PBL: Managing the Mushy Middle

Yesterday I had the privilege of spending the day with 30 extraordinary educators. It was our second ever Project Learning Swap Meet and it truly was wonderful. The focus for this Swap Meet was on the ‘how’ of project-learning whereas the first Swap Meet had been focused on the ‘what’ and ‘why’. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about when I say Swap Meet, you can read about it here.

The day started in the expected disorganised style that is characteristic of me and Lee … we were creating ice-breaker activities as we drove into the city and once we made it to the Powerhouse Museum we rushed to set up the space and harass the very generous Peter Mahoney into printing off some stuff for us. It was pretty chaotic by the time the Swappers started showing up, haha. I found myself out the front unintentionally and crapping on in a poor attempt to entertain those who were on time whilst we waited for those who were not. I did manage to think up a vampire metaphor for people’s PBL experience to match the stickers I had to give out: the newbies (no projects attempted yet) are ‘no fangs’, the amateurs (one or two projects attempted) are kittens with small fangs and the pros (those who do PBL full-time) are fully-fledged vampires who ‘bite’. It made me laugh, anyway.

Well as soon as most people had arrived, we started discussing what everyone felt they still ‘need to know’ about project-learning. Everyone pretty much agreed that what was troubling them/challenging them was the process of running a project. Mike made the insightful point that many know what happens at the beginning (the project launch and the DQ) and the end (the celebration of learning) but many are still fuzzy about what happens in the middle. I nicknamed this the ‘mushy middle’ and it became a repeated metaphor that we returned to throughout the day. It’s great that the talk naturally turned to this, because really that was the focus for the day anyway- managing the process of PBL. The loose driving question that we came up with for the day (which we didn’t return to enough unfortunately), was ‘How can we make the PBL process killer for our kids?’ (Can you tell that Lee came up with that? His is a much cooler adaptation to my original question, ‘How can I best manage the PBL process to support my students’ learning?’)

Before the Swap Meet, I put together a small booklet of my ‘go to’ resources for managing the mushy middle of project-learning. As I said to Malyn today, even though these are resources that I have created and/or used for many projects, different resources work better with different students. It’s always about context – just try something with your students and if it doesn’t work, evaluate why and then try again or try something different. I wanted to share those resources with those of you who might similarly be struggling with the question, ‘How does PBL work day-to-day in the classroom?’. I sense that this concern is mostly to do with managing team-work (which is really bloody hard and I certainly don’t have the answer … just ask my students!) and the nature of assessment. There really isn’t one way to approach either of these issues – as I said above, it’s very much about trial and error, taking risks and being confident to discuss the problems with your students. I know this is very hard to do, but it is necessary to embrace the fact that PBL is essentially a messy process where the best thing a teacher can do is step out of the way and let kids work things out for themselves. Letting go can be very stressful for teachers, but nothing can replace the sense of liberation you will experience once you do, I promise.

NOTE: These resources are not in any particular order … just in case you read into how I upload them, lol.

Goals/Medals/Missions: I’ve written heaps about this in the past. This is a formative assessment strategy developed by Geoff Petty in response to the research of John Hattie and Black and Wiliam. You can google their names and find out cool stuff about assessment if you so choose. I use GMM in three different ways to help support my students’ learning. Firstly, as a daily learning reflection method. Students keep a simple journal in the back of their workbooks where they record their personal goals, medals and missions for that lesson. I don’t use this with all classes, all of the time. Often I forget. I am human. Secondly, I create checklists for the product being produced (poem, performance, speech, essay, story… whatever) with students identifying what must be included. This checklist becomes their self and peer assessment tool and students identify M&Ms at the bottom of the document for the work they assessed. You can download an example here: personal-essay-checklist. Thirdly, at the end of a project, I collect students’ individual project folders and I give them M&Ms for the skills and content I was targeting for that project – e.g. collaboration, presentation, creative thinking, knowing poetic devices, essay structure, narrative techniques etc. Always give more medals than missions – super important tip!!

Team contracts: When I first started doing PBL, I thought these were completely naff. I didn’t use them for years. Now, I think they’re really important documents for my students. Signing that piece of paper means you’ve committed to your team. It means that if you fail to do your bit, your team can justifiably by annoyed and there can and will be consequences. You can get a good team contract from the bie.org freebies section. It’s always best if students create their own contract, of course.

