Posts Tagged PBL

PBL presentation at AATE conference

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 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!

Digital storytelling PBL concept - by Kelli

Digital storytelling PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)


Student research PBL concept - by Kelli

Student research PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-ND-SA)


Poetry PBL concept - by Kelli

Poetry PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)


Shakespeare PBL concept - by Kelli

Shakespeare PBL concept – by Kelli (CC BY-NC-SA)

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Let the PBL begin (again)!

It’s the end of semester one, which means two things for me:

  1. It’s time to prepare my ethics application for my funded research on project based learning in secondary English.
  2. 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:

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

Draft: Program/Assignment Outline for Semester 2

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.

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Risk-taking and risk-aversion in teaching

Happy 2014 to all! It seems I inadvertently took a blog break over summer holidays – a break from most things digital, in fact. I’m back in the swing of things now though, with a head full of ideas and energy stores replenished. Who knew I was so tired after 2013? Well OK, I did. Now you do tooūüėČ

So, this is my fourth year at my job as a lecturer. How time flies eh? Reflecting on my time so far I can confidently say that I’ve continued the spirit of innovation I had as a high school teacher into my university teaching. I’ve pushed forward with using social networks to support student learning, with developing project-based learning pedagogies, and with developing blended learning experiences including wiki work and blog-based assessment.

But this week when I was offered a chance to trial a new technology with my class, I turned it down.

There are any number of reasons that teachers say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to trying something new. Watching this keynote by Sarah Howard from 2012 today gave me a chance to reflect on my own tendency to be a risk taker in my practice – I usually see the benefits of innovation as outweighing the costs:

…and boy last semester there were some costs. Some cyberbullying from a student really put a damper on my teaching with Twitter, and right at the end of last year I experienced a big delay in giving students assignment feedback after a swathe of electronic assignment files got deleted. Further technology fails ensued as I struggled to negotiate student assignment return via Blackboard, our university LMS. It was a nightmare, and a confidence shaker. ¬†In a university teaching context where a whole semester of awesome learning can be overshadowed by a single student complaint to the wrong person, I ended 2013 wondering if all my efforts were ‘worth it’.

Fortunately I value innovation and creativity to such an extent that taking risks in pursuit of better practice is still worth it to me. In her keynote Howard explains that people are less likely to take a risk to pursue something they see no value in, which makes sense really.

I guess the shift for me will not be from being a risk-taker to being ‘risk-averse’ – I haven’t had the stuffing beat out of me quite hard enough yet to be averse to risk! For me the shift will be from high-stakes to more low-stakes risk; rather than pushing the boundaries with a wildly new practice I’ll be consolidating and refining my current pedagogies and taking stock of where I want to go with my teaching in 2015. Which will be nice timing, given the massive course changes we are implementing next year (PS. in six months if I disappear completely, somebody please come find me, I may be perishing under a mountain of new unit outlines…).

Do you see yourself as a risk-taker in your teaching? How risky are you planning to be in 2014?

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Inspiring PBL unit outlines from #CLP409 students!

This semester I modified my unit planning assessment for CLP409 (Secondary English Curriculum Studies 2) based on the outline developed by Bianca Hewes. You can see the 40 fantastic project outlines by her fabulous #EDMT5500 students on her blog.

Bianca developed her ‘Inquire, Create, Share’ model for project-based learning (PBL)¬†units after finding that planning PBL units needed to involve more visible teaching and explicit structure to ensure students learned required knowledge and collaboration skills.

As I see it, this approach is a variation of existing models that suggest units of work be designed around phases of ‘Orientate, Enhance, Synthesise’. These particular verbs are popular in Queensland Schools, and can be found as one of two recommended unit planning frameworks on the QSA website.

The two things that I love about the unit framework that Bianca has developed are:

  1. It provides a structure for PBL units that takes on the narrative flow I find so natural in teaching – there is a clear beginning, middle and end in these units.
  2. The shift in verbs used to drive learning activity is important; activities to¬†‘Orientate, Enhance and Synthesise’ could still be very teacher-centered but¬†‘Inquire, Create, Share’ and similar verbs deliver an imperative to engage student-centered learning and project sharing.

