July 14

“Sam,” or Differentiated Learning in #PBL

In my Meliora social studies class last year, I had a student I’ll call “Sam.” A bright eighth-grader, some of his ability to learn is impeded by a variety of sensory issues, and by his tendency to get distracted.

Since the students conduct two major research projects during the year, I invest significant time early in the year developing research and media literacy skills. We talk about the attributes that make one source reliable and another not. We discuss how to deal with situations where different sources have conflicting information. And so on. As part of that learning process, and throughout the year, I ask the students to conduct online research activities, and to share their findings.

The first time I asked Sam and his classmates to carry out one such task, he lost his composure because he felt overwhelmed. He was familiar with using books and other print resources, but was unfamiliar and uncomfortable with using the Internet and online databases for this kind of work, especially in a dynamic, “do it now” environment.

To complicate matters, Sam had arrived in class with a relatively black and white view of the world, and was disconcerted when I asked questions that challenged this rigid perspective. Over a period of several weeks, I communicated with his mother a number of times, working with her to identify ways to make Sam more comfortable with these open-ended kinds of tasks.

I recognized building trust was key, as is the case for all students. They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

They need to feel we are supporting them, that they are in a safe place where they can exhibit uncertainty and can make mistakes as we challenge them to stretch and further develop their capabilities.

One breakthrough in this regard took place early in the school year, when I discovered Sam is rabid about statistics. I had given two assignments comparing characteristics between several Asian countries and the United States. One was a land mass analysis, the other related to human populations. Sam arrived in class rattling off detailed information, along with the results of several other analyses he had independently conducted. Taking note of this, I sought other opportunities to infuse statistical research and analysis into assignments and discussions, as it provided one way to grab his attention and encourage him to look more deeply into topics. By asking him to lead in-class research related to statistical data, I repeatedly validated that he is a capable student. I also used these opportunities to broaden and deepen his critical thinking, asking more complex questions as his skills improved.

Over time, Sam became more comfortable and more confident, especially in his ability to truly listen, and in his ability to clearly articulate his point of view. He discovered for himself there are many viewpoints, that not everything is “right” or “wrong,” that we can respect others even when we disagree with them.

Zone of Proximal Development by Dcoetzee is licensed under CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons

This example illustrates one of the great liberating qualities of PBL. We can differentiate learning using our understanding of our students, providing voice and choice which allows the students to start within their (comfort) zone of proximal development. From there, we can challenge them to dig deeper or wider, or to learn a new method, steadily expanding that zone.

In a discussion with Sam’s mother during the second semester, she practically glowed as she spoke of his academic growth, especially his improved critical thinking. She chuckled as she said, “when he looks at Wikipedia articles now, he criticizes them for the inaccuracies he finds.” Bravo, Sam. And, bravo PBL!

 

April 30

Rhizomes

I have been wrestling with the many out-of-control #rhizomes in the garden. Ferns are my current nemesis, as they are encroaching on the hostas and astilbes nearby, boldly erupting right in the middle of them. Since some of my PLN are rhizomatic learning zealots, I have dabbled in trying to understand that learning theory, and its parallels to rhizomes in nature.

My approach to gardening is fairly lackadaisical. I do not coddle the plants, nor play music to them. In general, I pay attention to what kind of lighting environment they need (sun? shade? some of both?) and in the heat of summer, I soak them, using the same method as for the lawn grass, “heavily at infrequent intervals,” which helps them develop a deep root system. Beyond that, I have faith the plants will thrive.

Maybe students would benefit from these same conditions. Maybe we need to provide them with a positive, nurturing environment combined with high expectations for their success and see what happens. John Hattie places “teacher estimates of achievement” as the largest factor which contributes to student learning and achievement. Instead of hovering and intervening at the first sign of struggle, we need to let students dig deep, help them develop a growth mindset. We need to teach them that failure is normal and acceptable, something from which we learn.

