I had the great opportunity this week to attend project based learning training delivered by Dayna Laur (@daylynn), a Senior National Faculty member with the Buck Institute for Education, one of the premier organizations for promoting and teaching PBL. I only recently had the pleasure of meeting Dayna at TCEA, and she was highly touted as an expert on the subject of PBL. In the podcast, Dayna talks about challenges and benefits of PBL, the change in the role of the teacher that is necessary, realistic expectations for newbies, and more.
Huge thank you to Dayna for foregoing her break time to share to me and for some outstanding professional learning time!
Off topic a little bit, but it’s therapeutic for me, and I’m friends with the editor…
Three seemingly unrelated things got my educator wheels spinning yesterday and today. The first was a video shared by a Twitter friend that features Adam Savage (Mythbusters), titled “Permission to Make“. In the video (below), Adam discusses how he has had this lifelong love of building things, testing them out, recreating, and on and on. He references the shortcomings in today’s education system, where kids have scarce (if any) time to make, time to construct and experiment.
The second thing that occurred was that I read a blog post about mobile devices and informal learning today while preparing for an upcoming professional development course. The post referenced a theory by some fellows at Princeton University called the 70/20/10 Model. This model states that roughly 70% of our learning occurs through our daily activities, 20% through social interaction, and a whopping 10% through formal educational experiences. It seems that we are predisposed to learn in natural settings and circumstances more effectively than we are with our backsides on cold plastic aligned carefully into rows so as to give us the best view of the whiteboard.
The third thing actually happened last night, when I downloaded an iPad app that the magical iPad Genius had recommended for me (He or she knows me so well, it’s a bit unnerving.). The app is a game called SimplePhysics. The principle is easy enough–construct a structure that is strong enough to survive some test. Of course, your resources (money) are limited, so keep it cheap. I discovered quickly that my physics knowledge is either very rusty, or the game is just plain out to get me. Not wanting to admit the latter, I pressed the Retry button. I continued to do so until I had successfully conquered a few levels, just enough to restore a little bit of my pride (I won’t reveal exactly how many clicks it took, for fear that tiny bit of pride will be lost again.).
So, what is the common thread of these 3 things? I think it is that schooling needs more building, more experiences, and more Retry buttons. The real world values the ability to make, to break (at times), to solve problems, to think. How much more effective might we be if we radically reset this whole thing and made learning the natural process it is when kids go home? Give them a problem, provide what they want/need to solve it, and stand back. Watch a kid learn to play a new video game. One of the most important features of a game is the ability to backtrack a bit and give it another go…and another… and another. A week later, they’re on level 112 with a #6 world ranking (despite the initiative and determination that “these kids today” just don’t have). Think about the first time they kicked a soccer ball. What if the coach had simply said, “Terrible–you get a C-. Now, on to shooting a basketball.” Kids will stick with games until they get the hang of them, no matter how many missteps they make. Who among us didn’t hit a mailbox or two when we were learning to drive a car? (Anyone…?) We learn best by doing and tinkering and attempting and retrying, not by meditating and memorizing. This is what builds real-world value into learning. Real life learning is filled with Retry buttons. Schools don’t have time for them, though–they have the curriculum to cover.
I saw this in action this week, incidentally. I saw a group of our students who, after a mere 6 days of work, had created a mountain of very high-quality products focused on an awareness campaign for a polluted waterway in the area. It was their first experience with anything resembling project based learning. Teachers and students raved about it. The audience at the school board meeting gave the beaming kids a standing ovation. And, despite the fact that they never shared a single bubble sheet or fill-in-the-blank worksheet, I am completely confident that their knowledge of science, math, technology, social studies, and language arts were all deepened. Most importantly, as they worked to solve the problem, they researched, they experimented, they communicated, they built, they got their feet (quite literally) wet, they made mistakes, they hit the Retry button, and they accomplished something real and valuable. Isn’t that the kind of thing most of us envisioned when we took this gig?
Here in Birdville, access to technology is precious. In most schools, teachers and students are competing for time in a single lab or with a laptop cart with an entire campus, often of 700+ students. Like most schools/districts, a 1:1 program isn’t in the cards for us in the near future. Given such limited resources, it’s a significant testament to our teachers and students that they make it work as fantastically as they do. They make lemonade from lemons routinely. The fact that access to technology is so precious may actually have an unintended positive effect, actually. Because so many classrooms can’t even expect weekly access to computers, the Internet, printers, etc., teachers have to be extra judicious about how they use their time and resources. A great number make it count by foregoing routine, mundane use of technology in favor of high-level, meaningful stuff. The following suggestions are based upon my observations of teachers and students doing the really cool and powerful things that maximize the potential of our limited resources.
Start at the top…of the taxonomy. Create, evaluate, analyze. Choose student outcomes that are high-level first, then see if technologies can get them there. Here’s an example. A guiding question for a 3rd grade science unit reads as follows: Describe and give the names of simple machines. Where can they be found in real life? The action verb here, describe, is at the understanding level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so students would clearly be meeting the objective by creating a photo slideshow, including labels/descriptions, of images of simple machines found in their homes or schools. However, understanding would be deepened by using Lego robotics to create a machine that will perform a real-world task or by using a tool such as Golems or Scratch to design a machine incorporating simple machines (all at the create level of Bloom’s). Tablet computers offer many animation creation apps that can provide students similar opportunities for designing and sharing practical applications of this learning outcome.
Don’t just report–solve. Inquiry, problem-based learning, project-based learning, challenge-based learning–whatever the name, the central idea behind such concepts is that students are asked to find answers and solve real problems. Rather than giving a report on global warming, for instance, students might be asked to create a web page promoting the responsible use of natural resources or a video explaining reasons why fossil fuels continue to be the predominant source of energy worldwide. These types of activities require students to gather information from a variety of sources, examine often contrasting facts and opinions, and synthesize everything into an effective product.
Encourage collaboration. And by collaboration, I mean real interaction, sharing and critiquing of ideas, and contributions by students with differing perspectives. Tools such as wikis, email, Skype, and other communication/collaboration technologies allow students to expand this and work with students from a more diverse community. Skype in the Classroom and ePals are just two of a growing number of resources that help teachers facilitate this.
Choice. Back in the early days of classroom technology, students had few options when it came to the products they would create. Today, however, the possibilities are vast, and this offers opportunities for students to create projects that are suited to their personal learning preferences and interests. Teachers can facilitate this by introducing students to a variety of possible tools and allowing students to select the technology that will produce the most effective end product.
Assess authentically. Use rubrics to give students a clear picture of what constitutes top-quality work. If students are involved in the rubric creation process, all the better. Rubrics provide students a means to self-assess their work and progress, as well. Rubistar is an “old” tool that continues to be one of the easiest to use resources for generating new rubrics quickly or finding existing ones suitable for many technology-rich classroom activities.