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.

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