Project Management Log: This is another BIE document that I ignored for years in my attempt to avoid paper in my classroom. Just recently I’ve discovered the power of a management log whilst working with my Year 9 students. It takes time to fill this document in, but it is really worth the time. Like the team contract, it allocates responsibilites to each team member, but it also helps students to become more independent each lesson as they have direction in their learning. It’s as much about time management as it is about role/responsibility allocation. You can get a copy of the project management log document from the bie.org freebies section.

Learning spaces and metalanguage: The best project classroom is going to be a flexible space. I know we don’t all have those rooms with cool bright furniture on wheels, but we all do have access to open spaces like ovals and quadrangles. Make the most of them and get your kids outside when it’s appropriate. A great tip I stole from the peeps at New Tech High is using staircases as presentation spaces – the audience sits on the stairs and the speaker/performer stands at the bottom. This is the type of creative use of existing space necessary for a successful project-learning class. As you know, I think metalanguage is powerful and have adopted the names of spaces used at NBCS, inspired by an essay by Thornburg. You can read about my thoughts on metaphors for learning spaces here.

Project packets: The term ‘packet’ for a bundle of worksheets it so American – we just don’t use it here in Australia. When I say ‘packet’, I mean ‘packet’ in the Aussie sense – a bunch of stuff in a container. For me it’s an envelope of documents. Of course it doesn’t have to be an envelope (I bought plastic document wallets for 50c each at Officeworks), it can also be a plastic tray or a plastic sleeve folder. It is one packet of information per team. It contains only the essential documents required for project success: project management log, team contract, project calendar, project outline and supporting documents to guide them through the inquire, create and present cycles of learning. These stay in the classroom in a central space that students can access each lesson. They don’t go home – if they did they’d never return!

Project walls: A project wall can be physical (an actual wall space in your classroom), or virtual – online somewhere like a weebly, glogster or blog. It is a space for key project elements to be shared. It’s similar but different to the project packet. It keeps students focused and organised but also showcases the learning that has occurred so far. Essentials for the project wall are: project outline, driving question, student-generated ‘need to know’, project calendar, key project vocabulary and the lounge roster (in-joke, lol!).

SOLO Taxonomy: This is just another strategy to help students self-assess and monitor their learning. I’m not a SOLO guru but I know there are heaps of them online, so go find and follow them. Our mate Tait Coles is the gun when it comes to incorporating SOLO into a project-learning-style classroom. I really like SOLO and my students have had great success with it. Their honest self-evaluation can be enlightening and terrifying for teachers.

Punk Learner rubric: This is a piece of genius created by the aforementioned Tait Coles. He created this rubric with his students and passionately encourages you to steal the idea of a punk learner rubric, but to create one with your students instead of just using the one him and his students created. It’s all about context and significance. My Year 11 students used this rubric to self-assess post half yearly examinations – as with SOLO, the results are enlightening and terrifying!

Team work rubric: Similar to Tait’s Punk Learner rubric, this is about students self and peer assessment to start a conversation and reflection about their contribution to team goals etc. I had a great time creating a team-member rubric with my Year 9 class after some students failed to be effective team-members in the previous project. You can download pre-made rubrics from bie.org freebies page which is a great place to start.

Blogging: I think getting your students to start blogging really allows you to follow their individual experience of each project. It’s such a cool way to get into their heads and can be extremely enlightening! My Year 11 students have successfully used the think/puzzle/explore blogging protocol this year. You can read about that protocol here.

Need to Know: This is essentially a list of questions that students decide that they need to have answered. You can use a KWL table for this or just get them to sit in teams and generate a list of five things the definitely need to know in order to be successful with the project. This is a kind of sneaky activity because often you (as the teacher) know what kinds of things they will identify – but that’s what differentiates the typical classroom experience from the PBL experience – it’s about students identifying what they need to know and how they will discover that. I love putting these questions up on the project wall and returning to them each week to monitor learning – students like being able to cross questions off the list and it helps them see that they are learning.

