Project-Based Learning is an approach that exhibits many dimensions. Students learn through the experience of doing. Early Learning and our Early Learners in many ways have mastered the art of Project-Based Learning and the Reggio philosophy is very much aligned with that approach. It begins with setting up a stimulating environment (not too much, not too little) and observe what children do, through play. Students at this age are naturally curious to explore and it is us as educators that need to respond to the pathways each individual (or group) is intrigued about, connected to or interested in. Let students determine their own learning landscape. There is a huge parallel with PBL here. Sometimes educators can ignite and motivate students to explore a particular path, and sometimes it comes from the students to spark their own passionate pursuits. In balance, there needs to be an interplay of both.
The important thing here is that schools create the space for students to explore areas that speak to them. It is a lot like a calling. The magic in these moments is that inspiration can come from everywhere. It may be innate and the time is ripe to listen to this voice and act on it. Sometimes it could be something that strikes like a lightning bolt out of nowhere. It’s all beautiful. It’s what we do with this magic dust that makes the difference with how students interact with this new found learning experience. Do we breathe life into it or blow the dust away?
Above I mentioned the power of Early Years and Early Learning. At this spectrum in schools, learning needs to rise up and radiate throughout the rest of the school and then cascade into universities. A bit more pressure needs to be applied so that universities review their old habits and traps of learning. We have to be better than ‘managing people’ or ‘generating profit’ as our model for higher education.
If I was to characterize PBL in very simple terms using contexts I’m familiar with… it would be to combine the Grade 5 PYP Exhibition (Year-long) with the Early Years philosophy of purposeful play. A pinch of seeing the environment as the third teacher, a dollop of observing what is revealed and a cup of allowing a flow of exploration and discovery. A merging of these two worlds and releasing the learning so it is unfiltered. This is the world I hope our students get to interact with.
Some may argue that this approach is not rigorous enough. What is rigor though? Rigor is not looking busy, being quiet and doing lots of writing – that’s compliance. My definition (in essence) of ‘rigor’ is creating a learning environment that inspires, where students are able to skillfully interpret and construct meaning and seek ways so that understanding is transferable in different contexts. So how can we ensure PBL covers core content and subjects? This is often asked by parents and teachers. We all know that learning something we’re not interested in equates to passive learning; therefore, not much learning is really happening anyway. There is far greater benefit if students are learning about what is timely for them, see relevance and meaning in what they want to do. It’s vital that they see and value learning as constantly moving from one shape to another. This is where being reflective about their growth and progress (high and lows) on a continuum of learning. Students are empowered to set goals that are realistic and also challenging. As advisors and connectors to learning, we need to guide and coach individual students towards areas that they need to be exposed to and having them understand the purpose of how that learning is interconnected, transformational and transferable. Let this process be a natural and highly-personal experience for them. This approach will have a deeper impact when developing new understanding(s) to existing knowledge. This is what constructivism is and it works.
The university conversation is one that still needs a lot more time. My hope is that university entry is based on merit, contributions to society and digital portfolios that document authentic experiences that demonstrate learning in action. Not testing or assessment. The assessment is weighted in the doing, being and showing, not in a timed examination without access to resources – that’s not real-world.
Imagine a world where PBL become the norm, not the exception. Imagine a world where students could show their intelligence, personality, uniqueness, quirks, and talents in creative ways as a showcase of who they are as young dynamic moral leaders. Imagine a world where success was based on confidence, optimism, resilience, problem-solving and creativity. Imagine a world that actually looks at how far you have grown over time, not where you stand at that point in time. Imagine a world where we were telling raw human stories about all our breakdowns and breakthroughs and how this shaped who we have become. It is my hope that universities don’t measure success on a raw test score of what you know or have memorized a few days before. But it is determined rather on what you have achieved and accomplished over the course of many young adolescent years, not the scarce accumulation of one or two. Again, this is why Early Years needs to push up through our tired school systems to ratify change and renewal. It is simply too top-down in our education system, where it needs to be from the roots up from a nutrient foundation.
