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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!