Saturday, October 26, 2013

Talk of Change - Embracing Project Based Learning

change_thoughts by MMcDonough
change_thoughts, a photo by MMcDonough on Flickr.

I gave my first Professional Development workshop yesterday on Project Based Learning (PBL). While I've talked to Colleagues, Parents, and Community members about PBL, this was my first chance to have a deeper, focused dialoug with educators about PBL. 

I was very cognizant in putting it together that I wanted to create opportunities for rich conversations and sharing of ideas, activities, and strategies. I borrowed and adapted questions from David Truss's presentation "7 Ways to Transform Your Classroom". The questions participants discussed together and shared thoughts on were a powerful part of the day, in my opinion. 

Selling anything, though, is not easy. As George Couros points out, we need to be strategic if we want to help others embrace change. George poses three questions that we can answer for Educators as we present change. Let me share my thoughts on them as it relates to PBL:

  • How will this save me time?
    • Such a valuable question for Educators. I want to acknowledge that adopting and settling into new Teaching practices takes time and energy, we all know that. For me the investment pays off in the product, and we'll get to that in a minute. In my experience the payoff with PBL is in two places. First, I save time preparing discrete tasks. My projects are almost always chunked into pieces that stretch over 2-6 hours of class time. So, once students are engaged in a new activity we roll with it for a few days, allowing me to do much more guiding, facilitating, informal breakout workshops, and formative assessment. Secondly, I save time in assessment. PBL lends itself beautifully to AFL practices that look a lot like students developing ownership by understanding where they are at and where they are going in their learning. This requires coaching and practice, but does not require that I collect small pieces of work daily, or even every few days to document the small steps in their learning journey. I should say to that my context is also a BYOD program. This saves a huge amount of time for me photocopying discrete tasks. I've moved my project outlines to Google Drive so students have current (and ever-changing) copies shared with them and they can be set up to comment on the outline or even edit as needed. 
  • We need to focus on different, not more
    • Yes. Some of the shifts I've been cognizant of in my practice as it related to PBL are in the ways I synthesize and summarize information, share resources, and share my expertise. As I move to PBL I fully desire to shift my instructional methods from Teacher centered to Learner centered. It strikes me as odd that so often we stand up and synthesize and summarize content for students. We need to teach students to synthesize and summarize content. If we are too worried about covering the content to let the students summarize it for themselves then perhaps we are trying to cover too much content (and I don't mean to get too involved in the debate over covering content here, I am more interesting in suggesting that this is one way that PBL is different and not more). My argument on resources is very much the same. Students need to be able to effectively find and critically curate content online. We are doing them a disservice if we find it for them, and we are doing them an even greater disservice if we do not teach our students to use a variety of resources. So we shift from finding and curating and sharing resources for our students to having them find, curate, and share their own resources. Lastly, PBL comes with a shift in expertise. Methods of Inquiry seek to involve community and experts outside the school. Although I'm not there yet in my practice, efforts to do this have been rewarding. I believe the same can be said about the learning community that exists within the classroom. Prensky writes about a Partnering pedagogy where we are all Teachers and we are all Learners. We need to shift our practice enough to allow students to embrace the roll as the experts that they are and are becoming.  
  • Is this better?
    • I believe so. In the presentation I respond to the "Why?" question with three arguments: because of shared experiences, because of shared findings, and because of shared understanding of best practice. There's a lot to unpack there, but I'll leave that to the presentation itself. After reading Couros's post the piece of this I feel I missed was the way in which its better for me. Ultimately I am most satisfied as a Teacher when the Learners I'm working with are most satisfied in their Learning. To that end, yes. PBL has allowed for deeper, richer, more meaning learning for my students and left me more satisfied in my Teaching!
Do you agree? What burning PBL questions are on your mind? Does PBL save you time? What shifts has it come with in your practice? Is it better for you and your students? What conversations are you interested in having as you consider change?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Consumption Project
Project Outline

As I look back at this project there are some things I liked about and some things that need overhauling.