Project calendar: I think this really is a PBL staple. It’s so normal and expected in the ‘real world’ (love that phrase cos it makes me laugh, is a school an unreal world? lol!) that we plan our projects, that we look to the future and organise our time in advance because we want to be successful and know that we need to negotiate time, money, space, people etc in order to be successful. I love the BIE project calendar – you can’t beat it. Download it from the bie.org freebies page.

Rubrics for products: I wouldn’t say that these are essential. After years of doing this PBL caper, I’m kind of getting suspicious of rubrics. I find them too prescriptive and constrictive. But that’s me coming from a place of much experience with using them in the classroom. I personally think that students don’t like using them and they don’t use them well. A check-list is better. If you are going to use them, create them with your students and make sure they are written in student-friendly language. You can use Rubistar to find pre-made rubrics as a model for what you and your students can create. I used a rubric created with my students for assessing rap-battles earlier this year. You can see it here.

Formative assessment strategies: You need HEAPS of these, and really a number of them are in this list anyway. Be creative with your formative assessment – use a variety of online, face-to-face, recorded, team and individual formative assessment strategies to provide your students with feedback on their learning. I wrote a post once asking for people to share their favourite formative assessment strategies – maybe you’d like to add to it?

Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 3)

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

Well it’s taken me ages to get to this last post. School and life has been hectic. Isn’t it always? I intended for the three posts to be completed for SDD Term 1 and it is now the end of Week 2. Luckily these General Capabilities are so straight forward and everyone always covers them with their classes, right? Oh, wait … no. That’s NOT the truth. Whilst Ethical Understanding and Intercultural Understanding are essential capabilities for awesome humans, they can so easily be overlooked when teachers feel pressured to prioritise content.


According to the AC website, ‘Ethical understanding involves students in building a strong personal and socially oriented ethical outlook that helps them to manage context, conflict and uncertainty, and to develop an awareness of the influence that their values and behaviour have on others’. This is pretty important stuff, right? I mean, in high school we’re often working with young people who simply lack resilience or a deep appreciation for their own values and how these can impact those around them. Why? Because they are young people finding their place within the world. But maybe it’s because they don’t understand or can’t appreciate the relevance of what they are doing RIGHT NOW in their school lives. To teenagers, school can often seem like they’re in a holding pen waiting until they’re given the chance to be morally responsible. In order to support our students to develop ‘personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience, empathy and respect for others’ (Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians) we need to create learning experiences that foster and nurture these values and attributes.

Project based learning is about problem finding and problem solving. Not the problems in the back of the book, or the imaginary problems identified in a novel, but the REAL problems of our world that need addressing. It is in the driving question of a project that we see the centrality of problems. These problems might be based in the class (How can we design a learning space that supports the needs of all learners?), school (Can we, as students, prevent bullying in our school?), local community, (How can we educate our community about the impact that individuals’ decisions have on others?), national (Can we create a short film that will change politician’s attitudes to climate change?) or global (How can poetry be used to inspire people to donate money to combat the global food crisis?). The best problems, of course, are those identified by students through their own personal experience or through their own in-depth inquiry. To help students with their problem-finding, you could use this sentence from the AC as stimulus for discussion and brainstorming: Complex issues require responses that take account of ethical considerations such as human rights and responsibilities, animal rights, environmental issues and global justice. It simply is NOT enough to have our students writing persuasive speeches or research articles or poems about these issues, handing them in to teacher for a grade and ticking a box. We MUST empower our young people to actually actively take part in making a contribution to their world – to truly contribute their ideas to solving complex problems.This means ensuring that their learning has a public audience.

Of course, we can’t expect on class doing PBL to solve the world’s problems – but many hands make light work. According to the AC, Technologies bring local and distant communities into classrooms, exposing students to knowledge and global concerns as never before. With the capacity to bring others into our classroom vis Skype, edmodo, social media etc, we have the capacity to work together towards incremental changes to our somewhat shitty world. Giving students a taste of what their own personal capacity is, to develop their understanding of themselves as ethical human beings, is really central to our jobs as teachers.

