My Own PBL Journey (for #plsm13 )

Really looking forward to #plsm13 tomorrow and pulling my thoughts – and resources – together in preparation. I first looked into PBL (Project-Based Learning) seriously after visiting Parramatta Marist when they were in their second year of PBL. Our leadership team was looking for something that would engage our students, develop creativity, resilience and independence and promote collaboration. PBL seemed to tick all the boxes. Along the way, we were also introduced to Marco Torres and CBL (Challenge-Based Learning) – similar, but slightly different in focus. I became a big believer in relevance, questioning, delving deeper, and using a unit of work as a whole to develop skills and metacognition as part of the learning experience, and not just focussing on the end point. I’ve never been a fan of regurgitation as a desired learning outcome, and using PBL as a framework in my own teaching helped provide some energy, creativity and relevance for me in my teaching, not just for my students. My early efforts were certainly a mash-up of PBL/CBL et al as I was fishing for what fit me and my kids.

My first real unit of work was with Year 7 English term 4 2010. As my English coordinator @LaurenDrego had said, we seemed to underestimate what our year 7s were capable of, and we basically had three years of Year 7 units, then expected kids to make the jump in Year 10 and be ready for School Certificate-level work/through/skills. She had blazed a trail with CBL and Year 10 Shakespeare, so I thought I’d have a go with Year 7.

The unit I developed was “Journeys” and focussed on the plight of refugees. Working in Granville, most of my students were either immigrants themselves or their parents were, and we had had so many Sudanese and Iraqi refugees join the school over several years. The students could definitely relate and a quick show of hands meant that everyone knew someone closely who had immigrated to Australia – their teacher included!.

The driving question was “What would cause someone to leave their home and risk their life to seek refuge in Australia?” Core texts were John Marsden’s picture book “Home and Away” and a podcast of an ABC interview with Anh Do about his life and the book “The Happiest Refugee”.

The podcast generated empathy and a range of great subquestions to explore. We then read the book as a class, exploring visuals and text and emphasis and message and author’s intent. early on, the kids were told that their “project” would be the writing and production of an empathy narrative about a child refugee/asylum seeker from a developing nation. So as we explored the core texts, we also took note of themes, messages, ideas and structural elements that would be of use to kids as they composed their own texts.

We used Wikispaces as an online platform for course info and links, and for group collaboration and uploading of work. Two things which worked well in establishing groups were the following:

1) Students completed a multiple intelligences inventory and took note of their dominant and next preferences in a spectrum. NB the intelligences were not explored in the sense that “You are this way and only learn this way” but in the sense that “We all have strengths, and these strengths vary and when we combine our strengths in a team, the team is stronger.” I allocated students to groups of three, with each member coming from a different dominant intelligence.

2) Students surveyed staff members about their jobs and what made for successful teamwork in their roles within the school. Students went out in pairs to different areas of the school – classroom teachers, aides, ancillary staff, principal/deputy, groundsman, etc. We collated their list on the whiteboard and the top five characteristics/guidelines became our working rules for good groupwork.

Once in groups, students had to choose a developing nation, research living and working conditions in that country, and research why people would seek to risk their lives via boat or other illegal means to access Australia. They then developed a main character, drafted a short first person narrative from that character’s perspective, then created a PowerPoint or movie as a digital story.

Students recorded research, uploaded links and wrote reflections on their team pages. One girl went to India on holidays midway through the unit but continued to correspond with her team and add to their project via the wikispace. Another girl reflected that she never would have chosen the people she did for her group, but she was glad she ended up with them because she had learnt that it was good to draw on each other’s strengths.

As with anything at the end of the year, class time was lost with many events, I was away a week preparing for my new job, etc… So not everyone completed their films or stories. But everyone reflected, everyone researched, everyone panned and revised and developed. It wasn’t the endpoint or summative assessment that was the important thing – it was the learning and the engagement and collaboration and real world issues that were explored along the way.

It certainly wasn’t perfect, and wasn’t at the school the next year and moved into a mentoring role at my next school so never got the chance to tweak the unit – but I got enough of a taste that I know it totally energised me as a teacher, and my students learned so much more than course content as a result. So I was hooked.

I’ve used a similar PBL approach to cover All My Own Work with three successive cohorts of Year 10s (students worked in teams to create a film against a theme, but learned and applied elements of AMOW and good scholarship along the way), and used a PBL framework for Year 9 RE (Ten Commandments/Beatitudes – how does our understanding of these core teachings help us to live out the school motto “To Be the Best Man I Can Be?”) and Year 10 RE (Social Justice – “What is required of ME to ensure that the rights of others are met?”)

The AMOW units varied in success, depending on cohort, preparation and the team working with me. The Year 9 unit went well and the kids and teachers got into it, but the Year 10 unit I felt was a bit of a flop as I planned it on behalf of the other teachers, so they didn’t own it and never really got it – and Term 4 Year 10 was not the time to introduce independent or collaborative inquiry when this group had just switched off. (Although I must say, using the FreeBIES team resources from BIE  – Team Contract, Project Management Log, Self-Reflection and Presentation Plan – made a huge difference and I should have done this much earlier on! – Thanks to Bianca for the recommendation!)

It is definitely a learning journey for me, but one I am keen to continue. I can see (when well planned and appropriately timed) that PBL is engaging, authentic, relevant and develops skills in my students that go well and truly beyond syllabus outcomes and content and reach the “whole child”, providing them with learning experiences that can impact on their lives beyond the classroom.

Links to wikispaces for various units below (please use whatever you like, but please respect these are sites set up by me for real kids and schools – ta!):

And links to other articles and resources that have helped me on my journey so far:

I know I have so much to learn still, but that’s what I love about PBL – that I truly feel like I am learning alongside my students. What have been your successes? And challenges?