The skill, will, and thrill of Project Based Learning

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that last Thursday and Friday I attended the Visible Learning Symposium in Darling Harbour. You’ll also know that I found the event surprising, and not in a good way. After the Thursday session, in which we heard from John Hattie himself, I was distressed to the point of angry blogging. Thankfully I decided not to publish that blog post – it was only half completed anyway because I ended up having to give in to my rage-induced migraine and go to sleep early that night. So, instead of sharing with you a rambling critique of a professional learning event that I (and many others) felt was anything but professional, I have decided to reflect on the take-aways from the two days and apply them to my ongoing commitment to quality, engaging, enriching, and authentic learning experiences for my students using the Project Based Learning methodology. Because, despite what Hattie and his many enthusiastic disciples believe, Project Based Learning is NOT the same as Problem Based Learning or Inquiry Based Teaching, and therefore their attempts to denigrate it based on the purported (although problematic) effect sizes of the latter, are simply false.

On Thursday of last week, I tweeted out this:

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It’s true – a lot of what Hattie, and presenter Kristin Anderson, said about effective teaching practice is what all great PBL teachers already do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Hattie’s learning model – Visible Learning Plus – is actually just quality teaching, and thus practices all great teachers do. There wasn’t anything at all surprising about the fact that teacher rapport with students, teacher efficacy, feedback, establishing clear learning intentions and sharing exemplars, empowering students to be self-directed learners through self-assessment and setting learning goals, and constant reflection on and evaluation of student learning achievement are essentials for improved student learning outcomes. If anyone was surprised by that, I question their role as educators.

The catch-phrase for Visible Learning Plus is ‘skill, will, thrill’ – these terms are viewed as both ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’, and frame the learning process from surface learning (acquiring and consolidating), deep learning (acquiring and consolidating), and transference of learning into new contexts. The ‘skill’ is what students bring to learning – their prior achievements, the ‘will’ refers to the disposition of the student to learn – their resilience, resourcefulness, ability to reflect and to relate, and the ‘thrill’ is being motivated, and understanding standards and what success looks. For Hattie, learning is ‘The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations’. Unfortunately, Hattie believes that the ‘transfer’ stage is incredibly difficult for most students to get to – and this is where I believe PBL is its most effective, in that students become quite adept at transferring skills and content knowledge between projects – obviously when the PBL they are doing is well-structured.

OK, so let’s look at how Project Based Learning actually authentically reflects Hattie’s mantra of ‘surface to deep to transfer’ and a movement away from ‘an over-emphasis on surface learning’. Below is a visual representation of Hattie’s model of learning (taken from this slide show from Hattie), and it is to this (and his league table of Effect Sizes – the methodology of which I acknowledge is highly problematic and has been critiqued in numerous posts such as herehere, here, here, here, and here) that I will refer to in this post. To be entirely honest (even though it hurts to admit, since I have many philosophical concerns/reservations about Hattie himself) I think this diagram is quite effective in representing the learning process – yet, in saying that, this image is nothing new or ground-breaking, and reflects many other effective representations of the learning process. A coincidence? Probably not. At this stage, if you haven’t read this BIE article on  the Discover, Create, Share model of Project Based Learning, you probably should as I will be using it in my discussion.

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In the above image, Hattie places ‘Problem Based Learning’ at the deep – transfer stage of learning, arguing that this is a higher order process that will only have an impact on students’ learning once they have mastered the surface learning, and a range of metacognitive skills. I have no problem with this, and would argue that no effective teacher would throw students into Problem Based Learning, without prior supporting the development of essential content knowledge and skills. In regards to Project Based Learning (which is an entirely different methodology to Problem Based Learning), teachers carefully design and structure projects so as that students develop essential skills and content in the initial ‘discover’ stage before they move on to the ‘create’ stage in which students are challenged to deepen their understanding through the application of content and skills in the creation of artefacts to share with real-world audiences. It is this mid-stage of a project in which students encounter problems – and when some teachers provide students with Problem Based Learning challenges – yet by this stage they are actively involved in self-talk, self and peer assessment, and self-regulation (all VL elements). Thus, Project Based Learning – by its very design – reinforces what Hattie is presenting as an effective model for learning, rather than challenges or contradicts it as is often purported due to a misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of what PBL is.