The one thing I do not do infuse into my garden is any form of chemical toxins. No chemical fertilizers, no chemical pesticides. As I pondered the “toxins” commonly found in school environments, the first thing that came to mind is the ongoing focus on student, and by extension, teacher success based on standardized achievement tests. In a 2014 survey, the NEA found 45 percent of surveyed teachers “have considered quitting because of standardized testing.”

As if to echo my thoughts, in this Sir Ken Robinson chat, he states “…certainly by the time they are in secondary school many kids are disengaged, bored by what’s happening, and far too often suffer from stress and end up leaving the system entirely…” Robinson thinks these have been long-term problems in schools, but “they’ve been made very much worse… by the emphasis on competition and standardization…The US for example, has spent billions of dollars literally on commercial testing programs for the past 15 years and seen no improvement to speak of… It’s based on a false premise… that education is in some ways still an impersonal process, that it can be improved by standardizing and removing the human factor …”

Robinson then makes an analogy to industrialized agriculture, and how pesticides were introduced, “because these systems for the most part were deprived of the natural process of self-protection, so pesticides were needed to keep away pests and so on, and to protect the crops. Now, it kind of worked, except that it’s destroying the environment, it’s polluting water systems, and it’s eroding topsoil…” He then describes how organic farmers “…promote diversity, they look at the health and ecology of the whole system, but the emphasis is on the soil. If you get the soil right, the plants will grow and be healthy. And, these are sustainable and natural processes. … we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning… He finishes by positing that we need to “create optimum conditions in schools where [students] want to learn…”

…we’ve lost sight of the natural processes of teaching and learning, and in doing that we’ve eroded the culture of education, the culture of learning…

So, as I continue to dig rhizomes out of my garden, I will simultaneously think of ways to nurture the spread of student rhizomes through the use of high-quality #PBL, which incorporates relevant, real-world and authentic teaching and learning.

February 10

So what are 21st century skills?

Recently, I tweeted an excerpt from an article written by Graham Brown-Martin, who founded Learning without Frontiers and published Learning Reimagined in 2015. Brown-Martin’s essential argument is that we need to understand 21st century challenges in order to know what skills are required, and he identifies a number of these challenges, including climate change, growing inequality, and an ageing population. His summation is “we have the option of educating for conflict & war or educating for peace & unity.”

Part of GameShift’s response to my tweet caught my attention. They asked “So what are 21st century skills?”

As I reflected on GameShift’s question, the word that came to mind was “adaptability.” We cannot presently identify all of tomorrow’s challenges. Global dynamics are in a constant state of flux, and we are more aware of this than any other point in history, due to the quantity of and rapidity with which information (whether true or false) is dispersed. To add to this sense of chaos, people are changing jobs 10-15 times during their lifetime.

Tony Wagner’s work, which examines education through the lens of skills business leaders are looking for, echoes my thinking, as “agility and adaptability” are listed among his Seven Survival Skills. How then do we develop adaptability in students? By offering them an authentic learning environment in which they create solutions to real-world problems. Project-based learning (PBL) is a methodology that provides such authentic, real-world learning. Exemplified in BIE’s model, it can be applied to virtually any problem or challenge.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a methodology that provides such authentic, real-world learning. Exemplified in BIE’s model, it can be applied to virtually any problem or challenge.

Just as in the real world, application of PBL begins with identifying and framing a complex problem or question, for which students are asked to create potential solutions. Integral to the methodology, they use design thinking to define, test and either discard or refine their designs in an iterative process.

We also see the 4Cs of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication woven into the structure of a PBL project. Solutions are often developed in a collaborative team. The team members are required to communicate with each other, often with experts on the subject, and with a public audience, to whom they present their products, their evidence of learning. Designing solutions to the complex problem or question requires critical thinking, in order to truly understand the challenge, and to research, analyze, and synthesize information needed to develop a solution. Likewise, creative thought, effort, and oftentimes failure are integral to the process of solution design and development.

Our schools and classrooms need to be as adaptable as our learners are going to need to be, or as Sam Seidel says, we need to “keep it real.” PBL is a winning way to get us there.

