Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Creating Projects for Project Based Learning

I was speaking with a friend the other day about project-based learning (PBL).  This friend, who teaches science in Middle School, is still relatively new to PBL and was discussing his difficulty in coming up with projects that successfully and sufficiently drove the learning of his students so that they could have a meaningful learning experience along the way.

It was at this point that I stopped him.  "You do realize," I said, "that teachers in most subjects would kill to be in your position."  I went on to explain to him that in my view, science is the subject most naturally given to PBL.  After all, science has always been about empirical learning and experimentation, and the conversion to PBL should therefore be not much more than a simple (yet painstaking) re-ordering of the learning process.

(Qualifying note: of course it is harder than that, and science teachers who engage in PBL put in tremendous amounts of work in order to make it happen.  My point, as will be seen shortly, is the contrast to other disciplines.)

If you have tried PBL, you know that the hardest part of the process in terms of creative juices is devising an appropriate project that will serve as a good structure within which the students can do all of the learning that you want them to do.  This was driven home to me by two PBL experiences that I had last week, one involving me and one involving my wonderful colleague, Rabbi Simcha Schaum (@simchaschaum).

The common thread between both of these recent experiences was what I will call "minimum level projects." What do I mean by that?  Allow me to illustrate.  In the case of my class, the students began a unit on kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), and the project that they will have to complete will be to create a series of short presentations about different segments of those laws to be presented to students who know next to nothing about this topic.  With help from a couple of my Tweeps, Tyler Amidon (@mramidon) and Chris Fancher (@cfanch), I have been working to find classes of students across the country who can serve as a skype audience for my own students to present their projects to.

Rabbi Schaum took a similar approach, but kept it within the walls of our school.  He had his 6th grade Mishna class learn a few mishnayot on their own, with the goal of presenting what they had learned to several of our 4th grade students.  I was privileged to be in the classroom last week when the presentations took place, and it was truly a sight to see.  What had been a class of students of mixed abilities and motivation became a highly motivated group of teachers, who came up with a wide range of approaches to presenting what they had learned to their younger counterparts.

Notice the similarity - neither my project nor Rabbi Schaum's project required the students to create something or to really apply what they had learned to a specific real-world situation.  In both cases, we merely asked the students to present their findings.  I would say that that is the minimum level project that can be devised.

On the other hand, it is rare when something accomplishes everything that we want it to accomplish.  In both cases, our students seized control of their own learning, were highly motivated, and did have to achieve a true mastery of the material in order to present it to other people who had no knowledge of the subject matter.  While that is not quite the same as learning aerodynamics in order to build a working airplane, it is definitely a step above simply regurgitating facts into a powerpoint.  In both cases, we are working with active and inquisitive audiences who force the "teachers" to be exceedingly well prepared, and thus even this "minimalist" approach yields some impressive results.


Lori Polachek said...

I am curious about the process by which a specific project is decided upon. Do students have a say in the project that is chosen- I would imagine their engagement in the project would be a factor of their inherent interest in the project. What has your experience been in this respect?

Aaron Ross said...

In a sense, it is a joint effort. I generally choose the overall structure of the project, but the students have wide latitude as to how exactly they will present their work.

Adina Shmidman said...

Do you have a rubric for your project - I think it would adapt nicely to the middle school Shemonah Esrei class I teach.

Aaron Ross said...

My rubric is still a work in progress. Still too raw to meaningfully share.