games project. These kids know the process of learning through a project and have wonderful team-working skills. However, when they hit the beginning of year 12, project learning kinda stopped. I panicked and thought that it was better if I took full control of their learning, directing what happened every lesson. It worked to an extent – they all achieved well in their end of unit assessment – but it certainly wasn’t independent and original ideas that they wrote. They were my ideas with a tiny sprinkling of individual thought. OK, some of that sprinkling was more like a sneeze… not much at all and quickly over with!

As I prepared for the next module for the HSC course, I decided that PBL was definitely going to be my model again. For true success in the HSC students need to be independent, critical thinkers who can access a breadth and depth of content knowledge and apply it to unseen questions in a short space of time. For success in HSC English, you need to write with flair and a personal, engaged voice. (Of course, it’s also possible for students to get great marks by memorising an essay written by someone else and adapting it to fit the question, but I imagine if that was your attitude towards learning you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog post right now.) I’ve spoken with my students many times about the skills that matter – not being able to memorise huge chunks of information, but rather being able to see the connections between divergent ideas and texts; being able to discuss confidently and critically the ideas of others and to ask challenging and probing questions about people’s attitudes and interpretations of their world; being able to share a laugh with someone who has different values and ambitions; desiring to share your knowledge with others; having the confidence to work in a team with strangers and being able to justify your ideas in front of an audience. For me, the HSC does reward students who master these skills. But more importantly, life rewards human beings who have these skills. I believe, naively most likely, that learning through projects in small teams equips my students with these skills.

So this was the driving question for our Module A project: How can we use video and audio to explore the connections between Richard III and Looking for Richard? Not an overly exciting question, but one that hints at the final product and connects with our set texts. I’ll admit right now, that this elective is tough to get through in the time frame allocated (7 weeks) because we have to study Shakespeare and a documentary and have students be able to write a quality essay about the connections between the two. Adding the project layer is adding more stress. Whilst we didn’t get to the final product that we dreamed of (a YouTube video exploring the connections between the two texts) we did get the first part finished (the videos exploring Richard III). I’m happy with that, because honestly it was the Shakespeare play that they found the hardest. During Trials prep time I hope to get them to work in teams to used audio and video to create learning resources for their peers – that will see at least one team dipping back into Mod A and finally making the video. I want to also add, that the final assessment for this module was an essay under exam conditions during the half-yearly exams. I spent minimal time in class focused on this and only received and read through two draft essays and three draft introductions. I was panicked before the exam thinking my students would do badly because I hadn’t helped them prep – i.e. heavily edited their essays so as that their writing reflected my ideal and my ideas. However, when I finally got to read through their essays, I was SO surprised – they knew so much and their writing was amazing! A testament to an approach that is scary and involves throwing out a challenge, providing access to rich resources and then (mostly) standing back. Below are their videos. The quality isn’t the best sometimes, but keep in mind that these were made by teams of four HSC students during (limited) class time with access to limited technology. I’m very proud.

King Richard III: Plot and Purpose on PowToon.


5 thoughts on “PBL and the HSC? Yes, it can be done.

  1. Great project, Bianca! When working with year 12 I constantly remind myself that the kids need to ‘ do the work/thinking’ not me, and I try to create class tasks where they are engaged in making sense of the texts and concepts.

    • Thanks Lyn! It is very daunting giving over the thinking to the kids when the stakes are so high! Well worth it for the young in care, in the end we won’t be there during the rest of their lives to do it for them.

  2. Posts like this fill my heart with hope (as you know, I think the existence of the hsc makes the angels cry).

    Can you tell us some more about how you established a ‘real world problem’ for this PBL task? I like what you’ve done with the driving question, just wondering how it was framed, especially add their summative assessment was an essay. Thanks!

    • This is a tricky one, with the HSC being the biggest problem my students are facing, we focused on that. Hence the driving question focused on them and their individual mastery of the connections between the two texts. Yes, it’s less authentic than true PBL and yes it is merely a way of helping kids access the content, but nonetheless I think it’s an approach that does support the growth of important thinking skills that listening to the teacher and taking notes doesn’t allow. I can’t find the project outline to show you, it’s at school, but basically the ‘share’ included the essay during the exam, lol.

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