Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Transforming schools through Project Based Learning (PBL) .

Main source Thom Markham

I have been reading an article by American Thom Markham on Project Based Learning (PBL) and thought his ideas worth sharing.

Thom Markham PhD
Terms such as Inquiry Learning, Integrated Learning, Related Arts or holistic learning are well known to New Zealand teachers and are all similar to Project Based Learning. Such approaches were once an important in New Zealand Primary Schools but now   at risk since the reforms of the 1980s.  A similar approach for secondary school Is Interdisciplinary Enquiry Learning (IDE).

The 21stC will require a personalisation of learning;cultivation of talent and creativity. It is important for a country like New Zealand for schools to encourage such innovation and creativity but to achieve this will require considerable transformation of the current system.

For teachers who want to follow inquiry based approaches there are an extensive  number of books for progressive educators to select from for guidance and inspiration.

American educationalist Thom Markham is an enthusiast for Project Based Learning (PBL) and believes that the most important innovation schools can implement is high quality project based learning.
An inquiry based curriculum
He provides seven important design principles for teachers to ensure project based learning is of the highest quality.

Unfortunately many teachers still equate ‘doing projects’ with something restricted to the afternoon in primary classes that happens after the real work of literacy and numeracy is done. And all too often, in my experience, much of the current inquiry work is little more than superficial ‘cut and paste’ resulting in shallow content learning. As well there is little appreciation that both ‘learning how to learn’ as well as in depth understanding are both important aspects of such learning.

If inquiry learning is to be done well then the literacy programme must be tailored to provide critical information gathering skills (covering a range of media) and, to a lesser extent, so should the maths programme. For many teachers (and their principals) this will require a change of mind-set.

A quick look at how schools apportion their time will indicate how important such twenty-first century learning is to a school. Do Literacy and numeracy take priority?  Is school success focused almost entirely around literacy and numeracy data?

Markham believes (as do I) that many current examples of PBL are at best mediocre. Students are all too often put in groups and turned loose on a problem presenting their finding as a PowerPoint or display. To be successful a teacher must  teach students how to critically research material ( best done as part of the language programme), introduce students to learning how to learn inquiry  skills,  value deep understanding, thinking and reflection, and also reward such things as ‘drive, passion, creativity, empathy and resilience’.  When done well Problem Based Learning provides a worthwhile learning experience.

To complete successful PBL that brings out the best from students Markham suggests teachers move through a considered design process. Teachers who use inquiry learning will be aware of the general approach – there seems a general agreement about the inquiry learning process.

 Markham outlines seven design principles that ensure learning will both be more engaging and more powerful.

1.      First identify the challenge. The learning must start with a meaningful doable challenge/question/issue that provides opportunities for innovative/creative thinking.

Markham’s tip.  Design projects that matter. Something that contributes to the community, to  exhibit  to parents, or for a Science, Maths or Technology Fair.
My suggestion.  The various strands of each Learning Areas in the New Zealand Curriculum provide ideas to develop PBL around, or to relate studies to. Even if students generate their own ideas for studies most of their ideas will naturally relate to Learning Areas. Studies need to be rich, real, relevant and rigorous.

2.       Craft the driving questions. Consider the deep understandings you want the children to demonstrate at the end of the study. A few focused questions may be all that is needed to achieve depth of learning. Some call these ‘hook’ questions.

Markham’s tip. Make certain the problem is relevant. A good idea is to compare / contrast situation to their own experiences e.g. If studying the 1929 Depression what learning apply to today.
Environmental study

My suggestion. It is important to identify and value students’ prior knowledge before investigating ideas – this is useful to evaluate later what students have learnt. Through their research/activities/experiments students construct ‘better’ understandings.

3.      Start with the results. This idea is in line with ‘backward planning’ approaches. What depth understandings would you like your students’ gain as a result of the study? Keep in mind that a great deal of learning cannot be predicted as new questions ‘emerge’.

