So many things to blog about at the moment…transmedia and transliteracy, the Gonski review of school funding…but in the thick of Semester 2 teaching I find myself inexorably drawn back to curriculum studies.
And goddess, please bless Bianca for coming through with a new blog post about Project Based Learning (PBL) to stimulate my thinking this week!
I have been trying to work out how to formally incorporate PBL into the structure of my unit English Curriculum Studies 1. This week I think I have a solution, which I’ll outline below. But first, to answer Bianca’s question: when I proposed this structure in a comment on her blog she asked:
Did you design the assessments or the pedagogy first?
And that question, RIGHT THERE, is our chicken and egg, am I right?
Because, as Bianca rightly points out, school teachers find it very challenging to engage in “inherent ‘assessment for learning’ within the rigid ‘assessment of learning’ framework already in place”. So, while it might seem logical that your pedagogy will determine your assessment, the ‘reality’ of teaching and learning puts this possibility beyond reach for most.
For some schools their ‘rigid assessment of learning framework’ is tied to NAPLAN exams, for others it is focussed more on Year 12 exit credentials. And in schools that claim not to be driven by external assessments, rigid assessment frameworks can still be constructed by Heads of Department (or others) who seek to place multiple additional constraints on teachers’ planning (e.g. “you MUST have a half yearly exam!”, “every Year 9 class must write an essay in term 1”)
The curriculum places constraints on assessment and pedagogy too, and I could start talking about the Australian Curriculum here. Instead I’ll show you what I built for the university semester context, and try to answer Bianca’s question from there.
Here is the draft outline for my unit in 2012:
- Weeks 1-4 focus: Inquiry based learning (assessment = critical/reflective essay) assessment as learning
- Weeks 5-7 focus: Project based learning (assessment = project + review of pedagogy used in class project) assessment for learning
- Weeks 8-9 focus: Challenge based learning (assessment = make lesson plans for English) assessment of learning
I can safely say that for this unit, I started with the assessment. Literally, I have adopted an existing unit with existing assessment pieces that take at least 6 months to get formally changed. So, while I have been tweaking each assessment piece each semester, I’ve been teaching it for 18 months now and a full overhaul of the structure is now needed to fully incorporate PBL and other constructivist approaches.
Beyond that initial point of departure though, I have oscillated between a pedagogy focus and an assessment focus each time I plan and change something in the unit.
I would say my major points of development around pedagogy and assessment were:
- Reviewing the balance of assessment FOR learning and OF learning in the existing unit. In the university context it is only possible to mandate summative assessment…so I had to reconsider my approach to build a learning environment where the learning process was valued.
- Reviewing the first summative assessment, which was a critical essay, gave me the idea to make the relevance or ‘connectedness’ of the opening weeks of the unit more apparent. Students now do a range of inquiry-based activities to help them engage in the scholarly material, motivated by the need to interrogate their own perspective.
- Activities planned for the first few weeks of the unit were redesigned around a new assessment that focussed on the students personal teaching philosophy. This increased the potential of the assessment to be FOR learning, I thought.
- Teaching the new opening to the unit was really affirming, but showed up the weaknesses in the pedagogy of weeks 5-7. A PBL approach was therefore introduced to ‘liven up’ this part of the unit. This coincides with the time in semester when students begin having heaps of assignments due, and I felt they needed a pedagogical experience that was less ‘intense’, and enjoyable enough to get them through the ‘hump weeks’!
- The PBL appraoch worked really well, but the students put a lot of work in that wasn’t rewarded in assignment grades. So I am now redesigning assignment 2 to include ‘project participation’ criteria so students can get their work on this counted in their final grade.
- aaand…MOST recently: because the final assessment of creating alesson plans really has proven a ‘challenge’, I’m going to use this to explore Challenge based learning. I see this as being the same as Project based learning, but where the outcome does not have to be presentation to an audience. Instead, the project outcome must ‘meet the challenge’. Think Mythbusters
You can see how thinking about assessment and pedagogy are totally bound together – thinking about one always raises questions for the other. Or, it should!
I’m still searching for material that can explain the realtionship between Inquiry, Project and Challenge based learning. I’ve tried to use them here in a complementary way, but tbh it’s been tough to find sources that relate the approaches to one another. I started off this process thinking they were slightly interchangable. Now I can see that each one is informed by a respect for ‘learning by doing’, but has its own unique flavour. But are these three the only three? Do they sit in a hierarchy of some kind? Are there other ‘Something-B-Ls’ out there that I don’t know about??
If you do, please add a comment! (I hope this helps someone out there!)