Why every teacher should look into project based learning

Project based learning (PBL) is often misunderstood. On one side, it is touted as a strategy for “future focused learning” and “21st century learning”. On the other end, there is misconception that PBL involves sending students off to learn by themselves using “online research”. This is unfortunate as the more experience I have in implementing PBL, the more I see it as an overarching structure that combines a multitude of evidence-based teaching practices that ties in with goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians:

All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Some of the features of successful learners include:

  • the capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
  • able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas
  • on a pathway towards continued success in further education, training or employment, and acquire the skills to make informed learning and employment decisions throughout their lives

In other words, we want our students to become life long learners who are self-regulated and self-directed. PBL is an effective way to teach students how to be self-regulated and self-directed learners, through evidence-based practices.

How does PBL develop self-regulated and self-directed learners?

The key word here is develop. Self-regulated and self-directed learners are made, not born. To be successful at PBL, students must have a level of self regulation and self direction. Many teachers implementing PBL for the first time find that their students have low levels of self regulation and self direction, which can make PBL frustrating for all. The learning design behind any PBL experience needs to have built-in teaching moments that build students’ skills in self regulation and self direction. One of the most useful papers I have found that describes this is Supporting Student Self-Regulated Learning in Problem- and Project-Based Learning. I have drafted a graphic that combines the paper and my own experience to show how teachers can design PBL experiences that scaffold student self regulation and self direction.

pbl-blog-graphic

To enable students to be successful in PBL, many of the strategies teachers need to use are evidence based. For a while now I have been using the Teaching and Learning Toolkit from Evidence for Learning. The site is a collation of Australian and international research that informs teachers on the impact on a range of teaching and learning strategies. A sort of the strategies show that the top 5 that make the most impact are:

The top 3 strategies, feedback, meta-cognition and self-regulation and collaborative learning are key components of PBL:

  • Feedback – The nature of PBL involves formative assessment, assessment for learning and assessment as learning. Students are constantly drafting and re-drafting their work based on feedback. This requires teachers to build in multiple opportunities for teacher feedback, peer feedback and self feedback. One of the best resources I have found in designing and implementing formative assessment and feedback is Strong Start, Great Teachers, particularly the sections on teacher questioning.
  • Meta-cognition and self-regulation – PBL allows the opportunity for students to monitor their own learning goals and the effectiveness of a range of learning strategies for them as individual learners. Students are regularly required to reflect and evaluate the progress of their projects.
  • Collaboration – PBL requires students to work as a learning community. They need to trust each other and respect each other to have effective self feedback, to work collaboratively as a team and to take risks in their learning. It is essential that teachers build and sustain a positive classroom culture to move their “class” to a community. it is also essential that teachers teach students how to collaborate. Collaboration and cooperation are skills that are learnt; they aren’t just naturally there in students.

A key component of success in PBL is for teachers to teach students how to be effective learners. Most students need high levels of teacher guidance to know how to act on feedback, how to give each other and themselves feedback, how to set goals, how to monitor their progress and how to work productively with others.

While PBL is not a silver bullet to solve all the challenges of education, it ties in many components of evidence based teaching. If teachers embark on PBL as long-term journey, their students will have more opportunities to develop into successful self-regulated, self-directed learners.

 

 

How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning

team-graphic

I have done quite a few teacher professional learning workshops on project based learning (PBL). Nearly all of them have involved telling teachers about elements of authentic PBL, how to design a ‘good’ driving question’ and the importance of formative assessment and feedback. I am currently working on another series of professional learning workshops on PBL,  but this time the team is also focusing on the “soft skills” of PBL. These soft skills include collaboration, student self-regulation, creativity, critical thinking, etc. These soft skills are included in the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum as Learning Across the Curriculum. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on collaboration.

PBL often require students to work in teams. If students are to work in teams successfully, they need to know how to collaborate. One thing I learnt very quickly in my PBL journey is that collaboration doesn’t come automatically for students. Simply putting students in groups and getting them to sit in a circle won’t teach them collaboration. If students don’t know how to collaborate, they will find the PBL experience frustrating and the teacher will find it frustrating. Like reading and writing, collaboration needs to be explicitly taught. But how?

