Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Revamping my approach to PBL

After my initial ventures into the world of Project Based Learning (PBL) last year, I have had several months to think about my experiences, to read up on how others approach PBL, to meet PBL rockstars such as Suzie Boss (@suzieboss) and to just generally consider in what ways I could alter and improve my Project Based Learning units.  A few thoughts as I am about to launch my first redo:

1) The projects should not all look the same.  When I launched my PBL unit on korbanot (sacrifices) last year, the basic structure of the unit was for the students to follow my original curriculum that I had used for the past decade, only to proceed at their own pace and with some high-tech enhancements (such as instructional videos that I created using Camtasia Studio).  I also included some extra material for some built-in enrichment for those students who wanted to push themselves a bit further.  Overall, I felt that it was not a bad plan, and the fact that the students generally took to the new approach seemed to justify that feeling.

However, when it came to the students' projects, I had a feeling that something was not as right as it could have been.  Most projects seemed to be variations on each other, with the main difference being students' various strengths in PowerPoint and their creativity in designing their presentations.  While I sense that each group did have a valuable learning experience, I think that it fell short of what could have been.

With that in mind, I am altering the unit this time in several ways.  For starters, I am expanding the range of materials that is open to the students.  While still guiding them towards certain key areas, I want them to come study those areas because the project drives them to it, not because the curriculum page tells them that they must.  As before, there will be the opportunity for some students to push themselves farther and some to  merely satisfy the requirements.

I am also making the project more open-ended.  On round one, the goal was for the students to envision what the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) would look like if modern technology was incorporated.  A creative idea, but ultimately somewhat limited.  The new version will ask the students to construct a convincing case for including this oft-neglected topic in the general curriculum, including presenting a sample curriculum outline.  I am enlisting several Jewish educators to serve as the panel to whom the students will have to present (if you are interested in being a part of this, please let me know).

2) Students need to be placed into groups.  For my first try, I stayed away from following this piece of advice, figuring that it would be easier for the students to handle the new modality of learning if they could at least have the comfort of working with a friend.  But, as they say in teen romance movies - "It's not you, it's me" - I think that I was more concerned about how the kids would react than I needed to be.  And so, I spent a few key minutes making groups that will combine students of different strengths.  I was not as concerned with who is friends with whom - one key 21st century skill is learning how to collaborate with all sorts of people, and being able to collaborate with a classmate who may not be your best friend actually seems like a fairly easy version of this.

3) Assessments.  One of the challenges of a PBL - actually, a double-edged challenge - is how to ensure that the students are learning as they go off on their own, and how to have enough "grades" during the period that they are working on the unit.  The easy solution for this would seem to be to have the students complete a series of small assignments such as homeworks and quizzes as they proceed through the materials.  while this makes sense from the teacher side of things, or at least from the bookkeeping side of things, it creates more busywork that does not in itself have much of an educational outcome.

A better use of everyone's time is to have the students create some living and dynamic document or product that must be updated on a regular basis.  It can be something as simple as a Googledoc or a wikispace page or a blog.  Whatever the medium, it should encourage students to reflect on what they have learned over the past day or two and integrate into what they learned previously in the unit.  In this way, their final project will gradually emerge, rather than being something that they have to put together at the end of the unit, looking back over weeks of notes (the way they currently study for tests or work on summative projects).  This goes to what I consider to be the heart of PBL, which is deeper and more meaningful learning every step of the way, not only because the students are responsible for their own learning, but because they become more invested in it.

Undoubtedly there are more changes and adjustments that I will be making as this unit moves forward.  Stay tuned.


Nechama said...

Thank you for this timely post. On your inspiration I planned and executed a PBL unit around Adar-Nisan time. It wasn't terribly effective, and after reading your post I understand why. The students were learning the material on the list, not driven to the sources based on their own queries.

I am planning a new unit for next week, so your post came just in time. Thank you!

You can hop over to my (linked) blog once it's over to find out how your virtual protégé fared...

Telannia Norfar said...

I am not a jewish educator but I am a PBL teacher. I would be happy to be a virtual judge. I can skype in and your students can present to me.

My email is norfars@me.com