Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pedagogical Justification (Gk - παιδαγωγέω δικαίωμα) for Project Based Learning

"Pedagogical justification." Well, that's a mouth full. It might as well be Greek to some folks. But to put that into layman's terms, "pedagogical" comes from the Greek word, παιδαγωγέω, or paidagōgeō, which literally means "to lead a child, or go with a child." In early Greek culture, the slaves were required to attend training sessions with the slave owners child, and the phrase meant to go with or accompany the child to school or whatever training session they were supposed to attend. We now use the term to refer to instructional strategies or styles of teaching.

What does this mean for this week's assignment? I'm supposed to provide support or justification for the use of Project Based Learning (PBL) in the classroom. Last week, I explained what PBL was and the six distinctive features that make an effective PBL classroom experience. We looked at three different classes and what was common among each.

This week, before I launch into the justification of why we should use PBL in the classroom, I want you to watch another video,
Picturing the Possibilities, Project Based Learning, that explains in further detail how PBL has been very effective in teaching math skills to students. (The audio is a little out of snyc, but it is worth watching.)

First and foremost in defending the use of PBL in the classroom, as the teacher in this video stated, "it's all about the learning." Of course we want the learning experience to be fun and interesting, but above all, it's about whether the students are learning. For those in the US, who have to comply to State standards, teachers have that added factor to ensure that students are not only learning, but learning that meets the State standards. So much of teaching that takes place at many schools, unfortunately, is not about the learning. The focus gets placed on making sure that students make it through the curriculum or creating a lot of busy work for them.

Properly designed and implemented Project Based Learning places a great amount of emphasis on student learning. By starting with the open-ended driving question for the students to develop and center their project around, students are forced to examine the essentials questions that engage higher order thinking. With that level of thinking, students begin to attach greater meaning to what they learning, because they now must analyze and synthesize the information into something relevant. The project forces the student to take what is known intellectually and apply it to real life. This is no small conquest. These real-life activities challenge students to become problem solvers, a skill that is critical for our future labour force.

If we as teachers are to take seriously the task of engaging students in learning for meaning and ensure that this learning is transferred into real world application, we must take seriously the use of Project Based Learning. When this approach to learning is constructed correctly from an instructional design perspective, it takes learning to new heights. The research, such as,
PBL Research Summary: Studies Validate Project-Based Learning, is starting to show that student achievement scores are improving, student retentions rates are growing, and student engagement is on the rise.

We only have look as far as this video we just watched and see PBL in action and listen to the comments from the teacher and students about their experiences and see how successful PBL is in the classroom. That being said, another research article, NMSA Research Summary: PBL in Middle Grades Mathematics states that "Project-based learning can only be considered a useful pedagogical strategy if, through its use, teachers can be reasonably assured that mathematics content and concept development are realized." A project for the sake of having a project does not mean guaranteed results. But when a teacher effectively establishes a knowledgebase with students that engages in learning, student motivation and attitudes towards the subject matter takes on a new reality. When students are excited about learning because of PBL, it is hard to argue with this approach.

So to summarize, when PBL stresses learning for meaning; transferring learning into real-world activities; high level thinking and problem solving; student engagement; research shows that students perform better academically and are motivated to become lifelong learners.

Monday, March 9, 2009

What do worms, architecture, and butterflies have in common?

It's been a couple of weeks since my last blog, but it's time to sit down and write down some thoughts. I watched three videos this week on that featured the use of Project Based Learning (PBL). More than a Barrel of...Worms was the first video.

The second video was Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning.

The third video was March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies' Migration.

I found myself watching these teachers and marvelling at their ability to achieve amazing results from implementing Project Based Learning (PBL). What is PBL? How does it work? According to, there are six steps to successfully implementing PBL into the classroom. They are:

  • Start with a central question that may be answered in a variety of ways,
  • Design a plan for the project that includes the students in providing direction and decision-making,
  • Create a schedule that outlines timelines that are flexible,
  • Facilitate and guide the process with the students and monitor the progress of the project
  • Assess the outcome with feedback, or formal rubrics, and self-assessment
  • Evaluate the experience through discussions, reflection, and sharing of ideas and feelings.

Let me illustrate by referencing the videos you just watched for these elements being used by the teachers featured. There are common design principles shared by all three teachers that follow the six steps. First, the teachers set out real life questions for the students to answer knowing they might derive different conclusions. For example, I love the class where a few students decide to do a project on a fellow classmate who has Cystic Fibrosis. This was a real life situation for these children, and they wanted to understand what their classmate was experiencing. The project involved science, social studies, language arts, and health in one theme. The geometry class looked at geometric principles from a real life perspective of what schools might look like 50 years down the road. They all came to different conclusions and answers, but their learning involved high levels of engagement.

The second step was illustrated when the teachers design a project that was somewhat open-ended and allowed for students to provide input about the various design elements, but still complying to the overall educational outcomes that the teachers hoped the students would achieve. As you listen to the students talk about their projects they clearly feel a sense of ownership for their learning. What a marvel it must have been for students to experience a butterfly emerging from its cocoon right before their eyes! And for these students to be entirely in control of the project design was very important.

Each teacher stressed the importance of setting timelines for the students to complete their projects. This is realistic for students to understand that projects need to be completely within a set period of time. The geometry teacher made it clear that the project was scheduled for the last six weeks of the term, but what was significant was that the students were having the opportunity to apply their knowledge from a theory perspective to a practical context.

In each of the videos the teachers provide an important role of coaching and guiding the students through the process. In each case the teachers use a tremendous amount of technology with their students. Further to this, these teachers do not simply layer technology with traditional teaching strategies. They embrace the technology in a way that enables the students to take full advantage of it as a learning tool. The students are guided and provided direction, but not so much that they take over the project.

In the end, the students are assessed for the answers they reached in their projects. But, one thing that stands out and that doesn’t get assessed is the learning that takes place among the peers in the class. In each video there is the level of sharing among each group with the other classmates about what they have learned completing their projects. Not only did each student learn from their own project, they learned from listening to their classmates share their learnings. Very cool!

There is little doubt about why these students are successful. They are engaged in the learning process from the beginning of the project. Both the students and teacher are active participants in the learning. The students are not the only learners involved. The teachers are lifelong learners as well, and they communicate their enthusiasm and excitement for learning with their students as they share the results of their projects. This increases the level of engagement for learning immeasurably. But further to this, the students are able to establish meaning of their learnings and transfer this knowledge into practical situations that they may face in life after school. This is such a key element of the learning for students to make a connection with what they are learning in school and see how it fits into real life. Often, we as teachers do a poor job of this, and we need to be more diligent in making this happen.

In contrast to these teachers use of PBL, most of us have done group work activities and usually were pulling out our hair by the end of it, because it seemed like a lot of work with minimal results. I think back now, and there were a few reasons I was unsuccessful with group work. First, I didn't have the first clue where to start with projects when I started teaching. I was taught at university how to teach students with traditional methods that were more teacher-centred, and besides "having students sit in rows doing busy work minimizes discipline issues." As a result, I tried to force students to conform to what the textbook prescribed.

As I reflected on these videos and the use of PBL, I was challenged to think about how many times I didn’t step outside the traditional teaching style, and as a result my students missed out on an opportunity to have a learning experience that was meaningful and transferable, because I was so concerned about covering the curriculum outcomes. I guess I have a lot to learn still, especially since I am a lifelong learner as well as the students.