Here’s a video of me talking about the importance of fostering Ethical Understanding in the young people in our care:


One of the reasons I love the Internet is because it has made our world a little bit smaller. It’s made it easier for me to appreciate the shared nature of humanity and opened my eyes to the importance of connecting and collaborating with people all over the world. However, I do often ask myself whether that’s just me idealising the Internet. Chatting to my students and observing how they use the web, it seems to me that maybe it’s not actually being used in a way that bashes down contextual and cultural boundaries, bringing about a truly global community. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know that my students are connecting with other young people from all around the world – especially those who are gamers. But is this reinforcing cultural divides as they seek out others with the same or similar cultural contexts to themselves? For the AC, intercultural understanding assists young people to become responsible local and global citizens, equipped through their education for living and working together in an interconnected world.

Creating learning experiences that provide students with the opportunity to connect and collaborate with students from backgrounds different from their own truly does nurture intercultural understanding. During PBL, students develop essential 21st century skills as they establish connections with other schools or with experts from outside of school. PBL provides the students with the the ability to relate to and communicate across cultures at local, regional and global levels. Currently my Year 8 class is connecting with a small rural school (North Star Public School) in northern NSW in their attempt to answer the driving question What can we learn from the life stories of others? This project requires them the engage with a text that explores the life story of an individual from a culture very different from their own – for my class they’re learning about the peoples indigenous to North America and learning about the impact of colonisation on these peoples. They are also connecting via twitter, edmodo and skype with the North Star students to share their own life stories and in doing so they are cultivating values and dispositions such as curiosity, care, empathy, reciprocity, respect and responsibility, open-mindedness and critical awareness, and supports new and positive intercultural behaviours. The project covers significant content for both classes as they are actively engaging in their wider world and discovering something new about others and themselves.

There are many more learning experiences such as the one I have outline above that my students have enjoyed over the years because of project based learning. Using this approach to learning truly opens our eyes, as teachers, to the potential connections our young people can make with others. It doesn’t have to be connections from outside of the school either. At my school, we have a number of students from Japan, Korea and China, who spend one to two years studying at our school. My colleague ran a wonderful project at the beginning of the year where his Year 12 students planned and ran the introduction activities for our new international students. This was a awesome opportunity for all of the students involved to learn about other cultures and it gave them the chance to identify culture and develop respect. My goal for this year is to have one of my classes to work on a project with a class with Aboriginal students. I recently discovered the 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning and am very keen to design a project that incorporates all 8 ways because I believe they are the ways my students learn also. Working at a school on the Northern Beaches in Sydney isolates my students from the potential to truly develop their understanding of the cultures of the original inhabitants of this country. It’s time that I use my PBL skills and the technologies we have available to break down these cultural barriers and create awesome learning experiences for both classes. I just have to find the right school to connect with!

As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the AC’s General Capabilities. I think it is essential that we continue to value our young people as the future of our world and support them as best we can to develop or strengthen these important attributes of awesome humans. I truly do feel that an approach to learning such as project based learning that is experiential, authentic and engaging provides our learners with the BEST opportunity to hone these very important values and attributes.

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!)

Project Based Learning and the Australian Curriculum ‘General Capabilities’ (Part 1)

**Disclaimer: during these posts I will be referring to the General Capabilities as outlined in the Australian Curriculum. However, I am a NSW English teacher and therefore I will be implementing the new NSW K-10 English Syllabus in 2014. All AC content (including the General Capabilities) is embedded within that syllabus document created by the Board of Studies. These posts, however, are designed to be relevant and accessible to all teachers in Australia, hence my reference to the Australian Curriculum and not the new NSW Syllabi.

There’s a lot of talk about the Australian Curriculum at the moment – some positive and some negative. I know that I often come across as a negative person on this blog and via social media, but I’ll say confidently that I am optimistic about the Australian Curriculum. Why? Because it is an opportunity for change and renewal, two things our schools desperately need. I’m also excited because of the AC’s clearly articulated awareness of the need to change our perceptions of our learners and our practice as teachers. This is articulated through the General Capabilities and the Cross-Curriculum Priorities. In this post I’ll only be focusing on the former, however. If you don’t know what the General Capabilities (GC) are, check out image below, taken from the AC website (click on it to enlarge). I love the central description of our goal as educators for our students: successful learner, confident and creative individual and active and informed citizen. It really gets to the heart of my personal philosophy as a teacher, that my job is to help shape great human beings. But since the term ‘great’ is relative, I think it’s safer to stick with what they AC says, lol. As I go through the GC, I will show how each capability aligns with elements of BIE’s ‘8 Essentials for PBL‘ (Voice and Choice; Significant Content; In-depth Inquiry; Public Audience; Revision & Reflection; Driving Question; Need to Know; 21st Century Skills) and, where possible, give examples of how I have engaged with each capability in my PBL English classroom. It is my belief that PBL is a pedagogy that provides students with the opportunity to strengthen, develop and demonstrate each of these capabilities.



