Friday, 29 November 2013

The Problem With Project-based Learning

It's messy. 

It has to be.

My latest PBL: Addressing an Issue
I had no idea where the simple phrase: "Choose an issue that you would like to address and create a plan to deal with it" would go.  It went far.  In my previous post, I mentioned that you know you are doing PBL when the room feels less like a classroom and more like a campaign headquarters.  This project sent us head over heals into campaigning.

I believe it all started when I shared with my students this video: The Pearl of Africa by Chad Boyer.  I invited the students to think about joining with Karine Veldhoen from Niteo to support Niteo's efforts to provide books and share the love of reading with children in Uganda.

That may have been the catalyst to their paradigm shift from 'doing projects for the teacher' to 'doing projects for themselves' to 'doing projects for others'.  Somehow, they got the picture that they actually could do something.  Something real.

They could choose their own issue, something that meant something to them and address it in their own way.

The next thing I know, we are tweeting the mayor, writing proposals, finding email addresses, advertising for a bake sale, and abiding by a groups request to stop all screen-time for two days.

These are the issues my students have been working on:
- raising and sending money to orphanages in Ethiopia
- campaigning to bring back hitting in PeeWee hockey
- supporting Niteo in their efforts to promote reading for pleasure in Uganda
- campaigning for a new community pool
- raising awareness for the endangered leatherback sea turtle
- raising awareness around cancer prevention
- campaigning the need for freedom of expression in art
- campaigning against animal abuse
- raising money to stop world hunger
- addressing the problem of children having too much screen time
- raising awareness of diabetes

Book drives and bake sales, partnering with churches and non-profit organizations--all from three simple words: addressing an issue.

Locus of control
So what do I mean by PBL being messy.  First: students have more control.  More control means they have more opportunities to fail, to make mistakes.  The timeline is theirs, not the teacher's.  One group thought to do a Saturday bake sale outside of the local 711.  I was relieved when they decided to have it instead at school but I needed to be fully prepared to show up that weekend, support them, and spend some money on brownies and iced tea.

The shift in the locus of control, however, is definitely a good thing.  The 'buy-in' is huge.  The students are working "behind my back", out of my purview.  At times my principal has to copy me on the emails she gets from my students as they organize a book drive, or a bake sale to keep me in the loop.  They are excited to be in community and work together.  There is no pulling teeth to get the work done. 

A different kind of assessment
Second: PBL gets away from the "I share, you listen, you demonstrate that you understand" rhythm.  I like rhythm.  I like streamlined methods.  I use the microwave a lot in my culinary pursuits.  Grading a multiple choice Scantron test is much easier than assessing work done on a project to address world hunger. 

PBL, though, has done the great job of beckoning me to reflect on my own assessment practices.  Am I including enough assessment for learning and assessment as learning or is it all just assessment of learning.  PBL naturally leads to assessment for and as learning.  The new community pool proposal needs not to be marked but to be refined.  Hey, I want that pool just as much as the students. . .we need to do a good job here.  And assessment as learning is crucial--self evaluation must be a big component: did we work well as a group?  How can we work better?  How can we improve on our plan of attack for next time.  Even: do brownies sell as well as doughnuts?  How much iced tea should we make for the next sale?

A chance for some dirty looks
Third: The perception might be that no real learning is taking place.  Other students might mock those in the class.  Teachers might disapprove.  Parents might not want it for their kids.

The great results, though, lead to deeper resolve in the process.  So far for me, my journey has been trying, believing, adhering, then sharing.  I'm not deep enough in to be defending.  When that day comes, though, I will be ready.

PBL is unpredictable
A 1994 article in Educational Leadership by Steven Volk entitled Project-based Learning: Pursuits with a Purpose said this:

About three weeks ago, in the safety of my classroom, a tarantula crawled up my arm. Needless to say, it was a unique experience. The tips of the eight hairy legs felt like the pads on the bottom of a dog's paws. The body was soft, with stiff hairs growing at a sharp angle.
And the eyes, well ... there were eight of them.

