As anyone who has been to education conferences in the past knows, by the time you reach the last session, there is serious mental fatigue setting in. I was struggling a little, though a slice of excellent chocolate brownie and a hot chocolate whilst sitting on the deck at Luna Park chatting with Corinne Campbell, who had her Teacher’s Education Review (@TERPodcast) hat on, made for a nice mental change of direction. Corinne interviewed me in my role as a blogger for Education Nation, and to be honest, I do not remember very clearly what the questions were or what I said in response and I just hope that I did not sound too waffly or pompous!
The last session of Education Nation was one that I had chosen specifically because the topic it was covering was one that I was not completely sold on, having never seen it run particularly well. It meant, or I felt it meant, that I would go in skeptical (always healthy) and would either have my feelings confirmed or changed. I would not be able to come out of the session still sitting on the fence about it. The Hewes Family (@biancaH80 and @waginski) were speaking about Project Based Learning (PBL), a pedagogical practice which has become increasingly popular and mainstream over the last few years.
I arrived slightly late, and to the Hewes’ boys speaking about their experiences as students with PBL, acknowledging that there are many different models of PBL, but that at its core, it is more than a project. It is often touted as a project go make this or show this and teachers are then hands-off. Lee jumped in at this point and said that if you are not having students hitting the top tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy during a PBL unit, then you are not utilising PBL properly. Bianca and Lee laid out some key ideas to keep in mind when considering using PBL as part of your practice.
The first key thing to be aware of, Lee told the audience, was that the PBL unit needs to be thoroughly planned out and that in the early days of learning about PBL that a good PBL unit will often require as much time to plan properly as it does to actually implement it. As you and your students become more confident and competent with the process and skills required, that time is reduced, but there is a significant investment in time up front. The key to planning any good PBL unit is to keep in mind three key factors; students should be discovering, creating and sharing throughout the unit, though Lee added that a variety of verbs can replace those three.
The driving question should be student-friendly, which was elaborated as meaning that students can confidently repeat it correctly and can understand what the question is asking and explain it to others in their own words. This also implies that there should be some sort of problem to be solved which is significant to the students. This does not necessarily mean that they are solving a local problem. The significance can be wider than just the immediate area and assessment, but it should be significant, in some way, to the students. There should also be a continual cycle of assessment for the duration of the PBL unit, assessment of learning, for learning and as learning, and this includes not only the internal assessment by the teacher but an opportunity for external assessment through online sharing of learning.
Quality resources should be planned for and utilised. This includes any kind of resources, whether it be digital, soft-copy, physical resource or a personnel resource; the use of a subject matter expert (SME) as part of the PBL unit. There is more than the textbook available, especially in the age where many questions are easily Google-able or answerable with a small amount of research.
The resources for planning, refining and assessing a PBL unit on the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) (@BIEpbl) were available and very easy to use, particularly as a starting point, and include rubrics to help assess the final learning output. Bianca and Lee stressed that we need to teach students how to read and use the rubric as a signpost throughout the unit so that they understand what will be assessed and how and can use that to track their process and that the rubrics are guided by research from Geoff Petty (@GeoffreyPetty). Part of helping students utilise them is to make them engaging, and this is where the ongoing assessment of, for and as learning comes into play.
We were also advised to teach students how and why to use a project calendar; as part of teaching accountability, planning and forward thinking, all skills needed in everyday life, but particularly useful for managing time and resources in any sort of project. The students should be encouraged to plan out their project and fill in the due dates for milestones of their project by backward mapping the overall process after a discussion about realistic timeframes and then roles and responsibilities within the group should be negotiated. I get the impression that this would be an investment in time, up front, but that would long term, see strong dividends. Students would, with the right instruction in how to use them, be able to apply the concept across the rest of their learning and stay on top of any other assessment tasks, particularly in a secondary setting where there might be multiple tasks in play at any one time.
Part of the process of planning high-quality resources, which I mentioned above, also included booking conference time with the teacher. Lee spoke about how he encourages students to consider particular skills or concepts they will need to learn and to book in lessons with him, cooperatively with other groups, to ensure they get the instruction they need. This gives students some agency over their learning but lets them know that there are instructional sessions that they will need to complete in order to learn skills or concepts needed for the end product.
Additionally, you need to prepare students for PBL by developing specific skills such as teamwork, collaboration, presenting, conducting research and knowing how to be independent and a team player, as well as when to be both of those. Lee advocated using starbursting as a tool to help students understand the skills needed for PBL and also to help them develop teamwork criteria.
Bianca next spoke about the importance of remaining organised before and during a PBL unit. Using Project Packets which contains unit outlines, rubrics, lists of resources and where or how to access them etc are a great way of helping students stay organised (see here for examples of what else might be in a project packet), and that these can be digital, hard copy or both. Using a project wall can also be a useful way to keep PBL units organised, as can some form of online resource management or LMS for communication and sharing of resources.
Next, we heard about the [not so] secret structure for successful PBL units.
- A solid hook lesson with some embedded formative assessment.
- Project outlines, a KWL chart for some more formative assessment and to allow students to make their learning visible and a loose outline of their project calendars.
- Form project teams (teacher-selected), discuss and sign contracts, teamwork rubrics.
- Engage in the discovery cycle which will utilise some explicit instruction, as well as teacher and student-led activities and SME visits or contact via an alternative form.
- Move to the create cycle, which is where groups plan, prototype and test their learning output and engage in a thirty-second class share (though the thirty-second share can occur at any point in the PBL unit and should occur on multiple occasions), a gallery walk and engagement with goals, medals and missions.
- The share cycle which requires rehearsal and preparation by the students prior to their sharing (in whatever form that takes). It was stressed, at this point, that teachers need to not micromanage this phase of the PBL unit. Students are accountable for what they have learned and the unit will only be successful on subsequent occasions with the same cohort if they know they are held accountable and that you will not swoop in at the last moment to do the work for them.
- The evaluation phase, where students and teacher engage with an honest and frank self-assessment and reflection period about the unit, the effort put in, the outcomes and the products, the rubrics used, what worked well and what could be improved next time.
Bianca has written about the various aspects of structuring a PBL unit on her own blog. One article found, which seems to speak to some of the specifics I have covered above can be found here.
The session was closed out with a task for the audience. In our table groups, we had to develop a brief PBL unit overview that we could take back to our context and with further planning using the tools and strategies shared with us, put into practice. We were given some examples of PBL Unit outlines created by Bianca and Lee that they provided to students as part of their own PBL teaching, one of which I have included below.
I can certainly see the benefits of PBL now, and I feel that with some time and preparation I could develop and run a good PBL unit in my class. It is the time, as always, that is the issue and, at this point in time, I still wish to pursue flipped learning and strengthen my skills in that area. I can certainly see myself returning to PBL in the future, however, and they have given me confidence that it can be done and done very well whilst till hitting the various outcomes that we are required to hit.
This is the last of the session review articles, and at this point, the first iteration of Education Nation was done and dusted, at least from the delegates’ perspectives. I do plan to write one further article as an overall wrap-up and review to address some general feedback that I have received about various aspects of the event, and to tie in some of the themes that I saw across the conference.