As an English teacher, I’ll happily argue that this is one of the most important capabilities in the list. The most important? Yeah, it probably is. I think literacy is the need to know for all young people. Being literate opens the door to the other capabilities. Without being literate, it’s very difficult to contribute and participate meaningfully in society. It’s not impossible, it’s just very difficult. Remember as well, that literacy includes visual literacy and critical literacy as well. During project based learning, literacy is developed through both explicit instruction and through more constructivist, constructionist and collaborative learning strategies.

A key driver of all successful projects is significant content. As I’ve explained previously (add link), content may be deemed significant by the teacher (as in, it’s in the curriculum), by the students (personal interests, contextually relevant or real-world problems) or both (negotiated curriculum where teacher discusses with students the content to be covered and through negotiation a compromise is reached where individual interest, contextual concerns and real world problems are connected meaningfully to the content the teacher is ‘required’ to cover). If the content is deemed ‘significant’, engaging, relevant, real-world and interesting by students and the teacher, then greater learning outcomes should be expected. How does this relate to literacy? If young people feel passionately about the content they are more likely to push their literacy skills further (reading and writing more complex texts). I’m sure many teachers would be surprised at the technical and complex vocabulary of many gaming and coding websites that teenage boys read.

Furthermore, a key aspect of PBL is the process of planning, drafting, peer/self assessment and revision. When applied to written or spoken products, this process has a significant impact on students’ literacy skills. This process becomes more pertinent for students when they are producing the product for a public audience – online or face to face.

As an English teacher, my students frequently engage in this iterative design-like process. I have even developed a feedback-feedforward peer and self assessment method to support student learning even more. You can read about it here.

Oh, and remember, literacy is not just the domain of the English teacher. ALL teachers ate responsible for it – the Australian Curriculum makes that quite clear. Scared? Well, looks like it’s time to do a cross-KLA project and invite your favourite English teacher to join!


Just like literacy, numeracy is the responsbility of all teachers. This terrifies me a little because numbers simply aren’t my friends. BUT, just because I don’t get into Maths, doesn;t mean my students don’t. PBL provides students with the opportunity to think in a more open way about their subjects. The segregating of subjects is an unfortunate consequence of the traditional schooling model. 30 minutes on a sport bus trip chatting with colleagues from other faculties and you’ll discover wonderful connections between your subjects. My colleague (a Maths teacher) and I got excited talking about poetic metre and imagined all sorts of other cross-overs between English and Maths. The moment we stop talking about covering content and we start talking real-world applications of our subjects, we realise the need to see our subjects as interrelated. This links back to what I said above about significant content, when we are driven by interest and real-world application, not only does engagement improve, but so too do learning outcomes.

The trend in the US at the moment is STEM – that’s the integration of the study of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Through multidisciplinary projects, students are mastering STEM skills that they identify they need to know in order to be successful. Moreover, these projects drive students through a process of in-depth inquiry as they determine what they need to know and just how to find out this information or develop these skills. You can look at some truly impressive STEM projects here.

As an English teacher, running projects in just one subject area, my students still develop and apply their numeracy skills. Sometimes my projects require students to conduct in-depth inquiry through surveys and analysing the data they collect. They also engage with the data collected by others (often accessed online) and use this to support their findings about their topic. It seems silly, but even everyday numeracy comes into play as students estimate and calculate the amount of food and drink needed (and related costs) when planning the presentation of learning to a public audience.

Project-based learning necessitates in-depth inquiry. A significant part of both qualitative and quantitative research is accessing numerical data – be it graphs, statistics, tables etc. This applies to all subjects. If we don’t give our students the opportunity to engage with significant content through in-depth inquiry, we’re missing a wonderful chance to allow them to appreciate the power and importance of numbers, not just in Maths class.