May 11

Landscapes

Recently, we initiated a landscaping project at our house. It consisted of adding some hardscape, a few new plants, and rearranging some existing plants. As I observed the process in motion, it spoke to me as an exemplar of what we should implement in our classrooms and schools.

When the owner/operator of the landscaping company, Mr. M,  first came to assess the work we wanted done, he asked many questions. We hammered out a rough idea of what we wanted, both hard and soft scape. He showed us samples of different stones, and we chose one. This is similar to the design process of a good inquiry- design- or project-based undertaking. I appreciate both the Stanford d.school and IDEO methodologies regarding design thinking. Although the vernacular varies somewhat between the various definitions, the underlying principles remain constant.

Stone Wall

Stone wall by David R Tribble is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Throughout the implementation process, Mr. M confirmed details with me such as the pattern the stones were to be set in. He adjusted his plan accordingly. This exemplifies the iterative process of design thinking, wherein one develops a prototype or first draft, then refines it, often multiple times, based on testing and feedback.

When Mr. M presented a written quote for the work to be done, we were prepared to negotiate with him, to find ways to reduce the price or increase the services rendered, or both. However, the quote was so reasonable and comprehensive, we found it unnecessary to negotiate. This conveyed to me his authenticity. Mr. M portrayed who he is – a competent landscaper who is proud of his work and provides his services at a fair price.

Authenticity is a characteristic gaining traction in many arenas, including education. As Sam Seidel phrases it, we need to  “keep it real.” In order for students to fully engage with a topic, they need to connect with it in some way. Talking about dry, dusty dates from the past is not real, nor is an out-of-context math formula. However, comparing Andrew Jackson with Donald Trump leads to student connection. Similarly, building a greenhouse makes those math formulas very real.

York U Greenhouse

York U Greenhouse by Raysonho is licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Mr. M also portrayed his identity through his branding. Each of the numerous trucks that came and went had identical signage on their sides. The signs included the company name, a list of services, and contact information. What is our “brand,” our culture? BIE’s John Larmer, in this article cites a definition of culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” The more clarity we have in our definition, and the more closely we align our practices with the definition, the more our culture flourishes.

The interactions of the landscaping team were also telling of the climate in which they work. I could not understand most of the words of their conversations, but could nonetheless interpret the temperament of the group:

  1. The majority of the time, Mr. M was present and worked alongside his men. Not a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” In this Edutopia article about this methodological shift, Dan Jones states “[w]hen teachers move from the front of the room to working beside students, students begin to take a deeper ownership of the learning process and produce a meaningful connection with the material.”
  2. The men laughed, joked, and chatted with good humor. I never heard a voice raised in anger or impatience. The group was varied in age, and probably in experience, but they functioned as a collaborative team. As Aaron Brengard states in this BIE article, “[c]ollaboration is an essential part of our culture… it raises up the quality of all work.” He further discusses the importance of collaboration not only within student teams, but among the adults in schools, and how “[w]e believe that working together makes us better and without one another we will not reach the level of work that brings us closer to exceeding our expectations.”
  3. Each person seemed to know the tasks they were to complete, and tackled them with industry and enthusiasm. When there was a question, it was answered quickly, with a straightforward response. Elena Aguilar, in this post about effective teams, includes two traits that I observed among the landscaping crew: “[a] good team knows why it exists” and “[m]embers of a good team trust each other.”
  4. They took breaks. For lunch, and a few other times in the day. As they sat, they continued to chat among themselves. The parallel I draw in PBL practice is the time we spend in reflection. It is an opportunity to review what went well, what went poorly, how did I/we grow, what is the next goal. In this Edutopia article, James Kobialka offers some great ideas for effective reflection.

It seems apropos that I found parallels between a landscaping project and school settings. We all function within a landscape of some type. I wish all of us a lush, colorful, growing garden as our habitat.

Lush garden

Lush garden by Lynn Greyling is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

November 5

#AltCV and #DigiWriMo

Phew. That’s all I can say. When the #DigiWriMo folks issued the call to create an “alternative CV,” “based not on degrees and position and peer-reviewed publications, but on what we think is most important about who we are and what we are genuinely most proud to have accomplished,” I decided to make the exercise a challenge. More of a challenge than I anticipated, really.

