Chatting in the mid-year break with Bianca and some other PBL-peeps, this video was recommended to me. It’s only 15 minutes long, and now I’m recommending it to you too:
The video shows what can be done in a school where teachers and leaders are prepared to really let students design their own learning. Like, really let them do it.
The students in this alternative academic program design their own Independent Learning Projects (that they report on weekly to other students), as well as their own Individual Endeavours (ambitious term-long projects, e.g. learning to play the piano and putting on a recital).
Something that interested me was, about 1 minute in, one of the students explained that in the course they look at “the four main bodies of learning”:
- Social Sciences
- Natural Sciences.
Make no mistake – I was totally inspired by this video and even showed it to my students this semester. So inspired, that I changed our first assignment to be based on completion of an Independent Learning Project! But when those four areas are offered up as the “main bodies of learning”, I can already see points of tension for making this kind of program work across the board. What of the other learning areas? What of health and physical education? What of the arts? Foreign languages?
Without engaging with conversations about what is ‘essential’, ‘core’, or ‘fundamental’ in education – and working out some kind of common goal or philosophy to anchor us – I suspect alternative programs like the one featured here will (continue to) struggle to gain traction.
Although these programs aren’t (yet) the silver bullet we need to shed our teacher-centred shackles, I believe bringing these approaches into our teaching is vital.
Personal take-away thoughts:
- Students have passions and interests that they are entitled to pursue.
- Students are capable of designing their own learning, if we give them some parameters.
- Students are more motivated to learn when they have some control in devising the questions for investigation.
- Independent learning approaches seem an immediate good fit for students like this (this is is a class of nine Honours students, who self-selected into the program), but would disengaged or recalcitrant students need more scaffolding?
- Doing my own Independent Learning Project in high school was a transformative experience for me. It was called a ‘mini thesis’ by my teacher, and I chose to study the French Revolution. I did this for just one term in just one subject – surely this is achievable across the board without rethinking our whole approach to schooling?
One of my students followed up this investigation with the following juicy question:
Essential fluencies seem to structure skills within select criterion, however I am curious as to whether PBL uses these as guides (depending on the student’s PBL objective) or whether students are meant to meet all of these at different stages of their PBL (to achieve a final product)?
If this is a flexible criteria, would using a feedback grid be the most effective way of communicating the development of an idea (as it focusses less on curriculum goals, more on constructive advice)?
I decided to post my answer to part of this question here on the blog:
You’ve asked a good question about skills and standards. My understanding of PBL (and other inquiry-based models) is that assessing skills is just as important as assessing content knowledge.
There are two (opposing) axioms that relate to this:
- ‘What gets measured gets done’.
- ‘Not everything that matters can be measured; not everything that can be measured matters’.
At the moment I’m inclined to agree with the PBL movers and shakers – that developing ‘soft skills’ should be seen as a vital curriculum goal, just as important as the acquisition of discipline knowledge and technical skills. The argument here is that if we don’t find a way of measuring/assessing soft skills then teachers will continue to sideline them. Because ‘what gets measured gets done’.
The BIE crowd have developed a range of assessment rubrics for the four skills that they identify as most important to PBL specifically: creativity and innovation, presentation/communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. You can find them here:
Of course, the opposing view is that such assessment rubrics lead people to forget the second axiom ‘not everything that matters can be measured’. I know sometimes I’ve watched presentations for example that are awesome, but their awesomeness can’t be explained using the BIE assessment rubric. It’s like all rubrics actually need a criteria labelled “X factor!” for when a piece of work or project does something amazing that we didn’t plan to (or cannot) measure. And sometimes by focussing students so explicitly on assessment rubrics, they can get obsessed with how to ‘game’ the criteria to reach the highest standard, rather than taking risks in their learning to work toward a big-picture goal.
As there is no ‘Ultimate God of PBL’, we are free to use whatever framework we want to think about “soft skills”. We can take up the Essential Fluencies, we can take up the skills foregrounded by BIE, we can use the 4Cs proposed by p21.org, or we can use the General Capabilities from the Australian Curriculum.
But ultimately I’d argue that yes, whatever framework you choose, you should find a way of explaining to students the standards you are looking for on a range of criteria, for the particular project they’re working on. Assessment rubric sheets should be designed to make the criteria and expected standards transparent to the learner, and to aid the feed-forward process throughout a project as well as the feed-back process at the end of a project.