In my PBL journey, I have found teaching students how to establish group norms, how to determine and assign roles to team members, how to backward map from timelines of due dates of tasks, and how to negotiate and compromise, to be crucial in PBL to be a successful learning experience. However, I have found the most important aspect of successful student collaboration is a safe learning environment; an environment where students trust each other, respect each other, support each other and feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks in their learning. What are the strategies to enable this? How can students be assessed and receive regular feedback on these aspects. Just like reading and writing, students need to know how they are going with their collaborative skills and what they need to do next to improve?

How do you teach collaboration in your classroom? How do you teach collaboration in PBL?

 

TeachMeet – professional learning by teachers for teachers

teachmeet-audience

This week I ran TeachMeet Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was the third TeachMeet I ran and I have lost count of the number of TeachMeets I’ve attended. I went to my first TeachMeet more than 4 years ago. I still find TeachMeets to be one of the most valuable professional learning.

TeachMeets are structured and informal gatherings of teachers and educators with the purpose of sharing good practices and professional journeys. TeachMeets are educator-driven, not organisation-driven. Presenters are not paid; they volunteer their time and expertise to share with others. They are free. They are open to everyone. They happen outside of school hours. They have a strong online community. It is these characteristics that make TeachMeets are valuable part of a teacher’s suite of professional learning.

Because TeachMeets are free and open to everyone, presenters and participants range from pre-service teachers, teachers, educators who work with schools and university academics. Teachers come from all school sectors. It is this mix of people, who are all passionate about student learning, but work in very different contexts, that enable cross-pollination of ideas. Presentations are short and sweet, 7 minutes or 2 minutes so you get lots of ideas to work on and implement with your students. I also find the strong online community valuable. Like many other TeachMeets, TeachMeet Futures had a strong Twitter backchannel. This allowed people to learn from the TeachMeet even if they were not physically there and it allowed connections to be formed amongst presenters and participants beyond the TeachMeet. It also allows the thoughts and opinions of the TeachMeet to be revisited and reflected on after the event if the tweets are curated and saved via Storify. See the TeachMeet Futures Storify as an example.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, go to one. And if have been to a TeachMeet, go to another one or host one. The power and impact of TeachMeets stems from passionate teachers and educators sharing and learning from each other.

Why hackathons are the future of teacher professional learning


Yesterday I went to a OneNote Hackathon. A hackathon is basically a group of people, with similar passiona, getting together to solve problems. In the case of the OneNote Hackathon, it was a group of teachers who were passionate about using OneNote to enable improved student learning. We all had 2 minutes to pitch our problems. Problems ranged from using Staff OneNote notebooks to enhance teacher collaboration and increase productivity to creating out-of-the-box Student OneNote Class notebooks for various subjects that teachers can modify and personalise for their students. We then chose which problem we wanted to work on and spent the rest of the day working together on solutions that can be shared with everyone.


I really enjoyed the OneNote Hackathon. Not only did I learn a lot from the OneNote experts from the Microsoft Education team but also from other participant teachers. The Hackathon provided a time and space for a group of us who had similar goals to share our expertise and experience with others. We were from different school sectors, some of us taught high school or primary school or were in non-school based support roles. This enabled all of us to learn from diverse perspectives and contexts.

What I really liked about the Hackathon is the level of productivity. Unlike traditional teacher professional learning where teachers often listened passively to an ‘expert’, get some good ideas and then find they don’t have enough time or the processes to implement those ideas, hackathons let you collaborate with others to design and implement a solution. Hackathons also recognise that every teacher has something to contribute to other teachers’ learning. Just like TeachMeets, hackathons allow teachers to learn with and from each other.

It will be interesting to see how hackathons will be included in the suite of professional learning strategies available to teachers. Imagine a hackathon on the next School Development Day.