Animaker is a tool I have barely glanced at, but which has fascinated me for some time. So, I decided to use it to create my #AltCV. Thus the adventure began. Animaker has an eleven-and-a-half minute tutorial. I watched it once. Fumbled through assembling a few “scenes.” Several things did not come together as I wanted them to. Went through the tutorial again, to find the explanation for the nuances I was missing. Like all good learning experiences, the process was iterative. I would make some modifications, replay the video, identify the improvements I needed to make. Again and again.

In my work as a PBL (project-based learning) coach, this is an aspect I impress upon teachers. Students need to be given feedback on their work, and the time to revise. Not only once, but multiple times. My all-time favorite example of this is Ron Berger’s video of  Austin’s Butterfly:

It is all too common for educators to get caught up in the but-I-have-all-this-content-to-cover mindset, so students don’t have the occasion to delve deeply into any given topic, nor do they have the opportunity to reflect on their work, and to make improvements.

This year in our Meliora group, we are studying World History. To some, I will sound like a heretic, but I care little about what these students carry away in knowledge and facts about World History (well, I do hope they remember “les grandes lignes,” the major points). What I mostly care about is that they develop deeper thinking and analytic skills. We spend significant time discussing events in history, and making connections to today, to my students’ reality. By using open-ended questions, “why?” and “how do you know?” being perhaps my favorites, the students are required to think, and to defend their rationale.

I also care that the students learn to reflect on their work, and to actively find ways to improve it. As they develop projects, I offer feedback throughout the process. They also conduct peer reviews of each other’s work, so they can learn to critique using “kind, helpful and specific” (a phrase coined by Ron Berger) feedback.

As I went through the development of my #AltCV, I was also applying Standford’s d. school ideology of “iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution.” As they further explain in the excerpt below, iteration is fundamental to good design. Interestingly, they discuss iterations within a process, in my case the complete video, and then within a step, in my case a single scene. That is exactly how I tackled it, narrowing my focus as the flow began to take shape.

d school design thinking excerpt

I would argue this design process can be applied to many, if not all, academic disciplines. When I work with Meliora students on their history projects, we first look at the big picture, their overall argument/thesis, then over time narrow the focus to particular details that need fleshed out and refined. Likewise, when solving a math problem students need to learn to determine the process to be used, then drill down to the detail. And so forth.

And, now, for my #AltCV:

 

May 16

Autotdidact \ˌȯ-tō-ˈdī-ˌdaktˈ\ : a self-taught person

I am currently a PBL (Project-based learning) coach, helping schools transform themselves from traditional forms of teaching and learning into a model that emphasizes deep, investigative, collaborative, student-centered learning. I came to this career through a circuitous path.

My first career was in information technology, where I spent nearly two decades. I began with computer programming, systems analysis, customer support, and the like. Over a period of time, I gravitated to project management, where I enjoyed a number of extremely challenging, thrilling, hair-pulling, personal growth years.

In the final multi-million dollar projects I facilitated, there were team members from a diverse set of companies, nationalities, and cultures. In those experiences, I engaged in my own real-world learning of becoming a global citizen, a reality our students will face as they enter the work force.

Those years also contributed greatly to my understanding of PBL as a methodology. The underlying concepts of projects and project management are constant, regardless of the industry.

Then, I became a stay-at-home mom. By choice. Definitely the most difficult job I have ever had. But, that’s a different post. When my now-20-year-old son was still a toddler, I began exploring the idea of home schooling. My bosom buddy was already of that mind set, and after research of my own on the advantages, I took the plunge.

During the fifteen years that have elapsed since we formally began schooling at home, I have revised and honed my education philosophy in many iterations, using my two sons as guinea pigs. One fabulous advantage of being a home educator is that if you (or your child) dislike materials, you get rid of them (hopefully by selling them to someone else), even if you are only two weeks into the school year, and then move on.

