Trend alert: Project-Based Learning! Who knew?

It wasn’t until Tuesday this week that I realised how trendy PBL is. Someone I follow retweeted a tweet that went something like this ‘when are people going to realise flipping and PBL are not going to revolutionise education’. The tweet freaked me out. I was like, ‘What? The flipped classroom is soo trendy and totes hype, but PBL too? How can this be?’ My surprise stems from my own experience as a classroom teacher in a public school. I hear talk of PBL in my staffroom because almost two years ago Dean Groom came and presented PBL to our faculty. I picked it up straight away and started playing, dipping my toes in, trying my hand at it and all that. Late last year my HT decided he wanted to give it a go too and this year a couple of other teachers are experimenting with PBL as well. But we are not a representative sample. No, not at all. Yes, people have tweeted occasionally about trying PBL and I know that Parramatta Marist has been doing some form of PBL for quite a few years now. But it’s still one tiny, tiny handful of Australian teachers giving it a go.

Or so I thought.

It seems that there has been a tidal wave of PBL enthusiasm (aka ‘hype’) that I have failed to see as a unified ‘movement’. When I was researching for my draft research proposal into PBL and the English classroom last year, I found there weren’t really that many published studies into Project-Based Learning. It seemed like a young field of inquiry. I know PBL is big in some parts of the US and a form of PBL (more problem-based than project-based) is very successful in Singapore. I also know PBL isn’t anything fancy or particularly new. What I didn’t notice was the sharp increase in interest in this approach to education … I certainly wouldn’t have equated it with the ‘flipped classroom’ in terms of its centrality in the eyes of edugeeks.

This afternoon I read a post by Dean Groom about the difficulty of ‘making a PBL teacher‘. It’s a great post, worthy of a read. But you need to know the context of Dean’s post, lest you get put off from trying PBL as a solo teacher. I am a solo PBL teacher with no whole-school support for this style of teaching. That’s not to say they don’t support me, I just mean to say that I’m not teaching at a ‘PBL School’. It is entirely possible to reshape your pedagogy as an individual and be very successful; I feel that I am. What does become problematic is that PBL inspires you to see education in an entirely new light. Once you go PBL, you never go back. You can’t. That can be scary because you start looking at your school and your colleagues in a new way. Not in a judging way, but in a ‘look at all this untapped potential’ kinda way. PBL can make you a frustrated teacher because you begin to see the possibility of what education could look like if all young people were engaged in authentic, meaningful, challenging, inquiry-based, passion-driven learning. The truth is, the world would be a better place. Young people would be much happier.

As part of the twitter conversation about Dean’s post, I realised how many people have been following my PBL journey/adventure/experiments. (Pssst – thanks!) And even more surprising was the number of teachers who had decided to give PBL a go. And a silly tweet about the difficulty of PBL for the solo-teacher (by me) may have set off a change of thoughts, concerns, anxieties, apprehensions in these teachers who trust me. If you trust me, trust me now when I say this: Project-Based Learning is trending because it is powerful and it is important.

Here’s a few examples of this trendy powerful pedagogy making waves on the web:

#PBLchat is a weekly twitter chat started by the New Tech Network

New Tech Network is a collection of public high schools that use PBL and technology to make learning great. One day I’m going to start a public high school like the New Tech High schools. Just saying.

Buck Institute for Education (BIE) – an oldie, but a goodie. The original PBL gurus – still celebrating authentic, project learning.

This year BIE are holding their first ever PBL conference called PBL World. I hope to attend one or two of the days in Napa, CA in July. The interest in this conference has been huge.

BIE also has a PBL edmodo community that has over 3000 members – does that indicate a ‘trend’? I think so.

Edutopia – another oldie but still so amazingly new. Loving the blog posts of Suzie Boss on PBL. Really excited to see the addition of Andrew Miller to the team, his blog posts are inspiring.

So it looks like PBL probably is starting to ‘trend’ a bit more than usual. How cool is that? I guess there are some things teachers keen to give PBL a go do need to keep in mind:

– your first project will be so painful to plan that you may want to ditch it before even beginning

– writing a Driving Question is like pulling teeth

– your students will think you have gone made and the ‘bright’ kids will resent it

– you will need to maintain a pretty strict routine of goal-setting and learning reflections for your students

– you will need to smile and laugh and help and shrug your shoulders and ask questions and not give answers

– your second project will be a little bit better

– creating product/presentation rubrics is worse than writing a driving question but equally as important

– don’t give grades; better to give ‘points’ and ‘badges’ or ‘level-ups’ for mastery of content, skills and habits of mind

– your third project will see you giving your students a choice of products, audience and teams

If you wanna see how some Aussie punks are doing PBL, you might wanna sign-up to the PBL course being run by me and mad-man Dean Groom towards the end of April. Add a comment below to register your interest. No time wasters, just people keen to ‘do’ and mess with education as you know it.

trendy, trendy, trendy

I’ve never been trendy: think I’m gonna have to get me a bowl-cut, some horn-rimmed glasses and a Fleet Foxes album. Woot.


A year of experiential learning …

Previously I have written a list of edu-dreams for 2011. One of the most prominent features of this list was the desire to give my students what I’m calling ‘learning experiences’. I am entering my seventh year of teaching English and feel that I can not face another year of worksheets. I spent a week of my school holidays writing out a summary of my teaching plans for 2011, ensuring each unit I teach has an accompanying ‘real-world’ driving question. Why? Because I hope to infuse all of my students’ learning this year with the essence of Project Based Learning. Why just the essence, you ask? Well I’m not ready just yet to take the plunge fully into a year-long program of PBL, so I’m taking what I can to enhance my teaching and the learning of my students.