TeachMeet Kids – enabling teachers with young families to connect and share their practice

TeachMeet Kids

This week there was a TeachMeet with a difference. I organised the first TeachMeet Kids, a family-friendly TeachMeet. TeachMeets are a group of educators who come together to share their practice. Traditionally TeachMeets are held during after-school hours (between 5pm and 7pm) followed by TeachEat (dinner and drinks). I use to regularly go to TeachMeets but haven’t in the last year due to the birth of my daughter. I noticed that quite a few other educators have dropped out of the TeachMeet circles due to having children. Early evening is not a good time for teachers with young children. A few educators with young children indicated that they felt disconnected due to this.

And this thought came to me:

Why can’t we have a kid-friendly TeachMeet?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet where educators can bring their children (if they wish)?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet that’s during the day as early evening is reserved for the dinner and bath routine for the little ones and not everyone is lucky enough to have family to look after the kids?

The result of these thoughts was TeachMeet Kids. While TeachMeet Kids was targeted at educators with young children, any educator can attend. It was held in the school holidays during the day. Educators can bring their little ones if they wanted to. The venue was kid-friendly. It was pram accessible, had pram parking, close to public transport, had car parking, had baby change rooms and baby feeding facilities. All attendees knew to expect some rowdiness because this TeachMeet will also be attended by kids.

Australian National Maritime Museum very kindly provided a free space for TeachMeet Kids. Not only that, their museum educators also took the kids around on a pirates tour.

For me, TeachMeet Kids gave me back the opportunity to connect with educators like I did pre-baby days. I think TeachMeet Kids also enables the education community to tap into the expertise of educators who have young families. I learnt so much from the presenters. From how to use Kahoot! to enhance formative assessment, enabling all students to be leaders, film-making using mobile devices and making crystal radios to what it’s like to be a museum educator and embedding selfies as a learning tool.

I am looking forward to seeing more TeachMeet Kids 🙂

Creating a classroom community

Today was the first day where all students were back at school. I had my first lesson with most of my classes today. I never launch into content in the first day. I like to get to know my students first. This year however I want to go further than that and kick off the year by allowing my students to get to know each other as learners. Many of my students know each other socially, but not how they like to learn.

While I don’t have any hard data, I’ve always had the inkling that high student achievement not only depends on individual students, but how the whole class works as a group. My higher-performing classes are where individual students apply themselves more but they also get along with each other and help each other. These classes have a sense of community. Each student has a sense of belonging. They work as a team. I want this for all my classes by design, not by random luck.

So this year I used the first lesson to kick start the establishment of a class community. Students did two activities: (1) Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1 and (2) My perfect classroom to learn in …

Getting to know you as a learner in 3-2-1

Students paired up and interviewed each other on 3 of their favourite things about science, 2 things they find hard about science and 1 thing they want the teacher to know to help them learn the best that they can.

For larger classes, I asked some students to share their responses and then collected their interview sheets to look at later. For smaller classes, all students shared their responses and they were tallied so that students can see what they have in common with other students in terms of learning. Here’s an example from my Year 11 Senior Science class.

photo of tallied results of 3-2-1 activity

My perfect classroom to learn in …

This activity is used to establish classroom expectations where all students get a say. In pairs students brainstorm what their perfect classroom is like. In their perfect classroom what are they doing as students? What are other students doing? What is the teacher doing? All responses are collated on the board and classroom expectations are established.

photo of perfect classroom results from year 11

I know some teachers will think this is a ‘soft’ approach and that I should lay down the law instead and let students know who is boss. But I much prefer this way. I really want to focus on developing positive learning relationships amongst students as I strongly believe this will lead to better learning and achievement.

 

You don’t create groups on Edmodo. You create learning communities.

You don’t create groups on Edmodo, you create learning communities

I have been using Edmodo as an online learning tool for a little over 1.5 years now. Back at the beginning, I viewed Edmodo as an easy way to post content for my students online, for students to submit their work online and for me to send my students urgent important messages outside of school hours. The way I used it was very one way – teacher to student. The first Edmodo group I set up was for a Year 11 Physics class. When I analyse that page, almost every single post was made by me. Most of these posts have no replies. There were a small number of posts made by students, which were questions directed at me as a teacher and I answered them. This group wasn’t a learning community. It was just a website that had information posted by me.

