The project comes to an end and the students have presented their work. Ideally, this is a time when we can all step back and celebrate. Then what?
Evaluation. Once the project is done, it is time to review what took place during the project. What were the aspects of the project that went well? What needs to be tweaked? Things to look at include the driving questions themselves and the direction they took the class (this seems like a good one to do with the students), the timeline of the project and the different skills needed to make the project flow better and become more relevant.
Who will you involve in the process?
- As I reflect on the project unit, it seems essential to have student input. It is easy for a teacher to feel like the work they have put in front of the students is interesting and meaningful. Students, one the other hand, may not feel that way. Developing a system for open and honest feedback is critical to continued development of that project unit. It is also important to get feedback from all teachers involved and from any “experts” who got to review the final project. Essentially, it seems like the more information coming in, the better the chances of making improvements.
What will your process look like?
The process of reflection will likely have many different looks. Personal reflection in the form of my own learning log, interviews with students and teachers involved and online evaluations that allow for anonymity all seem like valid ways to elicit information that can be used in project evaluation. ironically, even the process of valuating will likely have to be evaluated and tweaked over time (which answers the last question- Is this a one-time assessment?)
What is the daily experience of most teachers? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it is, sadly, a fairly isolated experience. I plan my lessons on my own, I prep them on my own, I deliver them on my own and evaluate their effectiveness on my own. Do I do a good job? I like to think so. I also work hard to stay innovative and to make the work and learning interesting for my students. When push comes to shove, however, my students are working in isolation much the same as I am. They are studying Biology (or Chemistry, or whatever subject I happen to be teaching) in isolation from other disciplines. Sure, I like to slip in historical context when I can and I certainly help them through math skills, but the reality is that this type of isolation just isn’t real…except in school.
What happens when the students toss their caps and head off into the real world? They are asked to complete projects for work that integrate all of the subjects they learned separately in school. In some ways it seems like learning to hit a golf ball by learning small parts of the golf swing, the initial takeaway, taking the club up, starting the downswing, etc., from different coaches, only to ever take a full swing when it really counts- on the course. Chances are the first few times you try that full swing, it will be awkward and not so successful. The same goes for those first integrated, real-world projects. Awkward and, perhaps, unsuccessful.
What would serve the students better? An integrated curriculum. A curriculum in which they develop English skills, Math skills, Science skills and all of their other skills through work on the same project. A chance to see how the world connects outside the classroom walls. Imagine a student who spent their time in school in this fashion as they attack that new, but familiar real-world project when they get their first job. To say the least, they will be better off for the experience thay had in school.
So how does a school deliver such an experience? To be honest, I don’t know. It seems to take dedicated teachers, hard work and long hours. What I do see, however, is that the first step is to create a culture of collaboration. Administrations must make this a priority. Creating lines of communication between faculty members is the essential first step to building an integrated curriculum. Perhaps replacing faculty meetings with grade-level check-ins is a start. Simply getting teachers together to talk about what they are teaching and how they are teaching it. Can’t you just imagine the conversation as teachers begin to see the overlap in their subject matter. It seems to me, it wouldn’t take much for that conversation to turn into an idea for small-scale collaboration, which could lead to…who knows.
The reality is that such conversation would not likely turn into a fully integrated curriculum. That type of teaching is just too complex to come by through sheer enthusiasm. But, the conversation is the starting point. The communication between the people students spend their day with. The realization that there are common goals and ways to make every subject more relevant, real and meaningful.
I like the sound of that.
Having settled on a school garden as a project, I am quite optimistic about where I can go with this idea. In my vision for this project, students will start by seeing the issues that exist in our modern world of industrialized agriculture. Utilizing a film such as Food, Inc. I hope to help them see there is a problem. From there, they will learn alternatives through research and begin to design a small garden that will become part of the school. School gardens are not new, but the development of a garden seems to allow for so many learning opportunities across the field of biology. Students will learn about plant needs, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling, nutrition and more.
As far as tools go, it seems like a great opportunity for students to share what they learn with others. Development of a school garden website that can be a future resource for other class and school and some sort of multimedia project (I can see a public service announcement made by students) seem like very good, authentic forms of assessment. I am still struggling a bit on how to create an audience for the students. Ideas like fellow teachers, and students (maybe an assembly) see ok, but it keeps the work of my students within the school community. It would be nice to expand their audience beyond the school grounds. Perhaps involving parents would be a nice addition.
Is it PBL without an audience? I would have to say yes, as long as the students are motivated by the learning. However, most students need added incentive. This, in my mind, is where the audience comes in. By expanding the audience to include people outside of the students world, the motivation to do well increases. This comes not just as fear of looking foolish, though many students will see that, but as an opportunity to look great. A chance to make a difference. That is something that is different about today’s students- the work they do doesn’t just hang in hallways, it has the potential to impact society. So, while the project can carry on without an audience, clearly, students benefit from having one.
As I begin this exploration into project-based learning, my initial thoughts are very positive. Most articles and sources that I have come across paint a picture of motivated, engaged students doing work on project that have real and lasting results. Edutopia.org provides a laundry list of benefits of PBL including improved standardized test scores (although I wouldn’t want that to be the main goal of a learning situation). Projects seems to bring life to classrooms that few other strategies do. Students learn about topics that are important to them and develop some product that they the share with the world. The learning is authentic and seems to be a wonderful way to approach learning.
As a science teacher, I ma often confronted with the question of covering content vs. helping students learn science. The fact is that our understanding of the Biological world, for example, has exploded in the past century and there are simply too many facts to cover in a school year. Even if I were able to cover the enormous textbook cover to cover, there is little chance that my student would retain more than a tiny fraction of the facts they learned. PBL seems to provide an alternative. Yes, you do sacrifice the amount of material covered, but the depth of what is covered and the learning and retention seem to make it very worth the trade off.
One aspect of PBL that I do find intimidating is the fact that so many teachers do this within groups. They lean on each other as they develop projects and share experiences and learn from each other as projects progress. At my school, we have created a somewhat isolating culture in which teachers don’t collaborate as often as they should. While I think i want to incorporate PBL into my teaching for the students benefit, I also hope that my colleagues will be open to sharing that experience. Who knows, perhaps my embracing PBL might help start a cultural shift at my school.
As far as ideas for a project go, there have been some moves at my school towards embracing a gardening curriculum. I think I would like to explore that as a project for this class. Some of the work has actually been done here, but I will approach it as if ground has yet to be broken.