Sunday, February 3, 2013

What is PBL?

I have never been a teacher that enjoyed standing in front of the class and preaching while the students dubiously take notes.  My voice never would hold for longer than a day of "preach" teaching.  And the student's attention was as shakie as my voice. Granted...I do love that 7th graders think I know all that there is to know about everything.  But they will think that regardless if I am preaching to them or at their side coaching them along.

My First Steps
When I first started teaching I took Kagan training for cooperative learning. It is a program that teaches structures that work with any lesson to get students moving and working together.  It is was a start.  I could see very early that students were more effective when they could talk and reason through a problem as a unit rather than alone.

The problem I ran into was the lessons that I was given were many times fancy worksheets. Stymied by the lack of resources and an administrative staff that preferred rows and silence I floundered a lot.  Sure I made them Indian tribes, racing pioneer families, a dinner party welcoming Stephen F. Austin, cattlemen looking to market their cows and a classroom government...but these were but highlights in a school year that lacked real purpose and connection to the outside world.  Never did I give them a chance to exercise imagination, connect to a global community, go back and correct things they did not understand or ask real questions then try with all their resources to find the answers. I never thought about it.

Project Based Learning
a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.
My school district asked for volunteers to act as a leadership team to train the district.  I signed up.  I like to know what is going on. Mom always calls it being nosey.  I signed up and for the next seven years worked as a curriculum designer reshaping our curriculum into the Design with the End in Mind model.  It was the best training I could have ever asked for from a district. As a teacher this focused my teaching on what goal I was teaching toward.  It taught me how to formulate questions to lead students to that goal.  I started as a writer for the district but as I trained other teachers on the method it became second nature.  It took my teaching to a new level.

I had the questions, I had the Kagan methods for grouping and I knew that for students to truly understand something they had to connect to it. The last piece of the puzzle came when I read the book Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner.  

There it was.  The final pieces to what I was looking for.  I started to madly search for more information on the model that Tony Wagner spoke.  
photo source

It was not groups, or questions alone.  The students needed a tight combination of driving questions, a real audience, choice, reflection/revision and knowing why they needed to know.  All of those together are not an easy package to produce on a daily basis.  Creating a real significant PBL project means a ton of front loaded work. Strong questions are not easily written.  Mapping a project so the students don't get stuck and flounder requires planning and systems that act as their safety net.  

I am not an expert at this process yet. But I do have some advice to share: 
  • Students not used to choice become drunk at first with their own power. This will pass...but it is painful to watch. 
  • Giving students the opportunity to ask for help and your support will make everything better for both of you.  Give them a daily chance to ask for help, reflect on what they accomplished, and a chance to strategize for the next day.
  • When a project goes longer then you planned that is okay.  Schedules were meant to be changed.  
Final Thoughts
Growth as a teacher seems at times to stand still then has huge spikes.  Moving toward becoming a PBL teacher has been one of my biggest spikes in growth.  I continue to grow and will share it with you. 

What is the book or training that has meant the most to your teaching?  

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