Whilst PBL isn’t about technology (you can easily complete an awesome project without access to any technology, I know – I’ve done it!) it certainly is enhanced by access to a range of ICTs. I think what’s cool about PBL is that ICT capability develops naturally as part of the students’ learning. It’s not about learning to use a particular online tool or program just for the sake of it, or because it might make boring work a little bit more engaging. The early stage of all projects is in-depth inquiry – this is the stage where students are driven by deep and personally-developed questions about the project. Like everyone in 2013, students will begin their research on the Internet. This phase gives teachers a wonderful opportunity to model effective research skills and the importance of curating information using a variety of online tools (social bookmarking sites and tools like Pinterest, Scoop.it are popular at this stage). Students learn this skills not because the teacher has determined it’s good for them, they learn them because they need to know them in order to be successful with their project.

Collaboration and communication are key to PBL because students spend most of their time working in small teams. We’re told so often that these are the 21st century skills for young people to master – the workforce is collaborative and globalised therefore our students need to be able to work in a team and to communicate effectively with anyone, anywhere, anytime. This is where a online classroom is essential – not a space where resources a access, but rather a space where students can collaborate and communicate whenever they need to. I’m an edmodo fangrrrl and everyone knows it. This social network for education allows students to develop their digital citizenship (communicating with courtesy, compassion, and clarity) in the eye of their teacher and they can communicate with their teams whenever they need to. Teachers can easily assess the development of these 21st century skills and quickly give feedback to praise good behaviours and redirect negative behaviours.

ICTs play a big part in the revision and reflection process of PBL. In all projects, students are required to draft and revise their work. This process is enhanced through the use of tools like google docs (great for collaborative writing and planning) and more familiar programs like MS Word where students can use track changes and comments to illustrate their revisions. One of the core routines of PBL is goal-setting and reflecting on learning. This process can be done in a workbook, but it’s far more effective when it’s done using a site like edmodo or blogs. Blogging throughout a project really allows students to appreciate that learning is a process and that improvement happens over time. Blogging gives students a place to voice their concerns about the project as well as the joy of successfully solving a problem of creating something amazing. You can read about how I use the think, puzzle, explore protocol for students blogging here.

Finally, the most obvious use of ICTs during PBL is for the creation of the product and accessing a public audience. Allowing students to have a voice and choice as part of a project is essential to ensure engagement and relevance of learning. This voice and choice typically comes into play around the product that teams will be produce to demonstrate their learning. If you’ve seen BIE’s ‘PBL explained’ video, you’ll know that students might choose from a range of forms, some including ICTs, such as videos, websites and online magazines. Sometimes I don’t give students a choice. I love setting a challenge for my students, so they need to create a type of text they know nothing about, forcing them to develop their ICT capabilities. This can make some students uncomfortable, because they’re really being pushed, but ensuring that you’re there to provide support just in time means that this is responsible risk taking. My students have created cool products such as websites, podcasts, short films and online fiction – things they would normally not get the opportunity to do in English.

Of course, all of these products would mean nothing if they didn’t have an authentic, public audience. Teachers are time poor (and our students are too!) so having access to an online audience rather than an after-school audience of mums and dads, can be really helpful! The best thing to do, in my experience, is to connect with another class from somewhere else in the world – even if it’s just the primary school 40 minutes away. We have a range of technologies at our disposal that can facilitate this connection – skype, edmodo and YouTube have been our favourites. If connecting with another class sounds too risky for you, do a bit of networking and see if you can get a guest expert to Skype in to hear your students’ final presentations. Our young people need these experiences – their learning should not be confined to the four walls of the classroom!

In the next post, I’ll look at the last four capabilities and how I think PBL provides students with the opportunity to strengthen, develop and demonstrate these capabilities.

This is why kids are cool …

Last weekend our 11 year old son, Keenan, asked if he could go to his mate’s house. They had been scripting a video together at lunchtime and they wanted to film it. We were fine with that (actually stoked would be a better word!), so on Sunday he spent four hours at his mate’s house.

