This past Thursday, Ms. C–one of the two science teachers I’m doing the praxis of PBL alongside–launched her senior oceanography students into their first day of project research. Technically, she had already launched the project. While the launch was not ‘glitzy,’ getting their input into the shape of the project, its rubric, and knowing their audience pulled them into the project nonetheless. If you have ever taught at a high school, then you know that at this point in the year seniors have a tendency to start to mentally checking out of their classes. Many have found out what schools they have gotten into for next year, which may contribute to the malaise many seniors find themselves the last quarter of the year. Whatever the case, Ms. C knew she would be up against her students’ potential lethargy. To assuage her concern, contacted our cluster elementary schools and asked if their students could act as an audience for Ms. C’ s students’ project work–the answer was a resounding ‘yes.’ The built in audience of elementary school students–while it does not guarantee participation–should help keep her students motivated. Really, that is the case with any project. Without a a touch of authenticity or real audience, skeptical and reluctant students alike will not find PBL any more relevant than the worksheets they are still given.
With a very real audience in place, Ms. C presented her students with a project calendar and guidance on how to initially conduct their research on the human impact on various aquatic habitats. When I visited her classroom, I was impressed to see many students in the class engaged in the initial research, considering it was the day before spring break. Certainly, there were students doing minimal work and clearly awaiting the final bell of the day, but overall Ms. C’s students worked diligently to get their background information ready.
Up to the is point, I know I have really explained why their are doing this research or really why elementary age students are involved. Eventually, I will share Ms. C’s project documents so you can see them in totality, but for now the goal of the project is to create interactive (think kid museum-like) displays of various aquatic habitats that highlight concerns with human impact on those environments. These students are to research their habitat and issue at high, analytical level, but then synthesize that information into a children’s interactive display for our elementary students. Here, pointing out this to a large degree is more problem-based learning, is important. But it is also completely okay! When taking on PBL instruction and facilitation for the first few times, working through a problem with variability in the final product is a nearly perfect place to start. Problem-based projects have a clear intended ending and works on developing the same skills project-based, open-ended projects do–collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. Both the teacher and students have a sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it, which can come across as unclear in project-based learning at first.
As a reminder, PBL is messy because life is messy! The whole reason to use PBL as an instructional practice and approach is to expose students to authentic problem solving and purposeful critical thinking. While we can get to some of that in more traditional teaching, PBL is used with the explicit purpose of developing 21st century skills while also helping a student dive deeper into an aspect of a curriculum.
In the coming weeks, I will have more updates from Ms. C and her students, including sharing her planning documents, calendars, and getting a bit of reflection directly from her. I also recently learned Ms. S, the chemistry teacher I am working alongside, is going to do a project this semester after all. More on her work soon.