-students engaged in quality research and fact finding to determine the rate at which a resource was consumed by a certain population at a certain point in time
-students were thinking critically about his to represent their model so as to bring the Math to life by picking a quantity that would be significant (for a certain population at a certain time)
-the project points to the global theme of sustainability
-models were engaging
-choice of topics, methods of modelling increased engagement

Bigger and better next time:
-sustainability is such a deep and far reaching theme, I want to make sure to do it justice in a project like this. I'm not sure exactly how to approach that, but for starters I'd either look at sustainable practices with respect to either the food industry or energy sector (rather then leaving the option open)
-again, to better serve the sustainability theme I want to make sure this project culminates in a real, applicable, significant prouduct. This could, perhaps, be something like a marketing project and pitch to a local restaurant. It would be really cool to get a sense of what a restaurant needs and how we can help th market themselves, or to help raise awareness of sustainable food choices 
-I could see using a question like "How do our consumption habits impact others?", or perhaps even making this more specific like "How does Canadian consumption of coffee effect Ethiopia?", but I'm not sure how the socials ties would be made, and that relationship may likely dictate the scope of the question and inquiry.
-as with other projects with a physical product, I've seen that getting into researching, drafting, and revising a model design early really pays off in the end. Along these same lines a goal I've been thinking of lately is to really improve the quality if sketches. I want to see students think through and prepare well for their sketches so they can approximate their product as well as possible. I wonder if a strategy here would be to have students actually prototype a scale sketch or model before constructing their final product.

How does Technology Mimic Biology? 
Last year we rolled out an Optics Project where students made pinhole cameras. It was hugely successful in terms of engagement and motivation. We loved the iterative nature of pinhole camera design. Build - shoot - develop - tweak - shoot - develop - repeat. Excellent! The project was a bit of a hodge podge of activities that didn't all fit seamlessly into a bigger broader question or inquiry. Although I continue thinking about this project, I'm not rolling it out again yet so I haven't yet re-drafted last year's project.

Here's last year's outline. 

Here are my current thoughts about chunking the inquiry into the Question: How does Technology Mimic Biology?

Part 1: Behaviours of Light Inquiry
-begin with 1 question on why light behaves the way it does, prompted with 24 hours to brainstorm
-then experiment with light equipment to better understand the behaviours of light and how technologies manipulate light to perform complex tasks

Part 2: Eye Dissection
-last time we started with too much emphasis on students finding and using resources
-this time we'll limit the inquiry, but maximize the learning that can come out of the dissection
-kWL for parts of the eye (k and w) done prior to lab, L assessed for thinking competency
-give lab guide after some work with K and W 

Part 3: Compare and Contrast Cameras and Eyes
-questions together follow around functionality of eye (under conditions similar to camera - light at various focal lengths, varying levels of light...)
-next independent questions? of camera design (aperture, shutter speed, focal length relative to camera size)

Part 4: Design, Construct, Use Pinhole Cameras
-research and find designs
-detailed sketches
-light meter apps

Monday, October 21, 2013

Logo Contest: Lessons from an early project

As one of our first few projects, and one with a focus on community building, we ran a logo contest early last year. We used the project to introduce and set up some Math content related to ratios, rates, and proportions (Math 8), as well as similar figures (Math 9). Science outcomes related to Scientific Literacy, and English outcomes related to Media awareness were also tied in through related assignments. The curricular ties were strong. As one of our first projects, though, this project stands our in my mind mostly because of what I learned from it.

One of the things I wish I had done differently with the project is to have started the logo design aspects sooner. Since then I've done a few design projects with a colleague who regularly runs with a two step research process for design work: first, a search for a variety of designs that students collect in a document; then, once a few favorite designs are chosen, a second search and collection takes place for a large number of designs related to the favorites from the first round. Drawing inspiration from other's logos would have given students an excellent springboard from which to begin sketching and drafting their logo designs.