We are just scratching the surface. There are some great educators out there doing great things for our deserving kids. I encourage those who have a hunch that things are not right in our traditional school system, to experiment and tinker with giving PBL. Whether you call it Passions Projects, Inquiry Time, 20% Time or Genius Hour… have a go. Your students will thank you for it and will surprise you every step of the way. It’s the only way we are ever going to shake things up – demanding different!
Our Grade 2 students are currently learning about emotions and emotional intelligence. They went on a field trip to the cinema to see Inside Out and the movie has inspired some very interesting thinking.
Cathy, one of the G2 teachers, gave her students a blank piece of A3 paper and asked them to draw what’s inside their heads. She got back a combination of ideas from the movie and original ideas developed by the students. This kind of open task brings out creative ideas, misconceptions, interesting language and unique interpretations that can drive inquiry in ways that teachers would not be able to predict. All too often, teachers provide their students with closed tasks designed to elicit predetermined responses that the teacher determines to be right or wrong, good or bad. When they design ways that create space in the learning for the students’ genuine responses, things are very different!
When I saw the drawings, I immediately wondered what it would be like to photograph them, put them in one of our green screen studios and film the students inside their own heads taking us on a trip around what’s inside their heads! This extended the task into new territory as the students stretched their ability to explain their thinking and to coordinate both sides of their brain as they watched themselves live on the monitor!
So, next time you’re trying to think of a way to find out your students’ ideas, thoughts or feelings, don’t design a closed set of questions to which you can anticipate the answers. Instead, design something open that creates space for them to release information that you couldn’t predict – it’ll be much more interesting.
Using strategies to make thinking visible can be incredibly powerful. Their power, however, hinges almost entirely on how willing teachers are to learn about their students.
Far too often, I see visible thinking strategies used as an “activity” or as a way of decorating the walls. In some cases, I think teachers believe that just by doing a visible thinking strategy they are automatically finding out what their students think and that by displaying the results their thinking has been made visible.
However, in order to make the most of the opportunities that visible thinking strategies provide us to delve deep into the minds of our students, we need to be willing to scrutinize their responses. We need to be incredibly curious about the way they are thinking. We need to probe further when we’re not sure a student has responded fully. We need to try different strategies to see if different ideas are revealed. Most importantly of all… we need to be doing all of these things with them.
By showing them how interested we are in their thoughts – and by involving them in the way we respond to their thoughts – we honour them, we give them pride and we let them know their thinking is important. By basing the subsequent planning – ours and theirs – on their responses and reactions, we show them how their learning is constructed… how it builds on their existing knowledge, their ideas, their misconceptions and their questions.
This is inquiry.
So, next time you decide to use a visible thinking strategy, ask yourself if you are genuinely interested in how your students respond. If you are… great. If you’re not… try your hardest to make yourself interested. Its worth it.
Countless hours have been spent as teaching teams sit staring at a screen trying to agree on a summative assessment task. The purpose of these summative assessment tasks is supposed to be to check for understanding, to see how the students’ understanding of the concepts explored during a unit of inquiry has developed.
Each one of those sessions may have gone absolutely nowhere, and signifies a misconception that exists in many schools today – that a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task will tell you about each individual student’s level of understanding.
There are seven flaws here:
- The majority of these conversations are firmly within the realms of “what will we do?” and almost all remain in that realm without ever considering “why are we doing this?”.
- Many teaching teams teach units of inquiry without ever really figuring out what it is they are hoping students will understand. As a result, their chances of being able to assess student understanding is negligible right from the start.
- Many teaching teams have a limited understanding of what understanding actually is and so struggle to concentrate or remain motivated during strenuous planning sessions. Often you will hear complaints of being “brain dead at the end of the day” or “I can’t stand semantics” or “we’re just going round and round in circles”. The process of figuring out the enduring understandings of a unit of inquiry is often abandoned completely, done in a hurry to appease those who wish to leave or done by one or two teachers on the team with the intelligence or commitment to make it happen.
