“I didn’t feel like I was teaching” – journey in leading others in PBL

But I didn’t feel like I was teaching

One of the teachers on my faculty (let’s call her Ann for this post) said this to me during our scheduled discussion on her professional goals. At the start of the year, Ann said her professional goal for 2013 was to implement project based learning (PBL) in her Year 9 class.

After looking at the BIE website for a while and attending one of Ashley Cantanzariti’s PBL workshop, Ann created crowd-sourced a driving question for this term’s unit for her Year 9 class with a cross-school group of teachers (this happened in our school’s School Development Day which involved our community of schools). We came up with the driving question of “Will an earthquake or tsunami happen in Sydney?”. The only teacher-centred lesson that Ann gave was the introduction lesson to let the students know the expectations and organisation of their new project. The class sorted themselves into groups and brainstormed what they needed to find out for this project. Ann used Edmodo for students to collaborate and upload their progress of work so she could give them feedback. After several weeks, the groups of students presented their findings to the driving question by choosing whatever medium they thought was appropriate. Some groups chose GoAnimate while other groups made a diorama.

When we were discussing whether Ann thought PBL was very effective for her students to learn science, one of the most memorable things she said was

They found out what an epicenter was, the focus and all other features of earthquakes by themselves. I didn’t have to even tell them.”

This ties in with the first quote on this blog post. Ann expressed that she didn’t feel like she was “teaching” because the students were driving so much of the learning. She recognised that most of the “work” was done prior to the project in designing the driving question and the workflows of how students will submit drafts of work, receive feedback and revise their work, but it was so different to what she was used to she felt like she was not teaching. Her concept of teaching was changing from content deliverer to learning designer and facilitator.

I often feel this way as well. When my students are happily working in their groups, finding answers to their own questions, negotiating with others on what sort of product to make and reflecting on their goals, I often feel like I’m not their teacher or even needed in the classroom. I know that for effective learning to happen students are working harder than teachers (or just as hard) and an effective teacher makes themselves redundant overtime. However, both and I are still somewhat influenced by the traditional notion of teaching – that teaching is a teacher telling students what they need to know. This often challenged concept still has a lot of pull on what both teachers and students perceive learning to be.

Overall this is a step forward for our faculty in terms of changing pedagogies. Instead of only me doing PBL, we now have another teacher implementing PBL and talking to others about how good it is for students.

Action learning with Minecraft – Cycle 1

Last term I decided to undertake an action learning project to see whether using feedback will improve students’ self regulation skills in project based learning. This came from my observations that some of my  Year 7 students, who work well in traditional, teacher-centred learning activities, displayed a lot of off-task behaviours in project based learning, which included being not staying with their teams, constantly changing their minds about their projects and other actions, which resulted in a very low-quality learning artefact being produced (see my previous post for more details). This happened in their 60 second science project, where they worked in teams to create a 60 second video on an astronomical phenomenon. Their latest project was to create a model Parthenon in Minecraft where the architecture followed the golden ratio. This project was broken into 4 stages where each stage had a goal and students and I had to assess on how well they have achieved their goal in the form of medals and missions.

Based on informal classroom observations, more students were on task than the previous project. From their survey data, more students said they knew what their team’s goal was, knew how they could help their team achieve that goal, stayed with their team and were on task.

Note: The first graph shows the survey data from the 60 second science project while the second and third graphs show the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project. (Sorry, the categories have been listed backwards in surveys 2 and 3.)

student survey results for self regulation

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

There were also selected students who struggled with self regulation skills more than the rest of the class in the 60 second science project. Let’s call them Student A, Student B and Student C. When I compared their data, this is what it showed:

student A's survey data over time

student B's survey data over time

student C's survey data over time

When I combine the students’ survey data with my own classroom observations, I can conclude that these three students have worked a lot better during our project sessions. They weren’t “perfect” though, but they did improve. I did see them looking up their own houses on Google Maps a few times while they were meant to be working on their Minecraft Parthenons.

However, I don’t think I can just conclude that giving effective student feedback will cause students to have better self regulation skills in project based learning. There were some major differences between the 60 second science project and the Minecraft Parthenon project:

  • Duration of the project – The 60 second science project lasted 8 weeks while the Minecraft Parthenon project only took 3 weeks. Students might work more effectively in shorter-duration projects.
  • General appeal of the project – While the class in general enjoyed both projects, there was a more heightened excitement about using Minecraft. The games based learning aspect might have affected students’ work ethic. Many students are also very familiar with Minecraft, while the 60 second science project involved students learning and applying unfamiliar concepts such as scripting and storyboarding.
  • Structure of the projects – The 60 second science project involved students working in a range of learning spaces. At any one session, some students were in our main classroom, some students were in another classroom to film, some students were in another classroom so they can record audio. This created a slightly chaotic atmosphere even though it was organised chaos. In the Minecraft Parthenon project, all students were on the mezzanine level of the library. For students who are easily distracted, such an environmental difference might also affect their ability to self regulate.

I’m now coming up to cycle 2 of my action learning project. The next project will involve year 7s creating their own newspapers to report on the London Olympics. I’m staying with feedback and self regulation but will make a few changes to the way data is collected:

  • Student surveys will have additional questions that ask them how well they understood the feedback and how well they know how to act on that feedback
  • Observations from other teachers – I’d like someone else to come into the class and observe Student A, Student B and Student C as well as the rest of the class and note what they are doing at what times of the project session

Cycle 2 will begin in week 2 of Term 3 so watch this space for updates. Also watch this space for updates on how my team of science teachers have been using action learning to improve student learning in science at our school.