Monday, March 18, 2013

Projects vs Project-Based Learning

I don't agree with everything this chart asserts, but it's a great point:  Doing projects in the classroom doesn't mean you're taking a problem-based learning approach to the curriculum.

Education Technology: An Interesting Chart on the Difference

If you aren't familiar with the tenets of problem-based learning (PBL), this is a great basic resource:
Students Thrive on Cooperation and Problem Solving

Students *want* to work on REAL problems and "things that actually matter." Even those times when you have to grind away at some basic core knowledge before they can rush off into "the good stuff" go down better when students know the teacher has something meaningful, interesting, and challenging in her back pocket.

Higher ed, you're on notice too. Lectures are no better for 19 year olds than they are for 14 year olds or 8 year olds.  You don't get a free pass for boredom, disengagement, and information transfer when education theory is pounding away the idea that real learning demands real experiences with actual problems.

Where to start? 

  • Be brave. You don't have to transform the entire curriculum. Try a single unit for one class. 
  • Google it. Really. The best ideas are all stolen (or adaptations of other people's good ideas) so get out there and read for inspiration.
  • Find a partner. PBL is easier when it's integrated across discplines.
  • Don't force it -- counting widgets doesn't count as math integration or meaningful problem solving. Relax. Integrate what you can.
  • Go local. One of my favorite PBL examples came from the book The Parallel Curriculum, in which the author describes a 5th grade classroom who created a brochure for their county's history museum. The kids noticed the gap, the museum was eager to have help, and the teacher spotted a great opportunity for kids to tackle a reasonable, realistic, local problem -- and solve it!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Truly - It takes a village

This article posted on the lovely site Good.Is caught my attention today:
Want to Transform Public Education? Act Locally.

The author suggests that parents really DO make a difference in their local schools when they visit campus, get to know the staff, come to understand the problem, and get involved in solutions.

 I see too many good people in Los Angeles who are afraid of our kids. They are afraid to send their kids to an unknown school. All these people really need is to be invited on to campus, take a look around, and put that fear aside. These are our children—why are people afraid?
So if you want to transform education, find a teacher who needs help. Get on to that campus. Have a simple clean up event with teachers, students, and parents all working together. Invite the village. Bring coffee. Tap into the good in people. It's there, just waiting for an invitation. They are out there, just waiting to be invited

We all tend to care much more about institutions that we have invested personal effort into maintaining. What is handed to us cost-free, even work-free, is an institution that we feel free to walk away from.  

In my MEd coursework at Covenant, we read a book called Is There a Public for Public Schools? The author suggests that local school management, where parents and community members can have a greater say in the particular traditions, setup, and even moral outlook of a given school, has a much better chance of succeeding than a monolithic education policy driven from "above." 

Media coverage of education makes the whole situation sound so dismal. But we really CAN make a difference in our schools. It'll cost something, of course -- the courage to know before we condemn, the willingness to invest in the lives of others, and the determination to focus on finding solutions rather than railing away at problems.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Finding the Power of Two

"It is easier to teach reading and writing, which are solitary undertakings, than to teach listening and speaking, which always involve human interactions."
From this article on authentic assessment in the workplace: Replacing the Performance Appraisal

Growing up and into my college years, I heard people dump on the ideas of collaborative learning. My education was pretty traditional, and we didn't do many group projects. You sank or swam by yourself. Sure, you were surrounded by a whole lake full of drowning students, but learning was an individual affair.

As I gain experience and maturity in life, I gain a deeper appreciation for the difficulties of individualism.  While there's something to be said for peace and quiet to think, most of us perform better in a free exchange of ideas, goals, problems, and feedback. 

A mechanized, industrialized educational system that rewards outcomes rather than true development never has time to build the skills that really matter. 

So how can a teacher build listening, speaking, and collaboration skills in the classroom?  
My experience lies in middle and high school classroom teaching, but I think these principles can be applied up and down the scale of ages.

  • Be willing to give up the control that an individual approach offers -- and for many of us, "control" = "safety."   It just seems easier to control a classroom, to guide a lesson, to assess learning when everyone is neat and tidy and quiet. But that quiet can mask boredom, struggle, or smug overconfidence. Instead, find your comfort line and decide to push past it a little at a time until you're able to manage the more busy pace of a collaborative room.
  • Model collaboration strategies. Don't just expect students to know how to work together. It's a learned skill.  Talk through your thinking processes; join their groups (drop in and out); ask them to explain their group dynamic and analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
  • Recognize that not all collaboration carries the same effectiveness or value.  Just because students are working near one another in groups doesn't mean they're actually collaborating. You may need to be proactive in sorting students into groups to get the balance right.  A healthy collaboration will include discussion and disagreement but also developing leadership, creativity, brainstorming, and failure (on the path to success).  
  • In fact, failure is a necessity. So relax, and give your students the mental space to fail without feeling like a failure. They need to try ideas and be ok with many of them not working. In fact, quickly landing on an idea before considering other options is a mark of immature thinking.
  • Build feedback, discussion, and questioning into your classroom flow for everything.  Any project, test, or unit should become a springboard for a post-mortem evaluation: "How did that go? What did you try that worked? How was your group dynamic? Looking back, can you see ways that you helped/hindered the project as a whole? What skills/knowledge do you need to gain before we try this again?"
  • Do projects more than once. I think the biggest waste in our classrooms is the one-shot project/activity.  All the cognitive work poured into learning how to do a task, and that's it. The project ends, and students move on.  You'd be amazed by what people will learn if your circle back to a particular kind of project/assignment after a few weeks, and remind students to apply past lessons to the current task.