- Very often, summative assessment tasks are designed that actually assess completely the wrong thing by mistake, and the understandings are left untouched and hidden behind the task itself. Getting all of the students to do a written summative assessment task, for example, is actually an assessment of their writing – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to do a presentation is actually an assessment of their ability to make and deliver a presentation – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to make a video is actually assessing their ability to make a video – not their understanding.
- Many summative assessment tasks become grand projects or productions that shift the emphasis completely away from the understanding and towards the task itself.
- The most effective and powerful ways for the students to demonstrate their understanding may only become clear as the unit evolves. Indeed, if we watch our students closely and listen to their thinking, the most powerful and effective ways to assess may actually come from them.
- Summative assessment tasks are simply too late. If you and the students find out they don’t understand something at the end of the unit (because it really is just about us finishing off the learning, right?) then it’s too late isn’t? If you’re using formative assessment and actually watching the students closely throughout the unit, you should know exactly how the students’ understanding is developing, or not. If you find out at the end… well…um… what have you been doing for six weeks?
- Not all students are able to express their understanding in the same way.
So, next time you’re sitting around a table with a group of people who are trying to make a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task… perhaps suggest that you don’t bother. Instead, explore the following steps:
- Ensure everyone responsible for teaching the unit has a good understanding themselves of the understandings you are all trying to develop in the students. You’d be amazed how often this is not the case.
- Ensure you have created a tool, such as a good rubric, that can be used right from the start of the unit as a way to guide students towards the understandings you are hoping for.
- Ensure that there is constant, ongoing formative assessment and reflection that continue to give a picture of how each student is developing as the unit progresses.
- As the unit progresses, share the learning that is going with your teams so that your shared understandings of the unit are strengthened, moderated and challenged.
- Look for opportunities to help your students transfer what they are learning to new contexts so you can see if they really are understanding the concepts involved.
Very often, the key to achieving all of these things lies in assessing the same way that you teach. If you are teaching in a problem-solving, open-ended style that leaves plenty of space for critical thinking and inquiry… then assessing their understanding will be easier. If however, you are teaching in chunks of discrete, prescriptive learning in which there is little or no space for inquiry, problem-solving or critical thinking, assessing understanding becomes virtually impossible.
Schools have come a long way when it comes to reporting/assessing student learning. There are so many good things about what we do in this profession, writing report cards are not one of them. Why is that?
It is time? Is it timing? Is it the amount of in-put vs out-put? Is it the fact that report cards say so much, but really say nothing at the same time?
I personally have not seen a school get this right yet. I am very interested in what other schools do out there. Can we share some examples? It is time to simplify the report card process. Not only for teachers, but for parents and students too.
What do your report cards say about your school?
Are you really valuing real learning? Do they reflect the 5 essential elements of the PYP? Are they truly representing who they are as learners and as people? Do you review the report card process? Is reporting just a formality?
What does your report card say about you?
A lot of us copy and paste comments. We know it, administration knows it, parents know it, and even kids know it. If this is what we do then should we just not do them? Or do you write 100% personalized comments that truly reveal who each kids are? How can we get it right when we think about the time it takes to write them, proofread, edit and revise them?
There seems to be a shift from writing long narratives (full of teacher jargon) to more concise and pointed comments focusing on strengths and learning targets. I actually find it more challenging to write a specific comment than a long-winded one.
This got me thinking…. do we actually need reports? Why can’t we just write them for students who are leaving the school? Don’t we have enough assessments already that speak so much louder than a written report? Something to consider and think about. A move like that would take a lot of guts. There would have to be a very supportive school community that gets it. There are parents out there that do get it. Let’s educate the others.
Our school wants to inquire into report cards. What does good look like and sound like? Please let us know if you would like to share what you do. Add to this conversation. This is an SOS call to look at different approaches. Together, I am sure we can adapt and change what we currently do to reflect what we want our reports to say about student learning.
Rubrics should be shared with the students and used throughout the inquiry process as a formative continuum for success. Here, the students are using the rubric again, at the “end” of the PYP Exhibition, to track what they did and how they feel it went.