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.

 

 

STEM in Australia – some teachers’ perspectives of STEM education


Last Sunday I had the privilege of hosting the weekly #aussieED chat on Twitter. The focus was on STEM. I wanted to dig deep into what Australian teachers thought on STEM education.
For those who don’t know, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. A focus on STEM isn’t new and has been a focus on-and-off since the 1980s.However in the past 5 years, there has been a large focus on STEM in primary, secondary and tertiary education as well as being emphasised in government policies. So for the #aussieED chat I wanted to find out what teachers felt was happening with STEM education in their schools. These are some of the themes:

 1. STEM education has come a long way and still has a long way to go.

Some teachers indicated that their schools have implemented STEM as cross-curricular project based learning experiences and have moved from a few innovators and early adopters trailing STEM programs to whole school approaches. These schools are now supporting other schools who are starting their STEM journeys. A good example of this is the STEM Action Schools project in NSW public schools. It will be interesting to see how different schools and teachers evolve their STEM teaching approaches as they gain more experience and reflect upon them.

2. STEM education needs more than passionate teachers; it needs enabling conditions.

Many teachers agreed that STEM is a way of teaching; a way of teaching that involves the integration of traditional subjects with a real-world context and driven by real-life solutions. This approach is enabled and sustained when structural systems like timetables, flexible learning spaces and a school culture that encourages teachers to take risks with different teaching approaches are in place. Otherwise it can become isolated pockets of excellence in STEM education, accessible to some students only. Some teachers mentioned dedicated time in timetables to work as a team so authentic cross-curricular collaboration can be created and sustained. Other teachers mentioned time to explore practical resources, opportunities to team teach with exemplary STEM teachers and time to reflect, evaluate and improve in their own practice.

3. How can educators and systems ensure promising practices in STEM are scaled and make an impact?

Is STEM an educational fad? Do we even need STEM to be an integrated, cross-curricular approach? Should we focus on teaching science, technology and maths separately but make sure we teach it well? What are the goals of STEM education? Is it just purely to make students “future job ready”? Is it to create scientifically and digitally literate citizens? Does everyone need to learn coding? How do we measure the impact of STEM? What is an appropriate timeframe to expect impact? These were some of the issues raised throughout the #aussieED chat. We didn’t come up with answers as they are highly complex issues that can be highly dependent on context. Personally I think STEM education is vital to the future of students on a personal, societal and economic level. To make STEM education a sustainable practice, that is day-to-day teaching practice, the enabling conditions of quality STEM education needs to be in place. We also need to be clear on the purpose of STEM education for our students. Otherwise it can easily become a fad.

What are your thoughts and experiences of STEM education? 

Where are the teacher caves?

If you are interested in flexible learning spaces, you would’ve come across the concepts of campfire, waterhole and cave. It is a way for teachers and students to design flexible spaces to reflect the learning needs for an activity. Campfire involves learning from an expert. Typical furniture set up include tiered seating or ampitheatre style. Waterhole involves learning with and from others where each person has something to contribute while also listening to the group. Typical furniture set up for waterholes include seats in a circle or desks connected in groups. Caves are where students can work independently and quietly, away from other distractions. Typical furniture set ups include single desks with single seats, positioned in a quiet space.

One thing that freuqently pops up in discussions on learning spaces is the need to get rid of the teacher desk in classrooms. The teacher desk has become a symbol for old ways of teaching. If there’s a teacher desk, it is assumed you teach in a traditional way, most likely didactic.

While I agree that a teacher desk can take up a lot of valuable space, I think in reality teachers just need somewhere to put their things, like their laptop. A lot of teachers, including myself, end up working in a classroom outside of class times on any desk, regardless whether it is categorised as student or teacher, because it’s the only place where we can concentrate and be productive with independent work like giving feedback on student work, planning lessons and reflecting on how we can improve. Staffrooms are great as waterhole and campfire spaces, but they are rarely effective cave spaces. While many schools re-designing student spaces, many do not get an opportunity to do the same for teacher work spaces. When the walls are knocked down between classrooms to create open spaces and teacher desks are gone, are those destroyed cave spaces created elsewhere?

