Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Project-Based Learning for Dummies

It feels like I made a promise.  When I cut up the BC Learning Outcomes, parsed them out into projects, then blogged about it, I set up an expectation.  "Tell me how it goes.", "Keep us updated.", "Make sure you blog about it." was what I heard.


You mean I've got to go through with it?  I have great systems in place.  Math routines.  Class sets of textbooks.  Colleagues to teach my students some courses.  Change?  Really?

As teachers, though, new is nothing new.

And as always, step by step is the way it works for me.  So below are a few steps I took to make my foray into the PBL world.  But first a proviso: I know that simply attaching learning outcomes to projects is not what project-based learning is all about.  I know.  But I had to do something like that to transition from the world of "courses" to the world of genuine-real-life-I-can-learn-something-through-these projects.  Remember, I am the eternal:

So here are a few steps I've taken.

1) Reduce platooning
I now have my students 90% of the week. At first I thought that would be crazy: juggling all those balls in the air?  But with projects, the juggling is easier. And I don't have to keep track of so much from the students in the other classes. So far (it's still September), this is doable.  Having lots of time with the same students has been really important to provide the time needed to work on our projects.  Class has been a lot more free flowing and it has been great not having to change gears every 45 minutes.

2) Read some articles
7 Essentials For Project-Based Learning by John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller
What Project-Based Learning Is - And What It Isn't by Katrina Schwartz
Project-Based Learning: A Short History by Suzie Boss

3) Find a learning network
I've got a couple things going here.  I've been encouraging our staff to communicate more through twitter and we now have a common learning hashtag to follow.  This has increased and deepened the level of collaboration.  And just like there is a buzz you can feel when your students are deeply engaged in what they're doing, there is a buzz when teachers are sharing, collaborating and learning.  I feel that buzz at my school.

Leyton Schnellert with SD43

Also, I am fortunate that my own learning desires have been coupled with my district's.  Leyton Schnellert has been brought in to facilitate our development in "Engaging Learners Through Community and Inquiry in the Middle Years".  Schnellert has expanded our horizons by sharing experiences ranging from participating in simple inquiry activities to observing a full blown PBL class.  Below is Kim Ondrik's class up in Vernon.  It is hard to explain the kind of genuine learning community she has up there (called the O-zone).  Her grade 6/7 students work on real life activities: from tying flies to chopping carrots for needed meals to taking pictures of animals in the nearby wetlands to raking up nearby leaves to taking up roles in the civic council chambers.  Her kids have a voice.  They solve problems.  And they still meet learning outcomes.

Kim Ondrik and the Ozone

4) Jump right in
Project 1: My Perfect Classroom.  I asked my students to find the dimensions of our class and design the perfect classroom.  (Was it wrong to ask them to figure out the floor area of the class in square meters as well? :) )  I bought dollar store tape measurers and asked the students to work in their table groups to find the classroom dimensions.  I made available some instructional videos on finding area of parallelograms and triangles.  After calculating area, students were to design their idea of the perfect learning space.  Though they could be as creative as they wanted, I tried to instill the fact that their ideas could find themselves being played out in real life.  The plans are coming in and I'm interested to see what we can do with all these ideas.

Making wide scale changes isn't easy.  Sometimes, however, the risk not to change is greater than the risk to change.  When faced with great, good just isn't good enough.  I am much happier seeing my students climbing on the counters toting tape measurers, than I am having them regurgitate words on a page.  And I think they're much happier too.

It's a start.

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