PBL & Standards

Ponderings from a recent #edchat about PBL and Standards–can PBL be used effectively to prepare students for high stakes testing.

What’s Known as Old Style Learning

“sat in class, memorized as much as you could, and tried to pass a test at the end”

This quote is from a short video on PBL learning found on a blog post about PBL and Standards. The video explains why project based learning should be used in schools everywhere. The video starts by explaining what school used to be. It doesn’t seem to be that far from the truth. However, I don’t remember ever teaching that way and I struggle to remember if I taught with any teachers who taught that way.

My first teaching experience came in a district in the very southwest corner of Arizona where we had a large population of English Language Learners. As a member of, first the elementary district, and then the secondary district, our professional development consisted of interactive strategies to engage learners from the get go. My lessons varied from lecture punctuated by questions from and to students to project based multi-genre projects integrating language arts, drama, literature, art, social studies and more. In fact, I worked hard to NOT have frequent tests or expect the students to waste time reading an entire textbook.

Are there really teachers out there who do?

This is a thought that occurred to me frequently when I taught in a more traditional setting. Now that I am in a non-traditional (full PBL school) I actually feel MORE pressure to “teach to the test” then I ever did as a “traditional teacher.” I struggle to understand why, but that’s for another post.

As @stumpteacher puts it in a recent #edchat

“Tests are the destination in most places. PBL is just one of many potential routes to get there.”

This is what I must adapt as my mindset–PBL is a route to get there.

Adults Live in a World of Projects

I was attracted to project based learning because of the need I saw in my students to learn HOW TO LEARN, not just learn the facts and content. The life skill needed was directly related to knowing how to learn anything once they were outside of my classroom.

Project based learning “deepens knowledge and builds skills for the future.” Students in PBL classrooms learn how to analyze, apply, and create things, rather than just learning or memorizing the facts of the content areas. PBL has been a mainstay in traditional schools for a long time–art courses, building trades courses, and more all lend themselves to project based learning. Now, with high stakes testing taking over the curriculum, some teachers fear failing to meet the expectations of the tests and move more towards “traditional schooling.”

@CTuckerEnglish points out during the same #edchat:

To effectively shift paradigm to move students from receivers of info to generators of info, PBL makes most sense.

My School’s Story

Project based learning can be big or small. Our school has seen a different iteration of PBL 5 or 6 times, since I began teaching here last year. It keeps changing for many reasons and each iteration builds off the previous ones. For us, our biggest voice in changing HOW we do PBL has been our students. Students have been open and honest about what has worked and what doesn’t. They offer advice on how to structure our day and their work.

I have heard several students discuss the benefits of our school with others and it’s never about the freedom from a schedule or the difference in time (we don’t start school until 9), it’s always about how they are LEARNING the material. Students talk about how before they have never felt they learned things in traditional classrooms because the teachers just keep moving on before they had a chance to really learn something. Here they work with content and concepts UNTIL they feel they have mastered it. In fact, one student today hit the nail on the head in a random off the cuff conversation.

“I learned it best when I studied it, took notes on it, did some problems, and then taught it to another student. I kept reading and taking notes, but it didn’t really make sense until I taught it to the other kid.”

Kids know the benefits. Kids need the benefits. It’s up to us adults to provide what is needed.

PBL has been uncomfortable for me and for others as @QZLPatriotHawk points out “PBL is tough for many because it means to be effective you have to give up control.” The control I have trouble releasing doesn’t have to do with the classroom environment or the actual content, it is more in how it is structured. I have never been the “sage on the stage,” but I have felt that I needed to know what would happen and in what order and with what resources.  I have learned to release that control to the students and it has worked to their benefit. We have spent much of this year alone getting students to value the process of Project Based Learning–that it is a journey and there is no real destination.

@cfanch says it best with

PBL when done correctly is a process not an end product. It includes testing and other forms of assessment. Inquiry is the key.

Intriguing Ideas

Two similar ideas from the chat, which caught my attention:

@anderscj 2 align PBL with standards u 1st have 2 stop asking what activity meets this standard & ask what standards were met by that project

@anderscj Flip the alignment process. Do alignment as a kind of checklist. Otherwise, PBL becomes just another form of prescriptive teaching.

This is something I struggle with on a daily basis. At my school I am responsible for making sure students meet their curricular requirements for all courses through PBL. My “expertise” lies in the social studies and language arts. I can build projects through and around these areas with no problem. But, sometimes I get caught in a trap when I try starting with the standards and build projects from that perspective. When in a traditional classroom, I didn’t “start with the standards.” I knew what my content area was and what the important concepts (note-I did not say facts) were and would build projects around Essential Questions about the important concepts.

Here in my current setting, which is supposed to be ultra-nontraditional I have been made to feel like I have been creating projects wrong without first consulting the standards and building around those. I am more successful if I look at a project AFTER it has begun and look at what standards I am hitting through the project.

It would be interesting to hear what others think.

Another interesting point:

@mssanderson_ITS RT @stumpteacher: In my experience too many teacher focus on the “P” rather than the “L” in PBL. #edchat Learning must be focus.

The few times I have shied away from PBL is when I see PROJECTS, but little learning involved. At one school, during a PD session, we were asked to emulate another teacher’s project experience. What she ended up with in the end were BEAUTIFUL biology related books “created” by students. As these books were being passed around, it was clear to see that the students simply copy and pasted information AND images into Publisher formatting. The writing was not their own, so they never had to internalize the material. The images were not their own, they simply did Google searches and grabbed images. There was no citing of sources. When asked what the students learned, the PD presenter said they learned the material in the books. When asked how she knew this (the presenter was NOT the teacher who assigned the work) she told us to “just look at the beautiful products in your hands.” When she was confronted with the obvious copy/paste work (there were several indicators, first of which was different text fonts and colors and hyperlinking in the finished product AND the clearly academic writing most of our kids still couldn’t handle) she moved on to another topic.

Projects must be grounded in authentic learning. Students who participated in last year’s Civic Mirror project for government class didn’t have much “pretty” to show for it, but they did learn about the processes our governments go through. Many students are still referencing their learning from that project this year. The learning was the focus, not the “pretty,” look at me products.

And another…

@erinneo @cybraryman1 @rliberni I hold fast to the belief that schools ARE the real world. My world, yours and the students. 7 hrs/24

And when did we ever get to a point where school was NOT the real world?

I have fallen prey to the “getting kids ready for the real world,” but then reflected much on the fact that this is their real world for most of the first 13+ years of life. I believe one of the reasons school IS such a hard sell today’s youth is because we keep painting the picture that the “real world” is out there waiting for them. The fact is, the real world is kicking them in the rear now and we are doing a disservice if we are not preparing them to do well NOW, in the moment. The same skills and knowledge they need for the future is what they need now.

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