Saturday, May 25, 2013

PBL: Questioning, Acting, Assessing, Reflecting and Celebrating

Learning by doing is one of the recurring themes in Project-Based Learning. makes reference to John Dewey who challenged the view of the student as a "passive recipient of knowledge." The quote from Dewey that is cited, "education is not preparation for life; education is life itself" is a very powerful quote with many challenging implications for both educators and students.

A few years ago, in the school where I work, the students were excited over some of the new courses that were being offered. These courses included Welding and Power Recreation & Technology. Taking the advice I had heard (and which is also mentioned on to "start small"), I decided to try to take advantage of the students' enthusiasm, since many of the students taking the new courses were also in my Media Studies course. Their driving question was how do they promote and make the larger community aware of what was being offered at a smaller rural school. In working groups, they decided the best medium was video. I was lucky enough, through a friend, to connect with Terry Gadsden who works in animation and film as an instructor at NBCC-Miramichi.

Terry gave up his time and came to the classroom and guided the students on what elements they should consider when creating a promotional video of the school. When the students had completed their storyboards, they sent them to Terry for assessment, feedback and suggestions. They also sent their videos to him, and he made suggestions in regard to editing, transitions, etc. The students then had to discuss and reflect on the work they did, and what changes they wanted to make before producing their final product. As indicated by Diane Curtis in "The Power of Projects," students can ask "experts questions through email, chat rooms and videoconferencing." Terry's generosity in giving his time allowed the students to refer to him even after he exited their physical space.

As indicated at, "Project-based learning is not without its challenges. It's demanding of students -- and of teachers." At one point when Terry was in the classroom discussing storyboarding and video techniques, some of the students were not taking the discussion seriously. As an experienced educator, Terry had no problem bringing them back on track. I was upset over that behaviour, but I think some of these students may have felt a little overwhelmed with the challenge, and felt they were in very unfamiliar territory.

Additionally, Project-Based Learning can be a major challenge for students because it does require them to think and work in ways that go "against the grain" of traditional teaching and regular classroom settings. They have to take care of most of the action. They have to do the research, decide on a plan of action and implement it. The answers have not all been pre-determined by the educator and, as indicated on, "problem opportunities" will occur from technological issues and barriers, to personality conflicts in group work, and coordinating how they are going to use their time wisely. All these are essential skills that students should have the opportunity to develop in educational settings. 

The students also spent some time working on what message they wanted their video to contain, and they did research on different learning and job opportunities that were related to the new courses offered at the school. They then had to decide what information they would share in their promotional videos from the research data they collected. 

In the end, the students had created some pretty impressive videos that they shared and celebrated with the school and larger community. In fact, this project inspired a cross-curricular project the following year where students from the Metals Fabrication class and Power Recreation and Technology class designed and built a skidder trailer, and the process was captured and produced as a video by the Media Studies class. quotes Chris Lehmann who says, "We must stop saying that school is "preparation for real life" and acknowledge that school is real life for the kids while they are in it. Project-based learning allows that to happen in powerful, meaningful ways." When I reflect on the two projects I was involved in, I not only consider how learning became something meaningful to these students, but also how this type of learning gives students the opportunity to develop practical hands on skills and challenges them to strengthen various multiple intelligences. 

Seymour Papert argues that we have to give up on the idea of curriculum in the sense of what students have to learn on a given day and replace it with "a system where you learn this where you need it." He further states that "age segregation" has to go. These are major challenges for a public education system that is invested and committed to an infrastructure that has remained the same for a very long time.

The advice to "start small" with Project-Based Learning was the best advice for me. Additionally, I think some class compositions and some courses blend themselves better to the project-based learning approach (which is essentially a constructivist approach in its design). Moreover, I think educators also have to be careful not to overdo group projects or ensure that group projects also provide opportunities for students to work and reflect as individuals. Some learning styles and multiple intelligences combine well for group work, but others may not. Students also need the space and opportunity to work individually. With the recent focus and discussion on introverts (for example, author Susan Cain in The Power of Introvertseducators can find ways to help introverts be successful in an "extroverted world" while also making sure to create spaces and opportunities for introverted thinking to shine. 

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