Following Bianca’s lead I am posting my Assignment Task Sheet here for all to see, and below you will find some of my students’ finished products, reproduced with their permission.

CLP409 2013 Assignment 1 Task Sheet

Task sheet for CLP409 Assignment 1

Please notice that I used the same Driving Question as Bianca, ‘How can I create a project for English that will help my students own their learning?’, and that I retained some of the structure of her original project as well. Some things I did a bit differently were: adding an essay writing component where students justified their choices using scholarly and professional literature; requiring students to refer to Australian Curriculum elements rather than ISTE NETS and professional standards; providing models of other assignments.

Of course, I could only provide my class with models of assignments because Bianca’s students had been willing to publicly share their work in the first place. So a big THANK YOU to those fabulous (and generous) #EDMT5500 students, and to the University of Sydney, for making their work available to the world:)

Sam Mason:

Sam Mason CLP409 Unit Plan 1

Chloe McIntosh:

Chloe McIntosh CLP409 Poster1

Ben Niland-Rowe:

Ben Niland-Rowe CLP409 poster

Emma McVittie:

Emma McVittie CLP409 A1_poster

Toni Petersen:

Toni Petersen CLP409

Miranda Clignett:

Miranda Clignett Final poster image


Sarah Smith:

Sarah Smith Macbeth unit poster 2013

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Which PBL?

Today I attended a whole-day symposium on ‘learning and teaching in collaborative environments’, aka the LATICE program at QUT.

At the start of the day I was really excited to hear some of the speakers referring to the new learning rooms in the uni as ‘PBL rooms’. I had previously known these rooms as ‘collaborative work spaces’, or ‘CWS rooms’, but I was all too happy to change my terminology – how handy, I thought, to suggest PBL as a recommended pedagogy for such rooms!

Unfortunately, as the day went on it became clear that most people using the term PBL were referring to ‘problem based learning’, not to ‘project based learning’ (which is my preferred teaching style). I say unfortunately not because I have any beef with problem based learning – I think it’s great, in fact. But PROBLEM based learning is just one way to organise learning experiences.

And the ‘which PBL do you mean?’¬†problem¬†doesn’t stop there:

PBL varieties


I have written a little before about the nature of ‘play based learning’, and think it’s important to draw on ALL of the above PBL models in a balanced teaching approach. I’m open to hearing how this may not be the case in other disciplines/faculties, but in the Education sector we certainly have to be across all three approaches.

The issue of nomenclature here is far from trivial. As frustrating as it is, I think we may need to complicate the cute ‘PBL’ acronym to enable practitioners to distinguish between the approaches. I could suggest:

  • PmBL (problem based learning)
  • PjBL (project based learning)
  • PlBL (play based learning)

…fully realising that this just looks clumsy to some!

Any other suggestions for a way forward on this?

See, problem– and project– based learning differ importantly in the sense that a learning project should not have a pre-determined outcome, whereas a learning problem often does (imagine here a student working through a well-worn math problem). The difference between project– and play– based activities is also important, as learning projects do get assessed, whereas play is supposed to be low stakes and, well, playful.

One thing is for sure – we simply ought not go on giving presentations where we drop the ‘P’ term without qualifying which one we mean!

So…which PBL do you mean when you say PBL?

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RSA Animate ‘Drive’: Purpose, mastery, self-direction

I just came across this excellent 10 minute clip from the RSA Animate series. It was put up in 2010 and has had over 9.6 million views on YouTube, so some of you may have seen it the first time around. The clip is called Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, and is an animation of a talk by Dan Pink.

I’ll be adding this clip to my English Curriculum Studies reading list next semester – a way to link with my students’ other studies in ed. psych.

I’ll also be making a bigger effort to bring in those concepts – mastery, purpose and self-direction – to explain the pedagogical strategies involved in project-based, play-based, inquiry-based and challenge-based learning. I’d be grateful for any insights about this that you folks care to drop as a comment here!

Enjoy the clip!

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My schmick new assessment design!