Companies known for their innovative spaces like Microsoft and Adobe have beautiful open, collaborative spaces. But they also have cave spaces. They have small rooms where individuals can use when they need to concentrate by themselves. Perhaps this is something schools can follow.

Field, tenor and mode – a literacy framework for all subjects

Literacy is a focus for every teacher, regardless of whether we are teaching primary school or high school, regardless of what subject we teach. Without strong literacy skills, our students cannot access the curriculum. Reading comprehension and writing are essential to succeed to every aspect of education.

One challenge I have always grappled with is how to create writers. I often feel like I have to continuously give scaffolds; a sheet to tell students this is how this text is supposed to be structured, you need to write this in this paragraph, make sure you use these connectives, etc, etc ,etc. I always asked how can I gradually remove these scaffolds so that students are 100% independent? It feels like I constantly have to provide scaffolds.

I think a reason why is the way I (and other teachers) approach extended writing. Too much focus has been on the overall text structure (eg.In a scientific investigation report, there is an aim, equipment then method. The method has to start with a verb and be in present tense.) There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say to students “Use PEEL to write your paragraphs. You need to write this paragraph so that it starts with a point, then elaboration, then provide an example then a sentence that links to the question. Throw in a complex sentence because you know, NAPLAN (Australian teachers will understand the NAPLAN bit).” But why do we have to write in complex sentences? Why do we use nominalisation? The PEEL stuff and text structure do not teach students why some words and sentence structures are favoured for particular texts and purposes, particularly academic texts.

So what else what needs to be done? I think the field-tenor-mode framework needs to be the overarching strategy. I came across field, tenor and mode a few years ago and am currently doing a refresher course. Field, tenor and mode are components of linguistics. Every text, regardless of subject, can be viewed from the field-tenor-mode framework. To put it simply, field is the subject matter of the text; tenor is the relationship between the author and the audience; and mode is how the text is constructed, particularly whether it is written-like or spoken-like. I think tenor is something that schools do not do well. The relationship between the author and the audience is essential is what words you choose. For an example, an email to a friend and a book review have very different relationships between the audience and the author. Frankly, schools don’t do audience very well. Very rarely do students know the audience of their extended writing.

Mode can help students in moving their writing towards being more written-like. Many, many students write texts in a spoken-like manner when formal, academic texts need to be written-like. This is where the complex sentences come in. Written-like texts are more lexically dense. To write a text that is lexically dense requires complex sentences, which may also require nominalisation. Designing activities where students can learn this will enable them to know why and when certain sentence structures need to be utilised.

So I am now using the field-tenor-mode framework for my students whenever they are composing any text, for any subject. Here are some resources I have created so far. All resources can be used for any subject.

  • A short video to explain field, tenor and mode to students

https://spark.adobe.com/video/rJuTyhA4/embed

 

field tenor mode text composition planning sheet

Text composition planning sheet

My #EduGoals for 2016

In many areas of Australia, the new school year is about to start. In the state of New South Wales, many schools return this week. As the new school year beckons, I’m like many teachers who are thinking about their educational goals (EduGoals) for the new year. Here’s my 3 EduGoals for 2016:

1. Using learning spaces to further enhance teaching and learning

classroom

My classroom this year

Last year I was very lucky to have received a bunch of more flexible furniture from John Goh. To put things in context, I’ve always been very lucky to have a “nice” learning space. The science lab I’m in was only refurbished in 2010 so my classes and I have always worked with new furniture. However, when I began my project based learning journey in 2012, I realised that the standard two-seater rectangular tables were no longer working. Students wanted a space where they can easily transition from whole-class instruction/discussion, to small group work and to individual work. The space, as it was, was very effective for whole class instruction, but not for small group work where students needed to collaborate and often worked on different projects at different paces. For the next few years, students spilled out into the hallways, took up nearby classrooms if they weren’t being used and even moved out into the quad in order to work on their projects as a team.