This year I have been using Edmodo with my Year 7 Integrated Curriculum class, which I teach for English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. Our Edmodo group page looks very different to the year 11 page. Firstly there are heaps of posts, probably 5 times as many posts as the Year 11 Physics group. And most importantly, a significant number of those posts are made by students.

I went through the Year 7 Edmodo page and categorised all posts made in August 2012 and here are the stats:

  • There were 71 posts during this month
  • 46 out of 71 posts were by me
  • 25 out of 71 posts were by students
  • 62 out of these 71 posts involved a discussion
    • This means that these 62 posts had more than one reply comment. These reply comments included students commenting on each other’s work, answering each other’s questions or holding a discussion that was of interest to them
Students sharing and commenting on each other's work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other’s work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other's work on Edmodo

Students sharing and commenting on each other’s work on Edmodo

For me this year, Edmodo has transformed from a free alternative to a learning management system to a tool for enhancing a learning community. It is an online space that allows my students to learn from each other beyond the four walls of the classroom and beyond 9am to 3pm. The Year 7 Edmodo group is a much more dynamic and successful learning community than my previous Year 11 group. Why?

Just do a search in Google for creating a successful online learning community and most sites will give you very similar tips.

  • An online community is like a traditional community, built on shared qualities, characteristics and purpose.
  • A successful online learning community must create value for its members. The online community must be worthwhile for its members to visit regularly.
  • Individuals must be supported and empowered to share their knowledge, information and user-created content. A successful learning community must have a majority of members sharing ideas and content that is of value to that community.

So how did I ensure the above three features of the Year 7 Edmodo group this year?

Shared qualities, characteristics and purpose

Year 7s knew from the start of the year that the group was for them to share their learning. While they also post their homework on there too, one of the first things I did was to have them share a summary of a news item of their interest (most reported on NRL pre-season news) and reply to another student’s post with something they have learnt from that student’s posts. Questions asked by students were answered very quickly by me, which assured students that Edmodo was a worthy tool for communication. This set up a sense of shared purpose for the Edmodo group very early on.

Creating value

One of the ways of creating value in an online community is to allow users to personalise the space. For my Year 11 physics group, I gave them the Edmodo group code and went from there. I didn’t spend time to let them set up their profiles and change their profile pictures. For Year 7s we spent an hour setting up their Edmodo accounts, filling out their Edmodo profiles and choosing an avatar that most represented them. This was done in the second lesson of the school year. So straight away Year 7s was given an opportunity to value Edmodo; this opportunity was not given to Year 11s.

Support and empowerment

Year 7s often post things up that are not 100% related to our school work. Posts like personal art projects they have done, their successes in weekend sport, their views of internet censorship and the death of Niel Armstrong. I actually don’t know why my Year 7s feel empowered to share things they have created or news they think are worthy for their classmates to know on Edmodo. This started very early on in Term 1. Perhaps because their early activities on Edmodo was all to do with sharing their personal interest projects and news. Perhaps in our face to face classes we emphasise on sharing our learninh artefacts. Whatever the impetus is, I hope it stays there because it is one of the strongest driving forces of our learning community.

Note that the above features of successful online learning communities are all related to how people relate and interact with each other and how they emotionally connect with the online space. How come this is rarely discussed in professional dialogue associated with such online tools? I think teachers often do misjustice to educational social networking tools like Edmodo when we promote it to other teachers in professional learning or in conversation when all we talk about are how Edmodo allows students to complete self-marking quizzes. These are all excellent tools for learning but rarely are our conversations and professional learning about the dynamics of human relationships in such online environments. Yet it is these intricate dynamics of human relationships and interactions that would make or break an online learning community. Unless these are made explicit for teachers about to make the online learning journey, we are almost setting them up for failure. It doesn’t matter whether teachers are using Edmodo, Moodle or any other online learning community tool, we must talk about human relationships and interactions.