Saturday, September 8, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Being the Change

By Indy Kethday
It's a sunny fall day in a parking lot at the head of a town nature trail. The community service project, that students proposed and planned is underway. The students are building a bridge. Well, they are supposed to be, anyway.  This morning, they are bickering. One boy is ordering others around. You can see the resentment rising off the others. (You can hear it in some of the language that rises, too.) The number days allotted to this project is dwindling fast. The town parks and rec director expects that there's going to be a bridge installed. The requirement for credit is that there's going to be a bridge installed. These are seniors in high school. Their first quarter grades will go into their college applications. There's got to be a bridge installed.  

As the deadline looms, you cannot forget that parents, already unsure of the wisdom of allowing their child to attend an alternative program, see you as THE Teacher, the Responsible One. By the end of the year, they will see things differently. But not yet, not this early in the year. What if that bridge doesn't get installed? You begin to wake up at night in a small panic. 

This was one of my early experiences with project-based learning. It was valuable, for sure, but a tough process to go through. Here are some things I wish I'd known.
  • Expect drama. Not intentional drama, but whenever you do something differently, people-- students and teachers-- can become unsettled. Students get mad for a variety of reasons: they have to think, they have to think for themselves, they have to interact meaningfully with others, they have to do meaningful work that adds to the whole effort. They can also get really excited, in a Mt. Vesuvias sort of way. This is not always popular with other teachers. 
  • Prepare for angst-- your own. True project-based learning means letting go of typical ways of planning for classes, interacting with students, grading. This also means devising new practices. This is easier said than done, because new practices emerge from transformed beliefs, usually about the purposes of school, your subject, the role of the teacher, etc. 
  • It's OK for students to fail. Really. One motto at our school used to be Failure is just feedback. The real question was, what worked, what didn't, and what will you do differently next time? And/or, what will you do now to make it right? It's exciting when kids start to see how their choices and attitudes come home to roost in the quality of their learning, their work, their relationships with classmates. Writing as a tool for reflection makes a great standard practice.
  • Help kids learn how to learn-- the metacognitive aspect of learning is an essential part of project-based learning. Reflection is an essential part of that.
  • Set clear boundaries from the beginning. Why? Because when kids hear a good reason for a fair policy or expectation, they can accept it; eventually the policy/expectation becomes not a weight to bear (or resist) but another way for them to engage in learning how to learn-- if you set it up this way from the start. (No, I do not ask kids to make class  rules, usually because it's a meaningless process unless the kids will be an active part of dealing with the outcomes of broken rules.) These are tiny examples of a system that will stand up under those moments when failure seems imminent (see #3 and #1 above):
    • Rules for discussion. Mine are, one person talks at a time. Why? Because everyone has something to bring to the table therefore everyone deserves to be heard. (The corollary of this is, the project needs everyone to succeed, so everyone has to find ways to bring their best stuff to the table.) I start with a raise hands policy, but it doesn't take long for students to propose other ways of doing things. Fine, but there has to be a check-in about how that method is helping the class achieve its goals. 
    • Completing work: handed in via a box on my desk or online by a specific time, or, according to what a project team decides. Why? If I collect it, that makes me responsible for it. In the real world, if you're late for a plane or train, that's not the pilot's responsibility-- that plane takes off, that train still leaves the station. 
  • Be very clear about your expectations from the start, everything from behavior and ways of treating each other to the quality of work.
  • Ask yourself, over and over, who owns the learning? How does your project structure support that? 
So, what will you do? You could step in and facilitate a discussion. You could sit back and wait for the situation to come to a head in its own time. You could suggest a couple of specific steps they might want to consider and hope that gives them something to focus on.  Would you let them miss the deadline?  If they miss it, what will you ask the kids to do-- will they be the ones to meet with the parks & rec manager? To speak frankly with parents about what happened? 

<-- You Are Here by Jeremy Price
I think I tried to "steer" them toward effective action. That may have gotten the project completed, but I now think that all it taught them was that they really couldn't  be responsible for their learning. I had not yet learned #3. 

Today,  I'd probably call a meeting and present them with what I observe, my concerns, and ask i f I could help in any way. I would tell them some ways I could help and then I would let them decide. I would also be very clear that it would be up to them to talk with parks & rec manager, parents, anyone else involved, about what happened.  And, I would probably write Incomplete on the report cards until the bridge was done-- because, no matter what, it would need to be finished, on their own time if necessary. 

Project-based learning has the potential to be a game-changer, if we make changes in our expectations, approaches, beliefs, etc. I fear that otherwise it's just a different way of doing the same old thing.

Photo credits: 
Indy Kethday, used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
<--You Are Here by Jeremy Price used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

No comments:

Post a Comment