I know I haven’t answered all of the parts of this student’s juicy question, and we’ll be talking more about it in class. It may generate another blog post. In the meantime…
- How would you answer this student’s question?
- Do you agree that providing assessment rubrics for soft skills is useful for learning in PBL (or otherwise)?
Last week I presented material on using PBL in English at the AATE national conference.
Some English teachers up here in Brisbane gave me permission to show their work there, and I also shared some key links that helped me when I was beginning my PBL journey:
- The bie.org run down of what PBL actually entails
- Andrew Miller’s post on edutopia.org about writing effective ‘driving questions’
- Bianca Hewes’ post about how to ‘manage the mushy middle’ of a project
The big points about PBL that I highlighted by the end of the talk were:
- PBL involves a process of deep learning over time.
- PBL must involve an authentic audience beyond the teacher.
- PBL still involves small bites of teacher-delivered material, timed to support learning and project progress.
- PBL involves students in tackling real world concerns. Relevance is key!
Finally, I offered a range of my own ideas for PBL units for English. This frustrated non-teaching teacher would be very pleased to see others use/adapt/critique these project concepts…please report back if you do!
I know I just finished saying that my blog would mostly be used for PBL reflection in the near future.
But there is a new resource available for English teachers and English curriculum boffins that I must share immediately.
The English Teachers Association NSW, in partnership with the NSW Department of Education, have created a resource for programming in K-10 English.
It is organised in ‘stages’ (rather than in year levels), but once you get your head around stage 5 = year 9 & 10, stage 4 = year 7 & 8, and backward in pairs from there, you will get the picture.
The creators of this resource analysed the NSW English syllabus (which in theory maps on to the Australian Curriculum) to identify core concepts and processes implied by the curriculum documents.
The 15 ‘textual concepts‘ are:
- code and convention
- connotation, imagery and symbol
- literary value
- point of view
And the six ‘learning processes‘ are:
- engaging personally
- engaging critically
There are questions that jump to mind for me when looking at this resource, including:
- how are the ‘learning processes’ intended to interact/overlap with the ‘general capabilities‘ in the Australian Curriculum?
- where do ‘language mode’ and ‘medium of production’ fit into these concepts? Is it in ‘code and convention’, or…?
Overall I am excited by this contribution to English curriculum understandings. The conversations it will make possible between primary and secondary English are especially promising!
How might this approach to English subject content (knowledge and skills) interface with the curriculum (Australian Curriculum or otherwise) being used in your area? It’s been designed for NSW obviously, but could it have application beyond there?
It’s the end of semester one, which means two things for me:
- It’s time to prepare my ethics application for my funded research on project based learning in secondary English.
- It’s time to finalise preparations for my own project based learning plan for next semester.
I’ve been trying out elements of project based learning (PBL) for a few years now, and this will be the first unit that I feel fully embraces the model to underpin class organisation and one of the two major assignments:
This assignment will no doubt shift a little as I develop marking criteria to align to the unit outcomes. Ah, constructive alignment, don’t you love it?
This blog will largely be used in the forseeable future to record and reflect on my PBL research and teaching.
How long did it take for you to settle back into work?
This is what people will ask me, down the track. What people have already been asking for a few weeks now.
I started work just after bub turned 11 months, and now she’s 13 months. It’s my ninth week back.
It took nine weeks to get ‘with it’.
I think I have successfully: decided where to get coffee and lunch; remembered most of my passwords; stayed back at work a couple of times; stayed up late working after bed time; said hello and had a chat to most people at least once; started teaching, with three lectures under the belt; presented a conference workshop; established a new dinner time routine.
Working. Enjoy responsibly.
I want to make a play list of songs that would be good for getting ‘psyched up’ for work.
There’s currently one song on my list – used as a theme song for the TV show Suits, ‘Greenback Boogie’ reminds me of the thrill you get when hard work pays off. Though there are certainly no suits being worn in my office, and I’m well aware that working 20 hour days is not actually that glamorous…
I used to play ‘Get in the Ring’ a lot on the way in to work, but although it was good for preparing to deal with some tense issues at the time, I don’t think I benefited from the antagonistic feels in the long run…
So hit me with it – what tunes are best for getting excited to go to work?