Taking Learning from Blah to Ah-ha!

In the  Introduction to Project Based Learning booklet, Buck Institute defines standards-focused PBL as a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.

Many teachers cringe at the thought of Project Based Learning because what comes to mind is an end project that does not add enough value for the extra time to be worth while. Another fear is that projects create chaos in the classroom and that the teacher won’t be able to maintain control over the learning outcomes, assessments, and rigor.

When talking with teachers I often reference the visual below to assure them that PBL is a twist on what they are already doing, and won’t require abandoning the many effective strategies they already have in place.

Image courtesy of New Tech Network via newtechnetwork.org
Image courtesy of New Tech Network via newtechnetwork.org

John Larmer, in an Edutopia article, explains that many of the (fill-in-the-blank)-Based Learning models that have cropped up over the years are, at the foundation, very similar.

The term “project learning” derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918. At BIE, we see project-based learning as a broad category which, as long as there is an extended “project” at the heart of it, could take several forms or be a combination of:

  • Designing and/or creating a tangible product, performance or event
  • Solving a real-world problem (may be simulated or fully authentic)
  • Investigating a topic or issue to develop an answer to an open-ended question

So according to our “big tent” model of PBL, some of the newer “X-BLs” — problem-, challenge- and design-based — are basically modern versions of the same concept.

Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning are the most often interchanged terms. BIE has “decided to call problem-based learning a subset of project-based learning” because project-BL can be framed as a project “to solve a problem.”

Image courtesy of John Lamer via Edutopia.org
Image courtesy of John Lamer via Edutopia.org

We’ve been dabbling in PBL for about a year now in our elementary school and I thought I’d take this week’s learning and direct it towards a regionally collaborative project I created last year for 4th grade called Together in the GCC. The project was successful last year on many levels, but when reflecting after the project finished, the participating teachers felt that a more authentic end product would be helpful for the students to maintain their interest and use the information they gathered throughout the project.

The lynch pin to a PBL unit is the authentic task presented at the beginning to guide learning and motivate participants with a meaningful context. Knowing Fiona Al Rowiaie is a long time resident of Bahrain, I asked her to help me brainstorm an authentic task that would require knowledge of the GCC countries and Council, as well as take the project from a globally collaborative project to a PBL-globally collaborative project. There has been talk of a train to connect the GCC countries, so we decided to start there.

Image courtesy of SpLoT at en.wikipedia
Image courtesy of SpLoT at en.wikipedia

We settled on a final project for teams to propose a GCC train route with 10 stops. The team would need to identify the 10 cities they think are best suited for the train stops within the 6 GCC countries. When choosing the cities, they would need to consider the cities’ geographical interests, cultural interests, population, industry interests, historical interests, and environmental interests. Teams would create Google Maps with the stations and present their route and city choices in a video. The videos would hopefully include visuals and evidence to persuade the audience of their route. There are too many kids to have one overall winner, so we will have several groups vote on the winning proposal. We will however, collect and report the most popular choices for the train stops; and who knows, maybe sometime soon we’ll get to see how close we are to the ‘real’ decision?

We plan to allow 2 weeks for the teams to create and share their final project; therefore the first 3 weeks would be targeted towards gathering and sharing information about the cities in the GCC countries in order to equip students to make informed decisions on the train stops.

This project will take place after Winter Break, so I’ll check back in to report our progress and reflections.