Over the years, it became apparent to me that the methodology that worked best for me and my kids was student-interest based. This conclusion was further cemented as I took college courses related to education methodologies, and researched the positives that PBL brings to the table, such as that its use “increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving and collaboration skills, and improves students’ attitudes towards learning.”

In our home school, we incorporated lots of investigation, whether wading into a pond to see what lives there, going to museums, creating explosions with cohorts of other home school families, watching documentaries, or building marble runs and trying to get the marbles to go where they were supposed to.

My critter lover brought things home from the pond and built habitats for them. He also had any number of domesticated pets, including frogs, snakes, fish, rats… YouTube became his go-to place to learn nearly everything, not only about his pets, but how to tie a necktie and screen print a shirt.

My thinker child devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction, and contemplated the world from angles I have never considered. We carried on magnificent discussions on everything from Calvin & Hobbes to Socrates (although these may be one and the same).

A recent experience younger son (currently 16) went through brought the value of this methodology all home to me. He is taking German at a local four-year liberal arts college, where he breezed through the first two terms, putting some effort into the class, but not a ton. The third term is being taught by a different professor, who on the first day of class announced that the students should expect to spend ten hours outside class each week on their homework. Oh, and by the way, he only gives a 100% or 0% on assignments, so students need to be extremely diligent in their work (another post sometime about the effectiveness of that approach!).

My son came home practically hyperventilating, and began campaigning to drop the class because it was certain to be too hard and too stressful. I assured him he had three weeks to decide whether he really needed to drop the course, and also stated that he shouldn’t run away from the challenge just because it seemed difficult.

Within a week, the waters had calmed, and the German studies were marching along quite well. The professor didn’t seem quite an all-or-nothing kind of guy. The homework wasn’t taking quite as much time as predicted. Further progress in mastering the German language was being made.

Then, my son came home and said the professor had declared him an autodidact. This was the most brilliant praise I could receive as a home (or any other) educator. Isn’t that our ultimate goal? To develop our students into autodidacts? Our job is not to stuff information into them so they can regurgitate it. Our job is to teach them the concepts and skills that inspire them to remain learners throughout their lifetime. As part of that, we need to help them develop a growth mindset, to realize hard work and persistence are effective in building competence and success.

Now to carry this success forward, to the schools I am currently working with, and to others that embrace PBL. Too many opportunities, too little time.

October 24

How can I help students “level up?”

I recently completed a five-week MOOC offered by Coursera, called Advanced Instructional Strategies in the Virtual Classroom. Successful completion of this course, three other courses,  and a capstone result in a Virtual Teacher credential, which is my goal.

As is the case with the other courses in the stream, this short course required only one assessed assignment. In keeping with a #PBL fundamental, we students had voice-and-choice, with three assignment options. One choice was to create a short welcome or instructional video, with an embedded interactive element.

I took the plunge… Due to the intriguing work/play I conducted in the Connected Learning MOOC (#CLMOOC) last summer, I have a heightened interest in understanding how media tools can be used to enhance engagement and learning in students.

In this course’s assignment description, a suggested list of media tools included “Zaption, ThingLink Video, Camtasia, YouTube Editor, Mozilla Popcorn,” although we were at liberty to use any tool that got the job done. I had encountered work done using Zaption during the CLMOOC, so charged ahead with that one.

Along my journey, I encountered many obstacles, and was thankful I had begun work on the project early! I ultimately prevailed, although my end result lacks finesse. I have two major observations from this experience.

Firstly, free versions of products tend to be severely limited and limiting, contributing to the level of frustration I felt as I put the elements together. I understand the purpose of free versions – a risk-free way to try a product and see if it is a good fit for what one wants to do. However, once an organization goes through this analysis process, I think it makes good business sense to commit to the product(s) that best fit the needs of the organization. Otherwise, there is an abundance of time wasted on learning a new tool which only partially satisfies the creative drive. Which ultimately means the creative drive is not satisfied at all!

The other realization that hit home with me was “Where is the instruction manual?” I reflected on this periodically for several days. My first career was in software development/support/project management, from the mid-70’s to the mid-90’s. There was always an instruction manual. Today, however, there is rarely a traditional instruction manual. Technology tools come with FAQs and “?” functions that (generally) lead to a searchable database.