The second aspect I learned from was the level of voice and choice in the technology used. We left students with options as to how they created their logos - we had everything from Google Sketch Up designs, Paint designs, Gimp designs, and Google Draw designs. Many students were exploring these drawing programs for the first time. Students were given ample drawing time, and were also given tutorial videos to better their understanding of Gimp. Because there was a range of new tools being used, though, students were not given quality feedback on their design work. In the end, however, the students with the greatest knowledge of the design tools produced the best logo.

The end product, as seen above, turned out really well. Of course, this wasn't the only product of the project. Students were motivated in the work, and enjoyed the process of pitching and voting on a logo. Math outcomes were tied in nicely to logo drafting, Science outcomes dovetailed into a "companies in the news" assignment, and English outcomes were met by a media assignment alongside the logo. As a community builder the project served its purpose well, and it was very cool to have the program represented by a piece of student work.

What were your take aways from your first experiences in Project Based Learning? Are there elements of the process you focused on early on? What kinds of projects or tasks would you use to introduce PBL in your classroom?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Making Feedback an Event

What does feedback look like in your context? How has giving and accepting feedback been modeled in your experience?

Peer Feedback is a powerful classroom tool for a variety of reasons. It helps foster a collaborative culture, exposes students to varying ideas and perspectives, serves as a form of positive peer pressure, and gives students an opportunity to put their best foot forward as they prepare their work for feedback. I believe feedback can also be used to teach content, and I want to improve the way we do feedback in my classes so we can maximize its benefit for our learning.

In this case students had prepared sketches of the models they were planning on building and animating to bring mitosis or meiosis to life. The models will have a QR code attached linking to a video which will explain the model and bring it to life either visually or orally. Although many of the sketches were not fully developed I believe students benefited from thinking through their plan and creating their sketch as well as by looking at the plans and sketches of others.

What I really enjoyed about this round of feedback was that it was very much an event (and for my purposes an excellent form of formative assessment). Students were asked to come with their sketches. Sketches were then touched up to ensure that they were self explanatory to viewers who were circulating by for 3 minutes at a time. Students then added to their sketches notes to guide the feedback. They also added comments to let the viewer know what they liked about their work, what was tricky, and what they thought they might do differently (a suggestion from a student-parent in my PLN, thanks Greg). Feedback then proceeded in 3 minute rounds (a time chosen based one total time available, but it actually worked quite well). This countdown timer was used to add an edgy, funky, fun structure to the event. Students enjoyed it, and agreed that it was comfortable, beneficial, and improved their knowledge of the content.

As we continually seek to improve the quality of feedback one of Dylan William's suggestions (from "Embedded Formative Assessment") I've enjoyed is to collect the post-it feedback afterward and post is on the board. Students are then encouraged to look at all the feedback and vote on which pieces are most useful to the reader.

At the end of the day I want the feedback experience to be valuable enough that students come prepared, and participate to the best of their ability to their own benefit and the benefit of their classroom. So, how can we do feedback better?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Project Based Learning Workshop Plans and Questions
I'm excited to be facilitating a Project Based Learning Workshop this month in the Robson Valley. Its been a fantastic process trying to distil my learning and beliefs about learning into a day's worth of activities and conversations for educators.

Here's the synopsis for the day:
Why PBL? What is PBL? How do we do PBL? Together we will explore these questions through  resources, examples, and the sharing of ideas and experiences. We will look at assessment strategies and learning activities that complement project based learning, and will collaboratively plan new projects and tweak existing ones.
And here's the link to the day plan.

How would you describe Project Based Learning? What do you feel are the most valuable lessons you've learned? What burning questions do you have as an educator as you look at new methods of instruction, learning activities, and new assessment practices? What resources have been most valuable for informing your practice (I've collected videos here and other goodies here)

I welcome your feedback!