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.
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!