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 11

Why I do #PBL

Sheri Edwards recently posted about how working on hobbies helps instill a desire for #lifelonglearning and a willingness to #struggle. She pointed to #GeniusHour as one way to incorporate student-centered hobbies during the school day.

Absolutely! In my #PBL practice, I put a lot of thinking, planning/designing and #reflection into finding ways to make the academic work the teens do as compelling as possible. I apply the High-Quality PBL framework to my designs. As part of that framework, I offer students a lot of #VoiceAndChoice in how they develop their projects and in how they present their evidence of learning.

I commit to implementing projects that challenge, engage, and support students as described by the six #HQPBL criteria.

Notwithstanding, there are times I get frustrated with what I perceive as a lack of enthusiasm, or a lack of devotion to their work. It is in these moments that feedback from an outside audience reminds me of how capable these students are.

At our student showcase in December, a group was presenting a video documentary. They encountered some technical difficulties related to projecting from a laptop to a large screen. With no apparent anxiety, they persevered in their troubleshooting and soon the video was smoothly rolling for the audience to enjoy.

At the end of the showcase, one of the audience members came up to me and said, “Wow, it’s amazing that they knew how to fix the problem! I would have had no idea where to even start!”

It is true that my students, through regular practice, develop a variety of technology skills. Since they use #realworld tools and apps, and sometimes know more about the technologies they are working with than I do, they become adept at figuring things out. When they encounter #failure, or a product works differently than they expect, they momentarily retreat. Then, they consult among themselves, look at YouTube videos, “ask Google,” and occasionally even ask me.

In other words, they are #problemsolving, one of the “Seven Survival Skills” identified by Tony Wagner in his work on transforming education. It is moments like these that cause me to recommit to the chaotic, messy, exhilarating process called project-based learning.