Sunday, 8 December 2013



Blog post comments are great.  They are what the 2.0 in web 2.0 is all about. Elisa Baughman commented on this Project-based Learning post that went into a bit of the history of PBL.  She is working on her Masters of Instructional Technology and had some great questions that I would like to address.  Now there are many Project-based Learning gurus out there.  You can find a list of some great ones (and more of a yellow belt standing up with them) put together by UK's Guardian.  And they would often answer these questions differently.  But here are some of my thoughts, and thoughts of a great teacher from whom I am learning.
1) What would you say are the "must do" items before beginning a PBL?
Now, the way I see it, one could interpret this question in two ways.  First, what kind of atmosphere is necessary for PBL?  Second, what does the setup look like for a particular project?
I have mentioned before that there was a time in the not too distant past when I would steer very clear of any kind of social emotional Pro D.  I just couldn't see the need.  I see it now.  In fact, getting together with my class for a morning meeting has become a great routine.  We pass around the talking stick (it's actually a rather large protractor...but it works) and share about our fears, our dreams, our thoughts.  I would say that fostering an environment of trust is a must-do.  Project-based learning requires students to work well together, take risks, and share what matters to them.  Without a safe classroom culture, growth in these areas would be stifled.
Moreover, it is what is going on with the teacher that is crucial.  Some must-dos: getting used to giving up control, letting students develop their own way of addressing a learning outcome, reflecting on one's own learning.  In fact, self reflection is huge.  I love how Kim Ondrik (of the O-zone in Vernon, BC) describes the road to an effective dynamic.  She says that the teacher must "mine deeply – picking through the strata – uncovering and understanding their own early-life experiences" (from Kim Ondrik's  blog: here)  One's soul must be mined.  Mining is dangerous; but how else can the gems be found.  I like to think that the best learning is better caught than taught and this mining leads to a better person facilitating the learning.  Added to that, the students need to see their teacher as a risk-taker.  If teachers can put themselves out there, the students will be all the more willing to do the same.  Really, the messiness of PBL leads to teacher as chief risk-taker anyways; it's bound to happen.
The Setup
Here is where I am sure that there will be differing opinions--project setup.  In reading over some of Kim Ondrik's criteria sheets, it's like she throws down a gauntlet or something. She calls her projects "challenges" and has these great graphically designed criteria sheets.  Rubrics are provided.  I like to show some kind of inspiring video or have a thoughtful question for our morning meeting.  Either way, a lot of thought into the project is a must-do.  Answer questions like:

- what is the best way to inspire students' creativity on this?
- what kind of group dynamic do I expect?
- how am I going to assess--throughout the project and at the end?
- what does the presentation day look like?

The more thought put in on the front-end, the less scrambling later.  Of course, at some point, the teacher just has to jump in. . .and trust.
2) What "technology" seems to be most helpful when getting students to collaborate?
Well the quick answer to this is: the only technology that is necessary is whatever the student needs to get the job done .  Computer based technologies are not needed but can enhance the collaboration. 

My classroom these days is like a bull's eye.  The centre is a large open area, big enough to circle up for morning meetings.  That area is surrounded by tables: no desks.  Beyond that, I have sinks and power receptacles (not necessarily side by side) and counters to do some of the more messy work on.  Each part facilitates the collaboration aspect.

I also have cyber collaboration space.  This year I have begun to use Edmodo as my learning management system.  I like it because it is truly a social learning system.  Students can ask questions and share online. It also provides a safe environment for students to practice good (and poor) digital citizenship (I talk about that in this post: From Learning Management to Digital Citizenship).  It can help in the collaboration process but is not a must-have.

We also have a class twitter account.  This is useful for accessing other experts out in the world.  Convenient but not crucial.  In my class, students BYOTechnology.  This is helpful, but booking the computer lab is also a possibility. 

Basically, to me, technology isn't a deal breaker.

3) What are some of the most common roadblocks?
I like the word common in that question because I think that it can be the common things that stand in the way.  Platooning schedules, students' timetables, gradebooks: I found that all of these were drawing me back to an old deeply rutted routine.  Questions from colleagues such as "What are you doing in Socials class?" caused me to ask: "Should I go back to having a Socials class."
I am sure the other players: parents, administrators, district directions could be opponents to PBL but that has not been my experience.  More so, it is the internal battle to deliver learning outcomes that draws a teacher away from PBL.  Thoughts like: "If I don't directly tell a student something and test that they can say it back to me, then I haven't really covered the curriculum" are the true roadblocks.
I'll tell you what isn't a roadblock, though: the students.  Most take to this like a raccoon to my garbage cans.  It's like when a kid gets "The Guinness Book of World Records" or a new skateboard or a package of those colourful elastics (rubber bands for those in other countries) in their hand.  The future could be complicated and work needs to be done, but there is nothing stopping them pouring their heart into it.
4) Do teachers run into problems with assessment/grades along the way to report to parents?
They can.  Problem-based learning makes covering curriculum outcomes more trickier and therefore assessments and grading can't be done in the run-of-the-mill way.
That doesn't mean the 21st Century methods can't be used to assess.  I have been using an assessment app called Freshgrade.  This team has been working hard to not only understand the plight of the teacher but also of the Project-based Learning teacher.  Learning outcomes are embedded in the app and projects can not only contain multiple LO's but LO's from different subjects.  Their portfolio view (with quick picture taking capabilities) was an asset  for me this last reporting period.
My last post on the messiness of PBL referred to the need for Assessment For Learning and Assessment As Learning.  PBL beckons for both these types of assessment.  So the assessment is richer.  The depth of learning may lead to less outcomes covered often PBL teachers believe the development of person far outweighs the concern for a missing LO.
I've just touched on some answers to these 4 great questions.  Great questions are, in fact, the backbone of PBL.  I would encourage all (educators especially) to develop the art of questioning, thinking deeply to formulate good, thoughtful, and most of all important questions.