Volk goes on to describe his grade 5 Project-based classroom.  The tarantula's presence was the result of a student's desire to study spiders.  The student contacted a local biologist who brought the spiders to class.  Anything can happen.

So enter into PBL with wide eyes.  You may find, as Volk did, a tarantula climbing up your arm.  And you might even like it.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Teach old-school: try Project-based Learning

When I began my foray into Project-based Learning, I had one word that I believed was the plumb line for the projects: genuineness.  The projects needed to be real.  Now real projects have gone on in school from the beginning of time: think of the ceramic picture frame you made in elementary school, or the paper towel holder you fashioned in woodwork class.  Students have been fixing cars, building strobe lights, sewing pajamas and making masks in school since forever.

Do these activities fulfill PBLs mantra?  They can.  Learning does happen through the creation and completion of the project.  And genuine useful artifacts are produced.  'Learning through' replaces simply 'learning about'.  Classic PBL, right?

Not necessarily

So then what's different about today's push into PBL?  Is it student choice?  Adding social interaction?  Technology?


Well, then.  What are the standards that PBL needs to abide by?  Where can classic examples be found?  Whose idea was this anyway?  With a little digging, you'll find that Project-based Learning isn't anything new.  In fact, it stems as far back as the end of the First World War.

The word 'project' is perhaps the latest arrival to knock for admittance at the door of educational terminology.  Shall we admit the stranger?
- William Heard Kilpatrick Oct. 12, 1918

picture from the Georgia College web site

William Heard Kilpatrick, a teacher and progressive educational philosopher, uses the term project in the way that Project-based Learning teachers would be proud of and not the watered down word project that covers teacher driven, thrown in the trash when it gets home, creations.

You can find a great biography here.

In his The Project Method: The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process, Columbia University October 12, 1918, Kilpatrick refers to the idea of a purposeful act as his construct for a meaningful project.  It is a "wholehearted purposeful activity proceeding in a social environment".  He uses the example of a girl sewing a dress:

"Suppose a girl has made a dress. If she did in hearty fashion purpose to make the dress, if she planned it, if she made it herself, then I should say the instance is that of a typical project." (top of p.2)

He posits the purposeful act as a unit of democratic life which he juxtaposes against slave life.

It is equally true that the purposeful act is not the unit of life for the serf or the slave. These poor unfortunates must in the interest of the overmastering system be habituated to act with a minimum of their own purposing and with a maximum of servile acceptance of others’ purposes. In important matters they merely follow plans handed down to them from above, and execute these according to prescribed directions. For them another carries responsibility and upon the results of their labor another passes judgment. No such plan as that here advocated would produce the kind of docility required for their hopeless fate. But it is a democracy which we contemplate and with which we are here concerned. (top of p.3)

Kilpatrick then talks about the difference between two children making kites: one with wholeheartedness of purpose verses one who makes his under direct compulsion.  Not only does he show how the learning is greater for the student whose kite-making is a purposeful act but he shares that:

To the one the teacher is a friend and comrade; to the other, a taskmaster and enemy. (bottom of p.5)

This hundred year old wisdom speaks to the possibility that the picture frame, paper towel holder, car repair, strobe light, PJs, or mask may not adhere to the essence of PBL.  They may not have the student's wholehearted purpose.  My word genuineness may not be the best plumb line for PBL.

So the question is: what is a good plumb line?  Possibly we need to ask ourselves a series of questions as educators to keep our projects purposeful acts?

Here's a start:
Whose idea was this?
Did the student purpose to complete the project?
Were there simply "plans handed down"?
Was the project completed in a social environment?
Who carried the burden of responsibility for completion?
Whose judgement carries the most weight?

Not everything I am doing in the classroom would be considered by Kilpatrick a purposeful act, but when my students work on these kinds of projects, I see the benefits.  When the room feels less like a classroom and more like some kind of campaign headquarters, I know that the projects my students are working on are purposeful acts.  And it pushes me to facilitate even more of these activities with a purpose.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

What they don't tell you about BYOT

Hey.  I like the idea of students bringing their own devices/apps/tech-understanding to class just as much as the next teacher.  Well...more actually.  I like not thinking I have to book the computer lab every day.  I like the back channel going on when I teach.  I like students communicating with each other online, solving problems, sharing knowledge.