OK, so let’s look at another version of Hattie’s model of learning, this time with some specific teaching strategies overlaid on top – all of which are shown to have a profound effect size, according to Hattie’s own meta-analysis (and the top 10 are, let’s face it, pretty common sense stuff in terms of quality teaching practices).

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Discover – All projects begin with a KWL table – this strategy allows the teacher to identify students’ prior knowledge (what do I know?), and their confidence and mindset as they approach the project. At this stage of the project students are immediately told what they are working towards through the use of a project outline and driving question – establishing a project long ‘learning intention‘, and then the teacher shares with them examples of what the final product they are creating looks like, to help excite and motivate them, but also to set explicit success criteria. These criteria nearly always take the form of a rubric – and not just for the product, but also for the soft skills they need to develop such as critical thinking and collaboration. This stage of the project learning cycle sees students being exposed to new ideas and perspectives, being challenged by a range of learning experiences that include direct instruction, listening to guest lectures, watching videos, reading reference books, completing worksheets, engaging in Socratic seminars, guided  independent research, conducting experiments, writing essays, etc. Formative assessment strategies (feedback) used to determine students’ understanding and mastery of essential content and skills required for project success can range from the traditional (tests, essays, research reports, speeches) to the innovative (team problem solving challenges, elevator pitches, teacher-student interview, interactive data walls). SOLO taxonomy and rubrics are used to help students develop self-efficacy in regards to setting learning goals. I use the Goals, Medals and Missions formative assessment strategy, and whilst kids find it confronting and difficult at first, they learn more about themselves as learners, as a result.

Create – The products that students create vary depending on the project, and the discipline or disciplines the project involves. For English projects I have had students create short films, websites, newspapers, plays, picture books, personal essays, persuasive speeches, stories, etc. These all require students to master very specific skills, and develop a deep understand of complex content, which occurs at the discover stage, and is then applied at the create stage. At the create stage students are planning and drafting (rehearsing and practising) their final product, using a range of peer and self-assessment strategies to evaluate their product in order to refine it so it is of a quality worth of a public audience. Students are guided through this process by constant reference to success criteria, often in the form of a rubric or checklist – I love to have students co-construct this criteria with me at the end of the ‘discover’ stage, as it reveals to me their understanding of the project’s learning intentions in the context of what they are producing. Students become very capable of giving and receiving feedback (a skill which is explicitly taught to students in PBL) at this stage of a project, a skill which strengthens as they work through a range of projects in a school year.

Share – This is the scary stage but also the thrilling stage, where students must be held accountable for their learning through the public presentation of their products. In preparation for this event, students undergo a process of reflection, where they must consider what they have learned during the project, how effectively their final product solves the given problem, or meets the needs of the given audience or fulfils the requirement of the given brief. Teachers often provide them with a range of reflection questions to stimulate this self-questioning. High Tech High have an awesome set of 50 questions, that I have used successfully with students. Self-talk plays an essential role in individual preparation for the presentation of learning, as a means of motivation and encouragement before the big event. This stage of a project is where students are required to transfer their learning into new contexts – to share with an audience what they know, and respond to unexpected questions about their learning. Of course, transferring of skills and knowledge occurs between projects also.  Students know they are successful before they receive the feedback from the public audience, because they know what success looks like, and this event simply reinforces that understanding.