Markham’s tip. Consider how to encourage reflection and deep thinking to avoid shallow ‘cutting and pasting’ Consider how you will go about rewarding innovative thinking. How will you organise your teams of students?

4.      Build in the Assessment. The key to high quality PBL assessment is to view content learning as one of several outcomes that will help students to become more skilful and reflective about their capabilities. Assessment needs to focus on: ‘learning how to learn skills’ or competencies (which need to be explicit); personal talents developed;   innovation and creativity; and depth of understanding.

Markham’s tip. Distinguish between on-going formative assessment and any final evaluation

My suggestion.  Ensure that assessment in inquiry learning is seen by students as important as assessment in literacy and numeracy.  The best assessment is, once students have had sufficient experience with PBL, to get them to complete an independent study of their own choice towards the end of the year and to observe what skills they exhibit.

5.      Enrol and Engage. Starting right is the key to success. This includes helping students connect their interests to the question or problem. Also organise teams to be effective by establishing norms for effective teamwork.

Markham’s tip.  Ensure students are involved in refining questions or the project to incorporate student voice.

My suggestion.  As students develop greater appreciation of focused questions greater responsibility can be passed over to them. Science, Maths and Technology Fairs provide excellent motivation.
Bring back John Dewey

6.      Focus on Quality. High quality PBL relies on teams that demonstrate commitment, purpose and results (as expected in high performing industries). To complete successful teamwork students need plenty of time for preparation, drafting and refinement of products, presentations and skills.

Markham’s tip: Facilitate deep thinking.  Teach your students the tools of inquiry and require teams to practice the skills of dialogue, visible thinking, peer evaluation, and critique.

My suggestion. A quick read of final producers will indicate if students have been involved in deep thinking or simply ‘cutting and pasting’. Quality on-going formative assessment should avoid this.

7.      End with Mastery. PBL is a non-linear process that begins with divergent thinking, enters a period of emergent problem solving, and ends with converging ideas and products. A good PBL teacher manages the work flow through the chaos of the product ensuring all students gain the opportunity and support necessary to experience a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

Markham’s tip: Reflect.  Take time to review and reflect on the project .Reflect on accomplishments and evaluate the project against agreed criteria. Was the driving question (s) answered? Was the investigation sufficient? Were skills mastered? What questions were raised? The project debrief improves future projects, as well as the teaching cycle of quality improvement.

My suggestion. Gaining skills in PBL, for both teachers and students, is a developmental process. It is a good idea to begin the year with simpler guided studies and extend students involvement as students skills develop until they are able to work independently.

Markham sums up PBL by saying it ‘promises more engaging school work and a shift in the culture of learning that should be visible in the form of more satisfied higher performing, and more innovative students’. But, he continues, ‘it does require a systematic approach that fully engages students, offers a blend of skills and intellectual challenge, and prompts or awakens a deeper curiosity about life. From that standpoint, PBL is a work in progress.’

My final thoughts. The ideas outlined by Thom Markham align well with the work of creative New Zealand teachers past in present and with the intent of the 2007 New Zealand Curriculum. It provides an alternative to the current imposition of National Standards with its focus on literacy and numeracy narrowing the curriculum in the process. It is important to appreciate the vital role of such areas to be ‘reframed’ as ‘foundation skills’ that contribute to the success of PBL; it is a matter of emphasis.

It is  also an approach that can be applied from early education to secondary schools where students could work on interdisciplinary enquiry  projects calling on the expertise of subject specialist teachers to assist students to achieve in depth understandings .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, this is a really good question: Do Literacy and numeracy take priority? As for me, so far they do and there are many reasons to that. Literacy which also includes writing (find quality essay writing material online ) as they are inseparable to me we meet everywhere and being a purely educated man is something that becomes obvious pretty fast. The next thing is numeracy: even though we mostly get to count simple numbers, still numbers are everywhere. That is why maybe this question is more rhetorical.