April 26

#PBL as a #process within a #framework

Recently, a team of five #Meliora students uploaded a newly refined version of their history fair project. Next week, they will be competing at Illinois History Day, the last step in their quest to qualify as national contestants.

National History Day (#NHD) provides a good example of the Project-Based Learning (#PBL) #process and #lifecycle. Students are first challenged at a local/school level to create a project, within a specified #framework. As pointed out in the High Quality Project Based Learning Framework, and by John Spencer, high-quality PBL is not a free-for-all, but rather #learnercentered work conducted within the boundaries of a defined structure.

The NHD project framework consists of the following specific criteria:

  1. Must strongly incorporate the annual #theme (the 2018-2019 theme is “Triumph & Tragedy in History”).
  2. A choice of five categories: paper; exhibit; performance; documentary; or website. This variety offers students abundant #voice and #choice in the product they create. Ultimately, the product serves as their primary #evidence of #learning.
  3. Constraints for each project category. For example, documentaries cannot exceed ten minutes in length. Conversely, they should not be much less than ten minutes long, (an unspoken rule) because if students cannot find ten minutes of evidence to support their argument, it suggests they have not looked into their topic deeply enough.
  4. Supplementary documentation, including an annotated bibliography and a process (#reflection) paper.
  5. #Public #presentation (#communication) before a panel of judges at each level of competition. The judges use identical evaluation criteria for each category of project, focusing on the clarity and strength of the argument the students develop in defense of their thesis statement.

Nearly every discipline uses a framework or blueprint for their creative work, it’s a writer’s workshop structure, an engineering process, the scientific method, or a design thinking framework. ~ John Spencer

Students have complete voice and choice in the topic they explore, as long as their thesis and argument fit within the framework. In past years, Meliora students have explored topics as diverse as “The Tucker Torpedo,” Women’s Suffrage, Michael Jordan (national contender) and Soul Train (national contender). The topics chosen reflect the students’ interests, while at the same time requiring them to conduct thorough research.

In many cases, the students started their journey with superficial knowledge. As they dug deeper, their knowledge and critical analysis expanded. Not only did they learn more about their chosen topic, but more importantly (shhhhh, don’t tell them), they developed a much deeper understanding of the historical context, content, and relevance.

In my role as #facilitator, I did not “teach” them about their topic. Rather, I asked them many open-ended questions: “Why did [event] happen?” “What else was happening in the [country, world] at the time?” “What was life like at that time?” “How do you know?” I also helped them locate resources, and persistently asked them to use proper research methods.

This year, the most significant #mindset growth this team made was arguably related to an interview they conducted. That one 20-minute activity (plus the preparation work) exponentially boosted their confidence and their belief that they have significance, not only in the teen world, but also the adult world.

As I also write here, students who participate in National History Day create multiple #iterations of their product, refining their work between each level of competition. Since the project framework remains constant, they invariably are faced with making tough decisions as to which evidence is most relevant to their thesis argument. There is frequent anguish as they remove a favorite quote or an image they love, even as they recognize that a particular element is less important than others they need to include.

This refinement process is an excellent tool for helping the students develop #criticalthinking skills. When they are struggling to make decisions and ask my advice, my standard response is, “In what way does it support your thesis?” Often accompanied by sighs and groans, they make the correct decision.

This is the documentary going to competition next week:

For the truly dedicated, here is the team’s first version:

January 9

Team Formation

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford discusses heterogeneous vs. homogeneous teams. He cites a 2009 study where college students were given the task of solving a murder mystery problem. Some of the groups were composed of four friends, others included three friends and a stranger.

The groups that included a stranger were much more effective at solving the mystery. 75% of the time, they came to the correct conclusion. The homogeneous groups correctly solved the problem only 54% of the time, while people working individually were successful only 44% of the time.

Interestingly, Hartford writes, the participants in the heterogeneous teams “didn’t feel very sure that they’d gotten the right answer” and “felt socially uncomfortable” [p. 50]. The homogeneous teams “had a more pleasant time” and (falsely) were more confident they had found the right solution. In other words, the team members’ perception of how their team performed was out of sync with their actual performance.

The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogeneous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford, p. 50.

The debate about team formation in K-12 education continues to thrive. In this Edutopia article, Ben Johnson argues both sides, but ultimately concludes students blossom more in homogeneous groups. In 10 Reasons to Use Heterogeneous Teams, Dr Spencer Kagan argues for only heterogeneous groupings.

In education, we often look at grouping through the wrong lens, wondering how effective it will be to put students with different abilities in the same group. My hackles raise with the term “ability,” since it is based on a questionably valid definition (and data) as to what “ability” means. It also assumes a steady state, in other words that a student will always have the same level of “ability.”

One way #PBL (project-based learning) shines is that it accepts (just like the #realword does) that each student has different assets to contribute to a team. When (heterogeneous) teams are formed, the key to success is in identifying which role(s) fit each member of the team based on their unique talents and skills. As they succeed in the given role(s), students develop confidence and a growth mindset, the understanding they have the power to become ever more accomplished learners.