And I like the variety of tech each student brings.  But I want to be realistic: a multi-platform environment brings its challenges.

How do I hand in my file?
Where is the text reader on my Surface RT?
In what app should I take my notes, Mr. Robinson?
How does my Android tablet get onto the school's wifi?

These kind of questions are commonplace.  And although I like to have a good healthy portion of "you figure it out" in my classroom, a teacher needs to have a good healthy portion of answers as well.

True multi-platform-ness
Oh how single-minded I have been.  In February, I posted Iphone Utility Apps and shared some of my favourite and most useful Iphone Apps.  I ended the post with:

Notetaking, scanning, printing, accessing files and blogs, and Sharepoint access: all taken care of. So readers. . .what am I missing? 

I know now what I was missing. 

Everything.  Everything for Windows users, everything for Android users.

I was missing the point.

So my penance was to purchase a Google tablet.  (I love having great excuses for tech purchases :))My penance was to spend more time on my Surface RT.   And my penance was to learn more about each platform and share.

So here is a post for BYOT teachers struggling with the plethora of platforms and devices in their classes.

Now, it is not hard to find sites that talk about multiplatform apps.  A great one is here: Apps and Sites That Work on All Devices for BYOT by @Edu_thompson.

But if you are looking for some device-specific help, here is some need-to-know BYOT info.  This post will start with the in's and out's of the Android platform.

Android Devices can be your friends
The Buttons

picture from Engadget found here
Variety being the spice of life and all, you'd think that the many iterations of buttons on Android devices would taste like a Sichuan Hot-Pot.  But for a teacher bleary-eyed from device overwhelm, the sight of a new button configuration might lead to running through the halls like decapitated poultry.  To simplify, there are five main things to look for in your Android device.  Here are three:

Now while the back button can lead to a variety of places it invariably goes...back.  Very important when you find yourself stuck at a dead end.  The home button will take you to your start screen while the Multitasking button will show you what apps are running. These apps can be deactivated typically by flipping them off the screen.  But wait...there's more.
Don't miss this one.
It is the menu button.  It can bring up all sorts of app specific options.  If it feels like you are stuck in an app with no options, look for it.  You might even have a physical button on the device.

And finally there is the search "magnifying glass".  The search looks through apps but can also search through the web. 


Now, Android devices are a plenty and so are their ways to get on the net.  A good tip, though, is whenever you see the 4 bar pie shape, the wireless menu can't be far away.  For instance, a simple tap on the time/WiFi button above will get you to a pop up that will lead to the WiFi settings page.
If that won't work, click on an app that says Settings.  There will be one in the app list.

Managing Files
While each Apple app manages it own files and Windows devices have a unified file system (remnants of the My Computer icon of old), I found that I needed to get an app to help me navigate the Android ecosystem. For me, ES File Manager, is that app. This free Android app is a must. If you want your Android device to access a network and retrieve files this is the first app you should download.  It can be found on both Google Play and Amazon App stores.

Word Processing
Of course your Windows devices have MS Office.  Apple has Pages and Documents to Go but an app that has come to the forefront is Quickoffice. It is a free way to access your Google Drive that has 'open in' functionality--meaning you can create, edit, then open up your docs in other IOS apps.  This is very useful when you employ a learning management system.  For Android, Kingsoft Office Suite is my 'go to' app.  Kingsoft has a free word processing Android app.  Use it in conjunction with the ES File Manager and you can create, edit, manage, and store documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.
Playing Around is Key
Well those are some of the basics: navigation, WiFi access, filing, and word processing.  Because Android devices are so prevalent, it is hard to nail down specific 'step by steps'.  But getting a hang of the commonalities will give you enough knowledge to say your students "you figure it out" with confidence, knowing that in the end, you could help them find what they need...if you wanted.