Think back to what you remember learning at school or university. What forms the most powerful memories? Was it a particular lesson, or a particular project?
The focus of project-based learning is primarily on the students’ abilities to drive their own learning, rather than be solely teacher-led. The Buck Institute of Education is recognised as bringing the practice to prominence and its website both defines and promotes the pedagogy.
I am fortunate to teach at a school with enthusiastic students and staff, engaged parents and a supportive administration. There is much to support project-based learning in my classroom: relatively small classes, high level access to technology and 1:1 laptops, and a curriculum emphasis upon interdisciplinary approaches.
However, there lie many challenges ahead. Working at an international school in a built-up urban area (and it doesn’t get much more built-up than Japan’s Kanto Plains) means space can be extremely tight. I have watched the extraordinary model for project-based learning, High Tech High in San Diego, with both admiration and, well quite frankly – longing – for its tremendous amount of space.
I also worry about the time needed for effective collaborative planning, in addition to the acceptance of this approach by colleagues. Not only this, but how do you implement project-based learning in 35 or 40 minute single lesson blocks?
The final obstacle I should consider is myself. I love teaching, yet the danger of this is also being too in love with the sound of my own voice. The tendency or urge to lead every activity and every conversation is probably familiar to many teachers. With a greater emphasis on project-based learning, I could not only reduce my own interference but also enable students to pose their own questions, investigate as a matter of habit, and to also reverse the roles and teach me, another learner in the classroom.
Project-based learning in Middle School English
Earlier in the year I wrote about a Grade 6 film study, thinking ahead to ways of adapting the unit. The students get started this week and hopefully they will benefit from some of the changes I’ve put in place. We’ll be trying out different camera shots and techniques before studying them onscreen. Several keen directors in the making have already bounced up to me in class, excitedly flourishing examples of their filming and the effects they’ve added.
Weather permitting, we should be able to go outside and explore the environment, in addition to setting up our own – as each student becomes, albeit briefly, a movie-maker. If I can just get my hands on a megaphone or two that would be splendid.
It’s interesting to read the Wikipedia definition of this term. A key aim is stated as being to “increase student engagement, especially for students most at risk of dropping out”. This, as with much web-based pedagogy, focuses more on a national education (usually U.S.) than international. Every school has disengaged or disaffected students, but I would not describe the majority of those I teach in this way.
The Apple-initiated pedagogy inevitably promotes the use of technology yet does so persuasively. There is also a much needed emphasis on reality and our increased ability to connect with different people and nations. The buzzword of “real world” – issues, connections, experiences, experts, – is directly linked to meaningful and relevant learning. The dull cliche of “with power comes responsibility” suddenly shines when applied in this new way, to the students.
I view challenge-based learning as being well suited to Humanities, particularly when looking at the examples offered in the New Media Consortium (pg. 11). However, I also see it as being a potential way of strengthening links between my subject and others at school. A future High School Language and Literature class could work alongside Theory of Knowledge in a language ‘investigation’. The project could be to plan and prepare for a legal trial, with the objective of ‘cross-examining’ language used by a particular reporter, politician, or other influential person. Perhaps I should see if we can arrange a video conference with a lawyer or two…
More questions than answers
Warning: multiple questions coming up (apologies).
Who sets the curriculum? I’m intrigued by the blurring of boundaries and borders which ubiquitous technology enables: does this also apply to education in a national school system? Might educators use challenge-based learning to actually investigate the curriculum itself? Should schools have the freedom to adapt according to their community and cohort? Does a nationwide curriculum, even if dramatically changed, suit all schools and support all students?
Further thought: national curriculum is conventionally driven by government and political agenda, whereas international curriculum is driven by the curriculum body… does changing the pedagogy mean all schools become independent? How do many of the educational reformers as profit-making companies fit into all of this?