Finally, I thought it amusing that Hattie championed SOLO taxonomy, a self-assessment and metacognitive tool that is used by ALL great PBL (and non-PBL) teachers, and has been for years. I found it funny that I had recently presented to a room of educators the relationship between the five learning domains in SOLO (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural, relational, and extended abstract) and the three key stages of PBL – Discover (pre-structural, uni-structural, multi-structural), Create (relational, and extended abstract) and Share  (extended abstract). Of course, I also added what Hattie called the ‘biggest hoax of the 21st century’ Bloom’s Taxonomy on the slide, because the point I was making (reflecting Hattie’s ‘surface to deep to transfer’ mantra) was that great projects ensure students can identify, understand, analyse and evaluate essential content and skills BEFORE they move to the create level. At no point does, or should, a teacher assume that PBL involves handing students a project challenge, and then stepping out of the way for a few weeks. Well-designed projects ensure students acquire new (surface then deep) knowledge, that they then consolidate through collaboration with peers, deep discussions with teachers, mentors and experts, and then transfer this knowledge into the solving of a specific problem through the creation of a new artefact for an authentic audience. This cycle continues for each project (usually at least three or four per year in PBL schools), and as such students become even more adept at the metacognitive skills required for successful and engaging – thrilling even – learning!

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I know this post will open me up to criticism from the Hattie/VL disciples, and that’s OK (well, really, it SO isn’t OK, but I have resigned myself to the reality of it) but I just wanted to say also, that I am a full time classroom teacher, executive member, mum, and wife, so I know that I didn’t put everything I could into this post – I simply don’t have time to read a thousand journal articles and blog posts so I can footnote them and pretend my argument is bulletproof. Furthermore, I left my VL ‘training manuals’ at school, so I couldn’t refer back to it to quote Hattie’s key terms (or effect sizes) as much as I would have liked. Ultimately, this isn’t a research article (I’m a teacher, not an academic), it’s a reflective post where I’ve tried to put down the thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain for the last week. I just think that in education we shouldn’t be making enemies, we shouldn’t need to take sides… we’re all in this field because we love young people, we care about their future success, and we are passionate about teaching and learning. It would be so super awesome to work together, and be positive, for better outcomes for the people that matter – the kids – and not for our own personal agendas of gains. Anyway, if you don’t like PBL, that’s cool (well, no, not really, you’re missing out, haha), but make sure you know what it is you’re critiquing before you start to bag it – cos it might just be that we’re arguing for the same thing.

10 thoughts on “The skill, will, and thrill of Project Based Learning

  1. I’m always suspicious of gurus and Hattie is definitely in the mould. We had Stephen Dinham at our SDD and if I hear the words ‘effect size’ or see another graph I think I’ll give up teaching. The irony of being told to engage students by someone who couldn’t engage teachers…

  2. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading a critical analysis of Hattie through the PBL lens, I take issue with one of your comments;

    “There wasn’t anything at all surprising about the fact that teacher rapport with students, teacher efficacy, feedback, establishing clear learning intentions and sharing exemplars, empowering students to be self-directed learners through self-assessment and setting learning goals, and constant reflection on and evaluation of student learning achievement are essentials for improved student learning outcomes. If anyone was surprised by that, I question their role as educators.”

    Comments like these are not helpful in light of the erratic, inequitable and often hit and miss teacher professional development offered to teachers across the NSW Department of Education. As a potential leader, you will find that these ideas while seemingly logical and obvious to yourself, are not so to teachers who have been in our system for 20+ years and never been offered these pedagogical perspectives. Likewise, the beginning teacher may also fall short of these expectations, despite their role as educators being quite valid.

    You have a captive and wide audience – don’t fall into the trap of assuming everyone has had the same professional and personal experience of being an educator that you have. I agree there is work to be done here.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jo! You’re totally right – so many assumptions in that statement. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is an edu nerd all consumed by talk about quality teaching! Appreciate your check.

  3. Pingback: The skill, will and thrill of project-based learning | Australian Education Blogs

  4. Pingback: PBL / Inquiry / Design Thinking | Pearltrees

  5. Hey Bianca – I really enjoy reading your posts about PBL. It is an area I am interested in learning more about, especially in regards to how to better engage industry to supply teachers and students with real-world projects for their PBL. I’d love to connect with you via email and pick your brain if you have some time? Thanks so much!

  6. Pingback: Hattie and Magana: Strange Bedfellows for Technology Innovation - DLIT

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