Monday, February 23, 2009

PBL: Do We Need to Take Baby Steps?

Administrators in my district seem to understand that change is gradual. The most recent focus is on differentiated instruction (PBL has not hit town yet—at least not in name). Add a differentiated lesson this year and another one next year. Engage in data-driven decision making. The “yeah, buts” are assured of the need to only take “baby steps.”

After reading/viewing all this information on PBL, I think teachers in my district are the lucky ones. Our technology coordinator is a ‘friend’ with a vision. He truly supports technology in every way. Since enrolling in this class, I asked for a wiki and got one. I asked for a blogging setup for a 6th grade language arts teacher, and within days students were sharing their writing. At this point, if we want access to go beyond Bownet, the district’s server, its a matter of making the request, with an assumption that the teacher will ultimately be responsible for students’ cyber behavior.

Prior to all these readings/viewings on PBL, I have only known the basics. The examples provided in the readings--The Wealth of Nations, Beyond the Border, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, for example, incorporate different standards and content areas. How can one argue against the need to integrate and apply instruction to real-world situations?

I was particularly interested in the assessment component. Group projects are not new; they’ve been part of teaching for years. As a parent, I hated them. Not because of any lack of learning that went on (it was typically all that it was supposed to be—engaging, inspirational, thought-provoking, real world, etc.), but with busy schedules, it was difficult to coordinate. In my opinion, PBL opportunities should be focused more in the classroom and less on homework where oftentimes parental influence on outcome is too great. I particularly remember when my son (freshman at the time) was assigned a group project (group grade) with an assigned teammate, who was not interested in doing homework. Period. When I talked to the teacher about my concerns, she said getting others to do their fair share was a good skill for my son to develop because he would face the same situation in the workplace. No, he wouldn’t, I countered. The lazy worker would not last in the workplace. My main point was that when his partner was in middle school, we could not get him to come to school, yet it was my son’s responsibility to make him work?

Which leads me to the topic of group grades and Howard Gardner’s take on multiple intelligences and assessment in schools. What a beautiful point he made regarding assessment in sports and music. It would be nice to see students working toward a goal without the stress of the final grade. So what if the mousetrap car didn’t perform as well as it should have? Let the designers have another go at it. I think the paralyzed perfectionists would allow themselves to be much more creative if the outcome was not about the numeric grade. It should be about the process as much as the final product. We should be encouraging them to take academic risks. At BMS, we are investigating standards-based report cards (but have been told parents will continue to expect numerical grades as well). Once again, more work. Why can’t one replace the other?

PBL is about collaboration, integration, and developing higher level thinking skills. It has a place in all content areas and at all grade levels. Yet, to me, some subjects lend themselves better to it than others. For example, the science classroom and PBL go hand in hand. Students have had lab partners for years. The math teacher, on the other hand, is probably more worried about all the individual skills that need to be taught for those normed assessments (as a former math teacher, I understand this way of thinking). Somehow we need to strike a balance. We don’t have block scheduling at my school, so that does limit the possibilities for PBL. Given the ‘relevance and rigor’ of lessons that are delivered around me, I’m thinking that there is lot of PBL going on, but nobody calls it by name.

I look forward to finding mini-PBL activities for my computer literacy classes (4 different grades). I only have students for 22 days each year. How can I fit it all in? My role with promoting PBL in my school will likely be the ‘sharer’ of ideas with the regular classroom teachers and helping them execute the plan.

Given that the tools of communication and research are at students’ fingertips, I see technology playing a major role in PBL. From using probes to collecting data to researching, technology should be readily available. I’m confident we can meet the standards and find the time for PBL, allowing the students to collaborate while teachers give up some control of the classroom to make PBL a part of their students’ learning environment. We continually take baby steps in education; maybe it’s time to take a few strides.

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