Teaching at university can be tricky, mostly due to the emphasis on summative assessment.

Since starting this position in 2010 I have been attempting to infuse the unit I coordinate with greater amounts of project-based learning. However, in a context where students have little time or incentive to engage with classwork that isn’t formally assessed, it has been hard to reward things like student project work.

After three semesters of teaching English Curriculum Studies 1 I decided that a radically new assignment was in order. 


Students used to do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis
  • Assignment 2 – Report on video lessons and learner needs observed
  • Assignment 3 – Junior secondary English lesson plans

All of these assessment pieces were completed individually – no collaboration was required and no public audience was utilised.

From this semester onward, students now do:

  • Assignment 1 – Personal teaching philosophy statement and resource analysis (same as before)
  • Assignment 2 – Junior secondary English lesson plans (now completed in small groups of 2 or 3)
  • Assignment 3 – A range of CHALLENGE TASKS published in a portfolio <– SCHMICK NEW TASK!

The New Task:

Many of the key ideas about inquiry-based and cooperative learning that I am working with can be found in a book extract provided by Edutopia: Teaching for Meaningful Learning by Brigid Barron & Linda Darling-Hammond.

Here is a brief extract – some words about project-based learning:

“Project-based learning involves completing complex tasks that typically result in a realistic product, event, or presentation to an audience. Thomas (2000) identifies five key components of effective project-based learning. It is: central to the curriculum, organized around driving questions that lead students to encounter central concepts or principles, focused on a constructive investigation that involves inquiry and knowledge building, student-driven (students are responsible for designing and managing their work), and authentic, focusing on problems that occur in the real world and that people care about.” (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008, p. 3; my emphasis)

What I’ve done in my new task is to create a poetry ‘project’ as one of 10 ‘challenges’ that students need to complete.

After trialling a poetry project last semester, I know that students see value in, and engage with this kind of learning.¬† But, at the end of the day, students felt let down because the work they put into their projects didn’t ‘count’ towards their final grade.

Once I started messing around with a new assignment that gave them credit for their project work, it was too hard not to design a whole suite of ‘challenges’ that they could choose to take up! So, that’s what I’ve done – students decide what grade they want to get, and complete the number of challenges needed to obtain it.

Challenge-based learning‘ as a term has not gained as much traction as ‘project-based learning’, but I think there is something to be said for the difference in terminology. In my teaching context, students are completing a ‘project’, but there is a minimum standard they have to reach to be able to ‘pass’ the assessment. Also, there is less focus on a ‘driving question’ than a PBL task would have – more of an emphasis on the products needing to be made. Hence my use of the term ‘challenge’ in the overall task.

The Challenges:

OK, the easiest way to show you the assignment is to share copies of my assignment sheets:

CLB018-CLP408 challenge portfolio task

A matrix of challenge tasks is provided for students to choose from in assignment 3. 

Students will receive a grade for Assignment 3 based on the number of challenges completed: 


CHALLENGE TASK peer assessment sheet

Note the peer assessment component of this task. This is something I am especially proud of, for a number of reasons! Not only am I hoping that this will result in a more sustainable marking practice for me (I will be checking/validating the peer marking, but no re-doing it), but it is also a strategy for getting the students to learn how to share their work and act as ‘critical friends’. I also think that having anopther preservice teacher assess your work in this context can be seen as providing an ‘authentic audience’ for student work.


The student portfolios for this task are due next Friday, so I’ve yet to see how this new assessment plays out in real life.

One idea I have bubbling away about the teaching methods chosen is that ‘project-based’ learning can perhaps be broken down further as being either ‘inquiry-driven’ or ‘challenge-driven’ (and maybe even a third category, ‘play-driven’). But that’s a hierarchy that I’m still thinking through…

There is a lot going on here, I realise. But I’d seriously LOVE to hear feedback from my critical friends, including any students that end up reading this post:)

If you have any questions to ask, shoot them at me too! Obviously I’m quite proud of what I’ve constructed here, but in a few weeks it will be time to reflect again on how to improve for semester 2, so as they say…bring it!

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