Perhaps as a result, I observe that most young people jump right into the middle of a new app with no prior knowledge or explanation. They simply start using it, and if they get stumped, they try alternative approaches. When all else fails, they invoke the help function. I posit that students often use this same methodology as they tackle new academic material.

In their 2009 work Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, Jenkins, Purushotma, Clinton, Weigel & Robison identify what they call new media literacies, among them “Play – The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving,” “Simulation – The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes,” and “Appropriation – The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content.”

When students jump into the middle of a new game or app, they immediately began experimenting, to figure out how it works. They use prior knowledge of other apps/games they have played, as well as real-world knowledge that may apply to this particular experience. In general, they are not at all intimidated by the fact that they have no guidance in their introduction to this new functionality, but expect that it will in some way have connections to something they already know.

Maybe we need to apply this reality to teaching! Instead of using a traditional instruct-drill-test process, why don’t we ask our students to solve an authentic problem or situation (another essential PBL element)? As they plunge in, they will encounter points where they do not have adequate knowledge or skills to continue further. As instructor facilitators, we can at that point provide the instruction needed (including the use of community experts and resources), in what I term a just-in-time model. Students will be receptive, because they recognize the need for learning, in order to be able to “level up.”

For the brave of heart, you will find my Zaption assignment here: http://zapt.io/tggknnx3.

 

October 5

STE(A)M vs Humanities: Does PBL apply to both?

Ginger Lewman is a dynamite speaker and workshop guru in the STE(A)M and Makerspace arenas. Check out her blog when you get the chance! I have yet to participate in one of her workshops, but can envision the energy and the “doing” going on as she leads students of all ages through a project. In many people’s minds, the idea of science, technology, engineering, and art all being “adaptable to” or even “led by” projects is reasonable.

I, on the other hand, am way more comfortable over in the Humanities house. History and Literature, yes! Some people have difficulty envisioning these topics being project-based. How do we learn all that content? What about commas and 5-paragraph essays? (Who ever uses a 5-paragraph essay in real life anyway? Especially one written in 25 minutes?) What about the names and dates of the many [dead white guys] of history? This must all be taught in a traditional, text-based, lecture-driven format, right? Wrong!

I was a participant in a  recent Twitter #PBLchat (Tuesday evenings at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time for those interested) where the topic was whether AP courses can be successfully taught using #PBL. The first question we were asked was “What common misconceptions about PBL ( &/or AP) lead many folks to believe you can’t use PBL in an AP course?” Dayna Laur replied “Content coverage is the common misconception. Memorization has traditionally been key. New tests changes have challenged that!” I said “[a common misconception is] PBL, cannot cover required content for Ss to do well on the AP exam.” “Misconception=>PBL is too ‘fluffy & fun’ for AP” was Theresa Shafer’s reply. “There is such a focus on content and strict time constraints” was Tammy Estes Fry’s reaction. Similarly, Jason Reale said “Not enough time to cover the content and do PBL.”

So, if we PBL practitioners believe these are misconceptions, what is the reality of  the learning necessary for students to do well on an AP exam? More generally, how can we effectively use PBL in the Humanities?

Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences tackles this question head-on. Two points she makes have stayed with me. Dayna emphasizes the importance of making PBL inquiries authentic. What does this mean? In a 2006 editorial in the Journal of Authentic LearningAudrey Rule writes that there are four characteristics which are regularly found in authentic learning experiences: “real-world problems that engage learners in the work of professionals; inquiry activities that practice thinking skills and metacognition; discourse among a community of learners; and student empowerment through choice.” In contrast to this definition, “projects” have often been make-work in disguise. “We have a project to make a poster…” “You will re-enact [dead white guy’s] life.”

The other point that struck me from Dayna’s book is that inquiries must be relevant to the students. The best real-world inquiry may flop if the students cannot relate to it.