He came home in the afternoon and begged to use my Mac. He wanted to edit his movie so he could upload it to YouTube. I was writing, so he had to use his dad’s Mac – but first he had to go beach fishing, with his dad of course. At 8pm on Sunday he sat down at the computer and started asking me questions. Good questions: How do I import the video from the SD card? How do I import my chosen video into iMovie? How do I shorten each video file? After a quick 5 minute tutorial he was off on his own. He did some stuff without asking too, like adding titles, which I imagine he did via trial and error.  After 40 minutes he had a completed video – including hilarious credits! With a bit of help from Lee, he exported the movie and uploaded it to his own YouTube channel. Then he got on the phone to his mate to tell him to go watch it – oh, he emailed the link to the email address of his mate’s mum too!

The next morning when I dropped him off to school we heard his name being called out by a woman. It was his mate’s mum. She was so stoked with the video and laughed about how she’d asked if she could bring the washing in but they said it was part of their props, lol.

This is the perfect example of a passion-driven project. It didn’t take weeks to do, it took a few days. The boys did their brainstorming and planning at school (EXPLORE), their filming and editing together at home (CREATE) and shared it online and with their mates (PRESENT). Projects are everywhere and they can be so awesome.

How can we make sure that the projects we do at school are just as fun, inspiring and cool as this one?


Poetry Projects for Years 7, 8 and 9

I have spent tonight hastily formatting Word doc outlines of the projects that I’ll be running with my students for the first half of this term. They look a little prescriptive, and there’s good cause for that. Project-learning and self-directed learning and learning in teams in English will be new to almost all of my students. It’s the beginning of the year. I go slow at the beginning because unlearning traditional modes of learning is hard and it’s important that students aren’t alienated from the learning process too much at the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I want them to freak out a little. I want them to feel uncomfortable and start questioning what the hell is going on. That’s the fun stuff. But I also want to empower them with the new skills required to be successful independent and interested learners. So if you don’t like the way these projects are set up, well, don’t use them. Bag them out in a comment below, it’s cool – I’ve got thick skin.

The project outlines below are for three junior year groups. They could work for any year at all as they are all quite open-ended. My colleague devised the driving question for the Year 9 project as well as the three-tiered product aspect. I’m so stoked that she’s using her creativity to plan epic projects for our students. I can’t wait to learn with her through the project journey. That’s my kinda fun.

Hunger Games 2212: my rejected ISTE presentation

I wasn’t ever going to blog about this, I really wasn’t. The project many of my Twitter friends know as #HG2212 was one of my most favourite learning experiences of last year – and a favourite of my students as well. That’s why I applied to present it as ISTE in San Antonio this year. Well, as you can guess from the title of this post, my presentation wasn’t accepted. I’m not writing this post to bitch about being rejected (because I think karma played a big role in my rejection and that makes things balance out in my head) but to share the project a little for the first time. Why? My very dear Twitter mate @carlaleeb asked me about the project today because a colleague of hers is about to teach the Hunger Games. My other great Twitter mate @pollydunning is keen to give this project a go as well.

I don’t plan to write a long and detailed post about the project. What I will do is share the recording of my presentation from edmodocon12 in August last year. It was a truly emotional experience sharing this project – yes, I cry in the video – simply because the project was such a moving learning experience. It was my life and my students’ life for two weeks straight, 24/7. There are some aspects of the project that I am not at liberty to disclose because they do not belong to me – they belong to Dean Groom who helped me nut out the project and sort out the annoying details that involved numbers. The idea for the project was also pretty much stolen from @Towney77. However, when I run this again this year I will definitely be simplifying the gaming elements and using edmodo much more cleverly to tally XP. It can be done.

So here is the video – be warned, it goes for well over half an hour and I do literally cry in it. You need to click on the link here and scroll down to my name and click on the little arrow beside it. It’s a lot of scrolling, haha!

I’d also like to share some of my students’ blogs from that project. Their writing still gives me goosebumps and will serve as wonderful models for my class this year.

Leefern R Skipberi

Harlow Lilywalk

Daniel Giunter

Leigh Walk-lily

Ruchit Seeaster 

Finally, I’d like to share the storify of the #HG2212 tweets carefully curated by my friend @missjessm. I am so very grateful that she did as it has given me a lasting record of the experience. Here it is: Bianca does Hunger Games