“How do you engage students? You present them with a real challenge they care about” – Cator quoted by edsurge.com.
We have probably all witnessed many lessons delivered in the ‘traditional’ mode of instruction. Normally, this would take the guise of the classic ‘three part lesson’; where there is direct talk from the teacher, a task which the students work on in small groups or independently, and then a plenary to wrap it all up.
In some instances, this approach still remains a decent option. However, it is often used to the detriment of both the children’s enjoyment and in how much they learn. In the worst cases, it is chosen as a safety net for the overworked teacher. It requires the teacher to be in control, and tends to rely heavily on the transmitting of information directly from the brain of the adult to the pupils, via spoken information and instructions. This style of teaching is deemed to be easier to deliver and simpler to measure in terms of assessment. Core skills are normally repeatedly practiced and at the forefront.
But, this is not the only pedagogical option available to us. This week, the focus of our studies are approaches that, if used successfully, would help our students more. They have the possibility of retaining longer lasting and meaningful lessons, which are more enjoyable and fun.
PBL (Project Based Learning) contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios – wikipedia.org – Project based learning.
One is Project Based Learning, whereby students work for extended periods of time on a complex challenge, problem or question. The approach requires them to share responsibility, take control of the process and to experiment, explore and express themselves to a greater extent.
“Within this framework, students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating their ideas and findings to others, asking new questions, and creating artifacts” – Blumenfeld et al 1991, Educational Psychologist, via the Wikipedia link above.
The bie.org paper adds further meat to the bone of this pedagogical approach. Particularly, “outstanding projects recognise student’s inherent drive to learn…and encourage collaboration.”
Problem Based Learning shares similar characteristics to this approach, but usually specifically focuses on solving real world issues or problems, that are meaningful as often chosen by the children.
Challenge Based Learning is again linked closely to those above. It was set out by Apple Inc. in 2008, and as this link suggests, “When faced with a Challenge, successful groups and individuals leverage experience, harness internal and external resources, develop a plan and push forward to find the best solution.” Inherent to this approach is that students have a specific role to play and a need to know. Though based in High Schools, the following video drew my attention to the value of these approaches, and is particularly inspiring.
Problems Of Our Own
So, what is stopping educators from the creation of fascinating projects that connect their students with the community around them? Why would teachers, in an ever changing world, falter at the sight of greater enjoyment and learning for their pupils? If the traditional approaches are our safety blanket, then perhaps we have some problems of our own to solve. In the rest of this blog post, I wish to draw attention to problems that people may have with PBL, CBL and ahem, PBL; and hopefully shed a more positive light (or even solutions) to these issues.
The Teacher’s Role
Undeniably, the role of the teacher changes when we adopt alternate approaches in the classroom. As the EdSurge article mentioned above says, “…center on so called ‘active learning’, where students, not their teachers, drive much of what they do in class.” They also quote Larmer and suggest:
Teachers need to know it’s a shift. They might need to give up some control.
For me, I would not belittle that this is a change of mindset for educators, but it is one that with practice can come quickly and easily. Teachers begin to take on the role of coaches in these different approaches, allowing the children more time to explore for themselves and make mistakes.
Yet, teachers are still crucial as they will inevitably need to coach students with their learning habits, teamwork skills and potential misconceptions (and much more along the way). If we weigh up our traditional educational safety net versus children actually enjoying all of the hours that they spend in school, and gaining a great deal more out of it as a result, then this feels like a ‘no brainer’ for those that care about the profession and kids in general.
My Passion Or Their Passion?
In a predetermined curriculum, we try and think about what will engage our students as much as possible, and the best educators have an outstanding working knowledge of the kids that sit in front of them. Yet, can we ever know what they are really passionate about? Can we keep up with them as their interests change with each new life experience? Perhaps it would be better to (again) hand over to the students. I accept that this is again a shift in mindset, but it is time to let them take charge!
Here is another video that inspired me with this thinking. I particularly like the following quote from Prof. Seymour Papert in the video: “Education has very little to do with instruction. It has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material.”
A Different Direction
It’s true. Under these approaches, the lessons may veer off in a different direction than is expected. As students make new discoveries, under their own initiative, they can excitedly go off course. Teachers can prepare themselves by being aware of this, and prepare their reactions as they study the learning as it unfolds. They can then decide whether it is appropriate to allow the change as a positive twist, or to gently redirect the children. You never know, the kids may well just do this themselves.
Today’s society requires creativity and critical thinking skills, perhaps the evolving nature of a lesson where the students are free to explore and innovate is perfect to set them up for this.
Lack of Time
Working in schools is a perennially busy profession, with no sign of the overwork abating. A concern is that these different approaches will take time to set up, as new lesson plans and resources will need to be created. Indeed, a longer amount of time will be needed if we are to link with problems to solve in the community or create challenges for our pupils.
Within lessons, our week’s are already full with lessons, so how will we fit anything else in? How will we find time for teaching core skills?
To answer this, these approaches mean that children can do more for themselves, in a “culture of shared responsibility” – wikipedia.org – Project based learning. There will be a far reduced need for our classic worksheets and slides, because the children will decide their direction and focus.
Also, there may be a need to put more work in initially, but for a huge benefit in the long run.
The bie document mentioned above sums this problem up nicely, with, “…though projects take time to plan, teachers have more time to work with students once a project is under way” and “…it is helpful not to think of PBL as taking time away from the regular curriculum.” Rather, it is a different way of delivering it…and more effectively.
They will inevitably be affected by bell schedules, the time of year, ‘assessment weeks’, and so on; but this is always a factor in the life of a school.
Are My Students Ready?
Maybe not. Yet.
Students may lack the critical thinking skills at this point in time. They may find it difficult to work as a team. They may give up easily if a challenge is hard. But, all of these are factors to teach and overcome.
We have to ensure that the project is not the end in and of itself. We do not work in a production line. The students and their learning is our end point, and our focus. With this in mind, if we identify gaps that make these pedagogical approaches difficult, then we can help the students to gain them. What better than to teach our pupils such 21st Century Skills. They could even teach each other!
This Edutopia article gives some excellent ideas for how to create a culture in your classroom, ready for effective Project Based Learning. I particularly like the ideas around aiding inquiry mindsets, the build up of an exciting ‘buzz’ around the projects and helping pupils with confidence, such as when speaking publicly.
The AP courses video above also mentions the idea of ‘looping’, whereby a teacher actively allows the students to link back to previous stages of the process. This is crucial in allowing the children to reflect and to learn for themselves.
The problems above are certainly ones to be aware of, so I hope that I allowed for this in this blog post, but also shared ways in which they can be overcome.
Many of the solutions are for us as educators to rethink the approach and methodology that takes place in our classrooms, and to take ourselves out of our comfort zones. We want our students to have problems to solve, so why not us? I believe that if our students are at the center of everything that we do, then we should always choose the pedagogical approaches that are best for them.
Different teaching styles aside, this is just semantics really and what’s important is the humans that bound (or traipse) into our classrooms each morning.
Giving our students a project, problem or challenge to solve is a great way to bring their experiences to life. They can connect with their communities, support them in building their 21st Century Skills and help them hone their passions.
We should make their time in education fun, because they learn so much more when they are enjoying themselves!
So, the semantics aren’t worth worrying about, at least not for very long – John Larmer, Edutopia.
You will also find that good projects in classrooms encourage changes in the culture and structure of schools – Suzie Boss, Edutopia.