Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Project, Problem, Inquiry, & Passion-based Dilemma

I know a teacher who set up an elaborate learning experience for his students.  There were supreme leaders, battles and competitions; the room was divided (with tape) into kingdoms; it involved Olympic medals and quests.  It spanned weeks.  The students were engaged and learning outcomes from Math, Social Studies, Language Arts, and Drama were met.  The students loved it and learned from it.

But I wouldn't call it project-based learning.
No tangible product was made nor real-world problem addressed. 

John Larmer, Editor in Chief, at the Buck Institute for Education, has a great article that does a good job sorting out the ideas around project-based learning.  He describes it as:

"a broad category which, as long as there is an extended "project" at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:
  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question"
See: Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL by John Larmer.

Paul Curtis has a great graphic that compares traditional project use and project-based learning

used with permission from Paul Curtis

With it, you can easily see how the project-based learning project not only bookends the unit but facilitates the learning.  My friend's unit did both.  The students were in groups as well, a big component of project-based learning.  But to me, it still wasn't project-based learning.

Though my friend's unit included the real-world idea of competition, the "project" didn't strive to address competition nor unpack it.  War was simulated but work towards ending war or developing awareness of a particular war didn't happen. 

Though a student in the class might tell parents at home that they were working on a project, I don't see it as project-based learning.  And that is okay.

I wouldn't call it inquiry either.
The students didn't develop their own queries. They didn't seek to answer an essential question, something that couldn't simply be Googled.  Their curiosities weren't piqued when shown a remarkable demonstration as Ramsey Musallam (one of my top 10 meet-ups at ISTE 2013) explains in the video on inquiry below.

Questions of "how can our team win?" and "how can we solve the quests?" were asked by the students.  But they weren't the focus.  And that is just fine.

I wouldn't call it passion-based learning
The students did not spend time teasing out something about which they were passionate nor was passion necessarily a focus by the teacher.  Experts in certain areas were not sought out either.

Ainissa Ramirez Science Evangelist

Ainissa allowed me to use her graphic.  It excellently shows how passion-based learning is student-focused and a big part of the movement toward developing 21st century skills.  She sees that "passion for learning is the key pedagogy to prepare for 21st century challenges."  Angela Maiers wrote a whole book on passion in pedagogy called "The Passion-driven Classroom".  She tells of 9 guidelines to passion-based learning (found here), none of which my friend necessarily employed, be it the focus on digital media, the inclusion of parents, nor the seeking out of an expert.  And there is no problem with that.

I wouldn't call it problem-based learning.
The focus wasn't a problem to be solved.  The students weren't working on a solution to an open ended dilemma.

Thanks to Edutopia for letting me use this graphic

Although project-based and problem-based learning share the engagement of an open ended question, problem-based learning has less of a emphasis on the complexities of real-world issues.  More so, problem-based learning (made popular in medical education) has its focus on a paired down problem.  John Larmer shares 6 steps of a problem-based task:

"Problem-based learning typically follow prescribed steps:
  1. Presentation of an "ill-structured" (open-ended, "messy") problem
  2. Problem definition or formulation (the problem statement)
  3. Generation of a "knowledge inventory" (a list of "what we know about the problem" and "what we need to know")
  4. Generation of possible solutions
  5. Formulation of learning issues for self-directed and coached learning
  6. Sharing of findings and solutions"
See again: Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL by John Larmer.

So my friend's month long unit wouldn't be considered problem-based at all.  And there is nothing wrong with that.

The number one idea to get across here is that there is great teaching out there that doesn't end in "-based" (and there are a lot of x-based learning approaches).  Moreover, if you peruse blogs on this kind of stuff, you might even find the pundits saying: we decided to call something something because we wanted to define it.  And then there is the overlap.  When a group of students decide on a question to pursue the answer to, they may have to take actual steps to address an issue or create a product.  Or a project-based assignment may start with time developing a good question.  Even, the question might include making headway on something the students are passionate about.

I know that some say the umbrella is Inquiry and these approaches fall under it.  But are we having difficulties defining X-based learning (problem, inquiry or otherwise) because we are wanting to control learning by defining it.  Learning can't be controlled.  You might say to a student that has come up to you to show you her algebra: "Stop putting the letter in front of the number in your expressions.  You're making me crazy!" and she never does it again.  Your sponsor teacher from teacher college would have cringed.  But through the respect and relationship you had with that student, the student made a change.  Teaching is like agriculture: growth requires the right conditions but you can't make it happen.  Don't think that you can control it.  In fact, it is the students that are really in control.

I love project-based learning.  I think it is one of the best ways to not only engage students but have an impact on the world.  But I would hate for teachers to abandon the good and effective learning activities they do when confronted with such compelling methodology.