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?

 

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? 

Project NEST – professional learning with a difference


I had the privilege to be involved in ProjectNEST this week, a three-day unconference led by staff from Kurri Kurri High School with over 100 teachers from the Newcastle area participating.

The unconference was focused on project based learning, with many schools planning to implement a cross-curricular approach in open, flexible spaces with teachers team teaching. We all know there are heaps of professional learning for project based learning, but this unconference was different. I have previously blogged about the need to do teacher professional learning differently. This unconference was done differently, with impact on teacher practice and student learning. Here’s why it was different:

  • The unconference was participant driven. All the schools involved wanted to restructure learning differently to further improve student outcomes. They have chosen a cross-curricular project based learning approach. Schools and teachers identified this need and solution.
  • Participants’ needs were identified the unconference. Staff from Kurri Kurri High School designed and sent out a survey to all participants to identify their current understanding and practice in project based learning, and what they wanted to learn. More teacher professional learning needs to be like this. Instead of guessing what participants’ learning needs are, ask them before the professional learning.
  • Presenters were real teachers who have actually implemented and led project based learning. They shared their journeys in this, particularly the challenges and they overcame them. In a previous post, I spoke about how ideas are easy and implementation is hard. The presenters did not try to sell a shiny package of project based learning to teachers, telling them typical things like how we are now in the 21st century and how project based learning is going to solve everything etc etc etc. They shared authentic journeys. They shared failures. But most important of all, they shared what keeps them going in the strive to continuously improve the learning for their students. For my presentation, I made sure I was honest about my project based learning journey. When I first started,  I was doing more project orientated learning than project based learning. When I first started, I did not embed formative assessment as well as I wanted. When I first started, I did not explicitly teach students how to collaborate and set goals, which led to failures. I focused how I learnt about those failures and how they informed changes in the next projects. The other presenters did the same, emphasising the need to try new ways of teaching, take risks, evaluate and learn from failures.
  • Time was provided for participants to modify and implement the ideas they have learnt for their own contexts. The first two days of the unconference were focused on participants learning from presenters and each other. The third day was dedicated to participants working with each other to devise an action plan. The presenters were there to provide support and guidance. This kick starts the process of changing teacher practice.

And it helps when professional learning is held in a stunning location. Newcastle is beautiful.

I hope to see more professional learning like this, and I’m looking forward to following the project based journey of Kurri Kurri High School and its community of schools in the Newcastle area. The staff of Kurri Kurri High School was amazing at putting ProjectNest together.

 

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

A story in 2 minutes – a multimedia activity for all subjects

My principal shared this video with me today. It’s called Our Story in 2 Minutes. The video summarises the Earth’s history from the Big Bang till now in two minutes.

This inspired me to come up with some similar story-in-2-minutes activities where students can create a video using images only to represent the development of an event. It doesn’t even have to be two minutes. It can be one minute, three minutes, however long you and your students like. A video of images can be made to sequence the events in the evolution of life on Earth, the development of our current understanding of the universe, development of the cell theory, development of our understanding of genetics … the list goes on and on and it can be used in subjects other than science.

What I like about this activity is that it’s simple and yet allows students to create and engage in deep learning that extends from a subject area and even be part of a cross-KLA activity. It’s simple for both students and teachers as it involves searching and selecting images that represents certain ideas and events and then inserting the images into a video-editing program such as Windows Movie Maker or even PowerPoint. Technology tools that don’t require a high level of technical expertise from either teachers or students and are available to most students. The activity is also simple in the sense that it does not have to take long, which can be a good activity to suggest to teachers who are concerned about being pressed for time.

To create stories in 2 minutes also allow students the opportunity to learn about digital citizenship. Can students use any images pulled from the web? Do they have to search for creative commons images? How do they acknowledge the source of images? This activity is not only about the content of a subject area.

Finally creating stories in 2 minutes can be adapted into project-based learning or provide an opportunity to create a product that can be shared with a public audience beyond the classroom. Creating a story in 2 minutes require students to first understand the content, select and justify appropriate images that best represent the content and sequence them in a logical order. It allows students to apply higher order thinking skills.

I teach in Sydney, Australia so my school year is starting in about a week’s time. I will be definitely using the story-in-2-minutes concept this year.

What will you use it for?

 

Small changes can make a huge difference

Over the past few years I have been constantly changing the way I teach due to introduction of 1:1 laptop initiatives in some classes and a continually-developing understanding of how students learn. In a lot of cases it has involved turning things upside down and completely rewriting units of work. This is tiring. Worth it but tiring. But I found out recently that small, minor changes can make a huge difference too. The Student Research Project (SRP) has been around since I was in high school. It’s an oldie but a goodie. The SRP involves students planning, doing and reporting on an experiment of their choice. It is a compulsory activity for all Year 7-10 students in NSW, Australia. Each student must do at least one SRP once in Year 7 and 8, and another one in Year 9 and 10. By doing the SRP, students learn how to design a fair experiment, a must-have skill for all scientists! See here for more info on the SRP.

It was the Year 8’s turn to do the SRP in September this year. The traditional way of doing the SRP is for students to choose an experiment, plan it, do it and then submit a written report. This year my faculty decided to revamp it and not just rehash the status quo. However this didn’t involve major changes that would stress everyone out. It involved a few tweaks that would have the most impact. Like always we gave students the choice of whatever experiment they wanted. My class were doing experiments ranging from water absorption of different types of soils to whether particular types of video games would improve people’s reaction times to using Gary’s Mod to run a simulated experiment. However instead of forcing students to do a written report, we decided to let students choose how to present their SRP findings in whatever medium they wanted. Some students still chose to submit a written report (but by sharing it as a Google document to make the feedback process more efficient) while other students chose to create Prezis or videos. Students had to justify why their chosen medium would be the most effective in communicating their findings to others. At the conclusion of the SRP, students shared their findings with their class over a two-day conference, just like real scientists.

In the presentations I would usually get students to give each other feedback (one medal and one mission) by writing it down on a piece of paper, which I will take home and collate and then give back to students. This was a really inefficient way of doing it. Students had to wait at least 24 hours to get peer feedback and it took me time to type of the students’ feedback. This time I decided to create a backchannel on Edmodo that students used to give feedback to each presenter. Students did this by using laptops. A designated student had the role of creating a post for each presenter and then the whole class will reply to that post with a medal and mission for the presenter. Doing it this way meant that the presenter got the feedback as soon as they finished presenting; they didn’t have to wait till the next day after I’ve collated the class’ feedback. Students really liked the immediacy of the feedback they got from the Edmodo backchannel. There was also one student who made a video for his SRP, but he was ill over the two days of the presentations. His video was still shown and he was able to receive feedback on it at home from his peers via the Edmodo backchannel.

A sample of the Edmodo backchannel

So just with a little of tweaking, the good ol’ SRP has been thrusted into the 21st century. I didn’t have to completely re-write it or turn it upside down. Just by adding Google docs, more student choice and Edmodo, the SRP was made a million times better for students as a learning process. From the end-of-term evaluations, many students from across all Year 8 classes identified the SRP to be their favourite activity this term because it gave them choice, it let them use technology and they learnt by doing.

Next time I’d like to have students sharing their findings with a global audience, or at least with an audience beyond their class. But one small step at a time 🙂