Saturday, 20 October 2012

The Power of PBL!

Returning to the classroom this fall, I continue to be  conscious of the fact that it had been a while since I was in charge of a class,  I've had to be reflective and selective in regards to the practices I bring to my instruction. So far its been a great opportunity. What better way to promote tenets of 21st century teaching and learning than to model them?  Its one thing to talk about project based learning, but something else again to put it into practice.

The Buck Institute points out that  it is the process of students' learning and the depth of their cognitive engagement— rather than what they produce—that distinguishes project based learning (PBL) from busywork. In their article Seven Essentials for Project Based Learning authors John Larmer and John R. Mergendoller point to key practices in giving students meaningful work. For them, the two most critical details are that students must perceive the work as something important that they want to do well and that a meaningful project fulfill an educational purpose. They suggest that well-designed and well-implemented project-based learning is meaningful in both ways.

In our class, student voice and choice help promote student engagement. This element of project-based learning is key. In terms of making a project feel meaningful to students, the more voice and choice, the better. While making sure that all students cover basic curricular learning outcomes is important, giving them a say in how they do it has generated more enthusiasm and genuine student buy in. All our assignments include a menu of options for creative products that allow students to decide what they will create, what resources they will use, and how they will structure their time. Students can frequently modify aspects of a project's topic and driving question to suit their own talents.

Effective feedback and assessment loops have been another key to success. Developing a sense of pride in production has involved urging students to "polish the rock" before declaring a project complete. Using rubrics,  peer review and other formalized processes for feedback and revision has helped make learning meaningful. Constructive feedback emphasizes that creating high-quality products and performances is an important purpose of the task. As well, students are learning that most first attempts aren't of a high quality and that revision or polishing is a frequent feature of real-world work. 

 So far the results have been excellent. Students have covered themes of identity, the world wide impact of English and a Shakespeare play. Class attendance, participation and enthusiasm has remained uniformly high. Students are actively engaged, are producing some amazing work, and achieving very high grades. Projects have included presentations of self,  parodies of famous poems, invention of unique portmanteau languages, and debates around the value and ethics of imposing English as a worldwide language. We've had students explore aspects of stage combat, provide analysis of literature via video and explore the impact of classic literature on more modern pop culture. Presentations have been made orally, in writing, through the use of visual and performing arts and through many different electronic or creative media.  Perhaps the true power of PBL is its ability to combine creativity with a sense of accomplishment for all learners. More than that, it has made learning fun and satisfying for all!

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