Which brings me back to [dead white guys]. No student, regardless of ethnicity, cares about [dead white guys], unless he/she can develop a connection. So, why do we insist on portraying history as a series of “important” names and dates that consists of [dead white guys] students don’t identify with? We need instead to make it alive and relevant to them.

Our Meliora students are currently reading Genghis: Birth of an Empire, a historical novel of Genghis Khan’s early life and rise to power. Although their experiences are far removed from Genghis’ life on the steppes of Central Asia, the students are caught up in the adventure of the story. They can also identify with being a child and a teen. At various junctures, we ask our students what their reaction might be if they were in Genghis’ shoes. This requires them to reflect, and to compare the realities of life in Genghis’ place and time with the realities of life today, in the United States. We  also challenge our students to identify leaders they are familiar with, both past and present, who exhibit leadership characteristics similar to Genghis’. This helps them begin to identify patterns in history, and to come to their own conclusion that the past is relevant to today and tomorrow.

Although we do not teach an AP course, we can nonetheless draw parallels between what we do at Meliora and the expectations of the AP World History course. There are five themes which thread throughout the AP course. We  have extensively discussed two of the themes as we have journeyed through Genghis Khan’s early life — “State-Building, Expansion, and Conflict,” and “Development and Transformation of Social Structures.” We have not done this through a dry textbook and rote memorization, but rather through discussions around an exciting adventure story which we use to make connections between Genghis’ time and our own. We have also done in-class research when students lack clarity on a certain question or topic.

Another AP World History objective, as defined in the course overview,  is to “[l]earn to apply historical thinking skills including the ability to craft arguments from evidence; describe, analyze and evaluate events from a chronological perspective; compare and contextualize historical developments; and analyze evidence, reasoning and context to construct and understand historical interpretations.”

Our students accomplish this every year with the multiple projects they develop. For each project, they are required to define and argue a thesis, which they support with extensive evidence gathered from primary and secondary sources. Their argument takes the form of a written narrative, a spoken narrative, or a dramatic performance. To ensure relevance, we allow broad voice and choice in their topic, as long as they remain within the National History Day theme.

Throughout the project development, which consists of many iterations, we constantly challenge the students with questions like “why?” “how do you know?” “what about…” “where is your evidence?” The students ask each other the same kinds of questions during peer reviews. The requirement to think critically, and to communicate their understanding does not end in the classroom. At each increasingly competitive level of History Fair, the students must defend their projects before a new panel of judges. Not only does this provide them with a significant public audience, but it requires them to clearly communicate what they have learned.

An example of a project that substantiates PBL as an effective methodology for the Humanities has Michael Jordan at the center. Not surprisingly, the student who created this project is passionate about basketball. He started his exploration of the topic with the knowledge that Jordan had an enormous economic impact on Chicago because of his ability to draw fans to Chicago Bulls games. The student also knew that the popularity of Jordan’s merchandise gave a boost to the national economy. What the student did not understand was Jordan’s impact on urban renewal near the United Center (stadium). Prior to launching into this project, I don’t think he knew anything about urban renewal. However, due to his research into the topic, and in order to properly develop and support his thesis, the student had to broaden and deepen his view of the “Jordan Effect.” His project went on to become a national contender at National History Day.

You don’t need to take my word for it. National History Day reports that

“[i]n 2010, Rockman et al, an educational evaluation firm based in Bloomington, Indiana, finished a multiyear study that analyzed the impact of National History Day on student learning… NHD students outperform their non-NHD peers on standardized tests in all topic areas — including reading, science, and math, as well as social studies…NHD students learn 21st Century college- and career-ready skills. They learn to collaborate with team members, talk to experts, manage their time, and persevere…NHD students are critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information.”

August 13

Students looking for feedback – PBL and Environmental Science

I have been using #PBL with high school students to explore topics in Environmental Science. Two students have just completed an investigation into the Emerald Ash Borer and its devastating impact on ash trees in the United States. They would love for a broad audience to give them feedback on their work, which may be found at The Emerald Ash Borer: Tiny insect, huge impact. Please leave your comments on this blog post.

Thank you!