I’m hoping that with this new set up, more space is created. John enlightened me last year when he told me that it’s not about furniture, it’s about space. For a long time I’ve always looked at how to get round tables or pac-man shaped tables so that 30 students can have their own desk. It isn’t about that. It’s about creating space to learn. At the moment there’s only enough table space for 24 students. However, students can sit on the floor or move over to the “wet” area of the lab where there are standing desks. I gave away lots of my original furniture in order to do this. I think I still need to get rid of more.

I’m continuing to ensure the walls of the classroom is used for learning. I visited a New Zealand school a few years ago where the teacher said: “Anyone, doesn’t matter if it’s a student, teacher, parent or someone else, should be able to walk into a classroom and know what the class is learning and doing immediately without asking anyone.” I haven’t used my classroom walls for “decoration” for a few years now. The walls are filled with our learning routines, our “topics”, current projects, relevant learning strategies and displays of student work.

stuck posters

Posters of strategies to encourage independent thinking and problem solving

classroom wall

Timetable and posters showing current topics for different key learning areas

 

2. Using technology to further enhance teaching and learning

Last year, I played around with OfficeMix. I really like how it is an addition to PowerPoint and can create videos that work across all platforms. This year I’m going to be using OfficeMix to create a flip classroom for maths. I’m planning to have students sign in so that I can get analytics and use that to inform my future practice. I’m also going to get back into OneNote. I’ve been following the work of Pip Cleaves in how she is using OneNote to create staff and class notebooks. I’m keen to see how it can work for me, my faculty, my students and my school.

 

3. Using video to improve my practice

Classroom observations is a key strategy in teachers reflecting on, and further improving on their practice at my school. I’d like to step it up this year and include video analysis when a colleague observes me. Having a video recording to look back on would seem to enrich the feedback from the colleague in the post-observation meeting. I know video analysis of teacher practice is done regularly at some schools and I’d like to try that personally.

 

4. Finding work/life satisfaction

Last year was my first year of full time work after returning from maternity leave. My baby is now 18 months old. Being a parent and a full time teacher plus a leader is challenging. My online PLN often talks of work life balance. However, Jason Borton said to me on Twitter that he calls it “work/life satisfaction” and not “balance”. I really like the term “satisfaction” than “balance”. To me, balance is more quantitative. Something like ‘I must spend equal amounts of time doing work, spending time with my family and doing things I enjoy.’ On the other hand, “satisfaction” seems more qualitative to me. ‘Am I happy?’ “Satisfaction” is also more personal. Work/life satisfaction is different to each individual and it doesn’t have to be 50/50 all the time.

 

 

baby V

Baby V

Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.

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Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.

 

Giving students a say in their homework

This is probably not new but this term I’m trialling a different way of doing homework with Year 9s.

I try to make homework so it doesn’t become a workload burden for myself and my students. A lot of my students have extra-curricular activities like sport and I have had quite a few parent phone calls raising the concern between balancing their family lives and homework. I’ve also had the issue of different access to resources from home. A lot of my students love doing homework activities online, but not all of my students have internet access. To create a set of online homework activities and then another set of offline activities, for all four of my classes became too labour-intensive that there was very low return-of-investment.

So this term I’m doing something different with Year 9s. They will be given a choice in what kinds of homework they want to. The topic is on the nervous system, endocrine system and immune system.

I’ve made sure there are activities that are quite basic (like completing a table) to activities that are higher-order that require the creation of products like video. I’ve also made sure that students can choose HOW they complete their homework. They can do things electronically or on paper.

Not sure how this will go, but is worth trying. I’d love your thoughts on this, whether you’re a student, parent, teacher or anyone else.

Watch this space for updates 🙂