So what do I mean by ‘experiential learning’? For me, I simply mean learning that encourages students to interact with the world outside of school, typically in the form of engaging with a real-world question/problem (How can citizen journalism shed new light on world events?) and sharing learning discoveries with people from the real world who are invested in this issue (i.e journalists, writers, bloggers)  Well – I’m no education philosopher and thought I’d just ‘made up’ this term – haha – but it turns out it’s something real and a lot has been thought and written about it! So if you’re interested, check out this site – it looks pretty cool: Experiential Learning
& Experiential Education

Because I’m honest, I’ll tell you now that I clicked on the first search result for ‘experiential learning’ – wikipedia. It was a nice short entry with a couple of great quotes from a couple of greats:

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle

“”tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” Confucius (supposedly)

Hopefully you haven’t left me yet for the shallows of wikipedia or the depths of the other link, because I thought I’d share with you some of the driving questions for my classes this year as well as excerpts from a wonderful article by Edutopia blogger Susie Boss that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.


Year 9:

Persuasion: How can people use their voices to bring about positive change?

Choices: How do our choices impact our lives and the lives of others?

Communication: How can citizen journalism shed new light on world events?

Why is Shakespeare still so popular?

What is the appeal of the horror genre?

Can we see the world through someone else’s eyes?

Year 10:

Human Nature or Nurture –Are we inherently good or bad?

Resilience – How do we survive?

Power – What makes an individual powerful?

Does the individual have the right to challenge authority?

Is it dangerous to pursue freedom?

Year 11:

What are the consequences of encountering conflict in our lives?

Should art imitate life?

Can the voices in a text shape our perception of Australia?

Susie Boss of Eduptioa touched on some of my ideas in her article. She writes:

In the K-12 classroom, a variety of practices can help to build digital and media literacy. Socratic questioning, for example, promotes critical thinking about the choices people make when consuming, creating, and sharing messages. In particular, Hobbs encourages teachers to help students assess the credibility of information. She offers three “simple but powerful” questions to encourage deeper thinking: Who’s the author? What’s the purpose of this message? How was this message constructed?

I’m particularly pleased to see this:

Hobbs suggests having students design their own games instead of being immersed in games as consumers. “By becoming authors, game programmers, and designers, students deepen their awareness of the choices involved in the structure and function of technology tools themselves.”

I also think it’s great that Hobbs has identified the reality of teaching in public schools, something I had considered in my edu-dreaming and that (thankfully) has been solved via social-networking: (see the comments on my blog post here)

Although finding funding for new programs is likely to be challenging, partnerships between schools and the entertainment industry or technology companies could offer a way to leverage available resources, Hobbs suggests.

I’m interested in this idea for a PBL and wonder where I can fit in into my already bulging teaching program:

Her suggestion to map local technology resources, for example, seems like an ideal project for engaging students in a community research project and using digital tools for authentic purposes.

And this concluding comment from Hobbs is exactly why I have found technology-enhanced Project-Based-Learning so appealing:

“When people have digital and media literacy competencies,” Hobbs concludes, “they recognize personal, corporate and political agendas and are empowered to speak out on behalf of the missing voices and omitted perspectives in our communities. By identifying and attempting to solve problems, people use their powerful voices and their rights under the law to improve the world around them.”

I have to say that this year my planning has been highly unusual for me. But maybe it’s something you’ve been doing for years?

My 2011 edu-dreaming …

After a significant mental hiatus from all things ‘edu’ related, I have found myself swamped by ideas, plans, must-dos, visions, inspiration and … of course – reality! As a means to cope with my heat oppress’d brain I aim to write a list of edu-dreams. Things that in an ideal world (one that involves absolutely NO administrative hurdles that I must o’er leap and fall down upon) I would love to try-out with students. Each edu-dream will be a mere dot point as dreams themselves are often sketchy and hard to grasp – so too will be my list. I guess in 12 months time I can come back to this post and see if I managed to conquer reality with my idealism – even if just one dream is realised. OK, here goes …

1. Create an indigenous sister school in Wilcannia – students in Years 9, 10 and 11 given opportunity to connect via video conference unit, edmodo and in person.

2. Introduce google docs to my senior classes

3. Have Year 9 participate in the Red Room Company’s ‘Papercuts’ program. Facilitate and inspired creative experience like this one.

4. Design and run 1-1 enhanced PBL experiences for Years 9, 10 and 11 – ideally one per term if possible. Project-based learning connects students to the real world.

5. Make spelling and vocabulary development relevant to each unit.

6. Bring Shakespeare to life – create a Globe Theatre (or at least the stage) and have students act out scenes of play being studied.

7. Present/celebrate student creativity and critical thought in as many ways a possible. Each unit needs to end with some form of celebration of learning.

8. Include debating (formal and informal) in all units.

9. Set up parent edmodo accounts and encourage active parent involvement in classroom – find specialists and harness these talents to enhance student learning. Include parents as ‘audience’ for learning celebrations.

10. Ensure all learning goals are displayed clearly for students each lesson – preferably projected onto whiteboard.

11. Student and teacher generated individualised learning plans created at the beginning of each unit. Active and continued completion of KWL tables.

12. Use google calendar to organise my edu life.

13. Set up and introduce edmodo ‘school’ domain to staff. Help Math dept see benefit of edmodo.

14. Each class must have an ‘experience’ at least once a term. An ‘experience’ is connecting with a class from another school (national or international), visiting somewhere outside of school, meeting someone amazing or having him/her speak to them. Most likely relate this to PBL.

So that’s just my dreams for now … I’ll be buffering them out next week as I actually plan my lessons for 2011. I’m really looking forward to it.

What are your edu-dreams for 2011? Can you help me achieve mine? How can I help you to achieve yours?