10/22/2014

Based on your feedback, the students modified their website to reflect a more complete picture of the impact of the Emerald Ash Borer. Please visit their site again, as they would appreciate further feedback. They have also set up a Twitter account (@SayNotoEAB) and broadcast the link. They would appreciate a lot of re-tweets.

Thank you!

 

July 5

Never Judge

Never judge. I was recently talking to a friend whose family is struggling financially. Her husband was laid off from his job, and is having difficulty finding another one that combines his skills and interests. This friend is (by choice) not working, so I asked her why she doesn’t look for a job, to help ends meet. The answer she gave me was not at all what I expected.

She explained that at a job she had a few years ago, she felt undervalued. That experience dealt a long-term blow to her confidence. She often thinks of seeking out a job, but then backs away, because of her lack of confidence. She rattled off a long list of skills and experience she has, in a variety of work environments. While she understands on a logical level that she is “marketable,” the emotional impact of one experience in a negative work environment has paralyzed her.

This woman is in middle life. She raised a daughter as a single mother, while holding down a full-time job. Not only did she provide for her daughter materially, she instilled a positive attitude and confidence. That daughter is a grown woman who has a successful career and family life of her own, so the positive outcomes of my friend’s parenting are apparent. She has every right to feel accomplished. But, she doesn’t.

Given that the unkind or thoughtless words and actions of a manager have created this handicap in a mature adult’s life, just imagine what we  have the power to do in the lives of the children we work with. Every time we speak harshly, or diminish, or demean, we are creating negative effects that last well beyond the immediate situation.

Similarly, when we have students who have an attitude, or are trouble-makers, or any other negative adjective we can assign, we need to never judge. What has their life experience been to-date? How many times have other adults told them they are incapable, or worthless, or similar? Our job, as educators, is to develop all students’ abilities, regardless of the baggage they have arrived with.

We need to provide them with opportunities to grow. Regardless of how small and wilted they are when they arrive, we need to send them on to their next experience taller, straighter, and more vigorous. What are some ways we can do this?

Within the #PBL model, there are ample opportunities to demonstrate to students that we value them and their contributions.  The first, and perhaps most important aspect, is authenticity. As Sam Seidel says, “keep it real.” When we ask students  to investigate driving questions they can relate to, they become more engaged. At the same time, we send the message that we believe in their ability to find solutions to complex, messy, open-ended problems. Dayna Laur’s book Authentic Learning Experiences has specific ideas on how to develop projects that have real-world connections that are meaningful to students.

To underscore our confidence in students’ abilities, we need to offer “voice and choice,” giving the students a significant say in the kinds of products they will develop; in other words, the method they will use to demonstrate their understanding . This is a grand, and liberating, departure from the assignment of yore, “write a 500-word essay,” or “on a tri-fold board…”. This flexibility in product choice often results in students developing 21st-Century media and technology skills, such as website design, or video editing, and most certainly deeper research skills.

Project development is an iterative process. This is true in PBL, and equally true in the work world. No project is complete from A-Z without some revisions along the way. This is often challenging for students (and educators) to accept. In traditional education, there are “rights” and “wrongs,” and making a mistake is a negative. PBL assumes that the first iteration will have flaws, and challenges students to improve their work, often multiple times. Peer and teacher (facilitator) assessments identify what a student has done well, and what areas of his/her work could be improved. My hero in this area remains Ron Berger, the master facilitator who inspires students to create “beautiful work.”

Many students arrive at a point during their education where they have a fixed mindset, wherein they “believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t… So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.”  As students work through the iterative process of PBL, however, they begin to develop a growth mindset, where they “see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.”

As a final reinforcement to students about the meaningfulness of their work, we need to seek a public audience. This audience serves a two-fold purpose. Firstly, many community members have a keen interest in fostering interest in the work they do. They are happy to act as consultants during the project development process. Secondly, community experts are enthused about attending a presentation of the work students have done, and often have insightful questions and feedback that further strengthen the point that students and their work are valuable.

The next time you have a “problem” student, never judge. Instead, use PBL to nurture that wilted plant into a strong, robust one that is prepared for the next challenge.

 

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