May 22

Tutoring, Mentoring, and PBL

This week, I participated in the Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference in Chicago. It was the 41st occurrence of the semi-annual conference, but the first time I attended. Organized by Daniel Bassill, it brings together people from many different organizations, and offers the opportunity to learn from each other, and to create new network connections with other people that participate in the tutor/mentor world.

Daniel and I “met” each other during a Deeper Learning MOOC, at which time he invited me to present a #PBL workshop at the conference. I must admit I initially had some questions as to whether/what attendees at this conference would like to learn about PBL, or at least from me, since I have limited experience in the tutor/mentor world.

After perusing the Tutor/Mentor Institute website, and after reflecting for awhile, I concluded that PBL applies to disadvantaged youth perhaps even more than others. These young people are struggling to feel empowered, to be recognized as capable, and to have control of their lives. The PBL model can be applied to a wide diversity of activities, not only those considered “academic,” so can be used in pretty much any environment that provides support and encouragement as learners seek to attain authentic, real-world goals.

So, I took the plunge and agreed to present a workshop on PBL. Dan and I interacted a few times about the conference, how many copies I should make of materials, etc. I also checked the registration list, to try and get a feel for the audience. Nonetheless, given I had no previous exposure to this audience, I felt unease as I marched in. What did this audience hope to learn? How could I engage them to the fullest? How could I add value?

At the beginning of my workshop, I asked each person to introduce themselves, and to state their purpose in attending this particular workshop. I was thrilled with the eagerness the audience expressed to better understand how to apply PBL to their work with young people; in after-school programs, in classrooms, in young-adult life skills training programs. Many already recognized that PBL provides authenticity and real-world value.

I especially appreciated the last segment of the workshop, when participants brought their questions and problems to the group, and the thoughtful responses they received. There was strong evidence of 21st-Century skills – communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity – in the way the group interacted. This group of committed adults will undoubtedly teach those skills to those they mentor.

To add to my elation, the keynote speaker during the luncheon was Eric Davis, the founder and director of GCE High School, in Chicago. This is a PBL school; a large percentage of the students come from disadvantaged circumstances. Eric stated that the school has ties into 200+ organizations that the students work with to acquire hands-on, real-world experience. Among the statistics on their website are: “College Acceptance Rate: 100%, First Choice College Selection: 100%, Graduation Rate: 100%.” This school is high on my list of places to visit!

So, thank you Dan, for inviting me into your world! I look forward to further collaborative efforts, and to ongoing #deeperlearning.


May 8

Inspiration – Middle School Transforming to PBL

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting a large public middle school that is in the process of transforming itself from a traditional to a #PBL (project-based learning) model. Aaron Maurer invited me to come visit the school, and to attend the Exhibition Night the 8th graders were hosting. I especially appreciated Aaron’s transparency, as he invited me to visit classrooms, to talk to students and teachers, and to give him an honest appraisal of their implementation.

This middle school began the PBL transformation last academic year, beginning with the sixth grade classrooms. Comparing the ambiance of these rooms to the 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I was struck by the evidence of maturation that has occurred in that short time. The sixth grade teachers demonstrated unbridled enthusiasm, combined with confidence in the methodology. Their classrooms were chaotic, with students discussing, working, moving around the room.

I visited a sixth grade science classroom that was filled with garden plants (invention for growing the plants in process there!), samples of rocks (their current theme), and students working individually and in small groups on digitally-based products related to their study. The teacher acknowledged that although they have textbooks, they seldom resort to them, as the students often conduct research using the Internet, and explore concepts with #realworld, hands-on investigations.

In this classroom, I listened to two student hosts enthuse over the work they have done over the year. They were able to recall the major concepts they had explored, and expressed great enthusiasm about the way they are learning. These two young people were on opposite ends of the spectrum of learners – one historically very high-achieving, one low-achieving. Both of them demonstrated #deeperlearning, strong evidence that the PBL model can be used with all students, not just those in a certain strata.

In general, the 7th and 8th grade teachers exhibited a sense of uncertainty and trepidation regarding this leap into non-traditional teaching and learning. I understand this. It is difficult to move from being the “imparter of knowledge” to “facilitator.” To hand the learning reins from the teacher’s hands to the learners’. To say “I don’t know, so let’s find out” when a student asks about content the teacher/facilitator is not familiar with. To no longer be the “expert,” or at least not the only expert. To move from breadth of learning to depth of learning, and to trust the students will exit the process with a solid academic foundation. The recently-published standardized test scores for this school show an increase, despite (I assert because of) the use of the PBL model, which should reassure the school administration of the viability of this approach.

The 8th-grade Exhibition Night highlighted some projects that were #authentic, composed of real-world learning, and topics the students could relate to. Others were more traditional assignments, dressed in a “project” wrapping. This is a common occurrence as schools and teachers make their first steps into the murky waters of PBL. Aaron recognizes that this transformation will take time and patience. He forewarned me that some projects on exhibit may not be true projects, but that it was a step in the right direction the teachers were willing to take.

In addition to the projects-that-are-not-projects syndrome, I observed a few other areas that could use general improvement:

  1. The audience at Exhibition Night was the traditional parents/grandparents/siblings mix. The students (and teachers) would find it much more rewarding if there were also experts from the community in the audience. Not only would the students receive affirmation that their work has value, they are likely to take the work more seriously, knowing it will be observed by those whom understand their topic in great depth.
  2. In that same vein, teachers should facilitate student efforts in finding experts from the community to act as consultants when the students are designing and developing their products. When students ask for help from these experts, they will most likely receive an enthusiastic response.
  3. To-date, most projects are implemented in one subject-area. How thrilling it will be when more teachers collaborate in devising interdisciplinary projects, which by definition better reflect the real world.
  4. In some cases, student voice-and-choice was lacking, for example all students being required to develop the same product instead of being offered several options.

Aaron also invited me to participate in two post-project reviews/project tunings. Their school uses the Critical Friends Tuning Protocol, a structured method to assess what has been done well, and what improvements should be considered. The critical friends group consists of Aaron, other teachers, and (hurrah!) students. Each member has equal voice in the process.

One of the two projects under review was art, the other science. The personalities of the two teachers were very different. They are both committed to doing their job well, and have a strong desire for their students to learn well. Both were there to solicit help with a particular problem they had encountered during the implementation of a given project.

Their demeanor was quite different, however. One of them embraced the review process with gusto, eager to hear what her colleagues had to offer that would allow her to instigate deeper learning with future students. The other teacher seemed to be anxious. She had been through the process before, so was familiar with the protocol. The sense I had was she was concerned she would receive harsh judgment and/or would receive recommendations she would be uncomfortable implementing.

This example illustrates another reality of plunging into PBL on a school-wide basis. Each teacher brings their personality and past experiences to bear in the implementation process. I applaud Aaron for recognizing this reality, and for providing supportive PBL coaching to the teachers in his school.

Vive la methode PBL!