One Step Further down the PBL Trail

Last April I came across a great post by Rhonda Hill titled, How Districts Help Teachers See Stepping Stones to Project Based Learning. The title caught my eye, as I am in the process of helping teachers shift their practices to be more student centered and authentic through the use of PBL units.

Reading through Rhonda’s advice, I came across a phrase that totally shifted my thinking and my approach to coaching teachers:

PBL is more of a dimmer than an on/off switch

In theory PBL makes perfect sense. Have a read through Edutopia’s elevator speech to see what I mean:

PBL is the act of learning through identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Kids show what they learn as they journey through the unit, not just at the end.

The difficulty comes when trying to think through a full blown PBL unit that takes hours of pre-planning and a huge paradigm shift. Hence the reluctance to jump in head first.

At start the year, I presented an intro to PBL at orientation that was built around the idea of ‘turning up the dimmer.’ Instead of our original idea – jumping into the planning of a PBL unit – my team and I decided that we would first show that many of the eight essential elements can already be scene in practice throughout the school.

At the end of the workshop, we had great feedback! Teachers were asked to complete the phrase “I used to think ___ and now I think___” about PBL, as our formative assessment and their exit ticket. Here are a few responses:


Homework Disruption

Warning – Hot Topic!

Picture courtesy of Woodleywonderworks via Flickr
Picture courtesy of Woodleywonderworks via Flickr

Homework, especially for elementary students, has been under heavy scrutiny lately in the media. There are articles about schools who have discontinued it altogether, data that shows limited or no positive effects, suggestions of how to make it more authentic and choice based, and even warnings of how homework kills students’ love of learning.

As part of the Elementary Leadership Team (ELT) at my school, I suggested to the group that we rethink our homework practices mainly because I am the parent of two elementary students who absolutely hate homework! I knew if I – a teacher who had always believed in the value of responsibility and practicing skills at home – was now questioning my longtime beliefs from ‘the other side of the fence,’ there must be other dissatisfied parents who fight the daily battle of homework for no evidence of its benefit.

In discussion with the ELT, it was determined that there were many reasons we needed to reevaluate our homework as an elementary school:

  • Inconsistency:  Across the grade levels, and even within a grade level partners, we knew there were inconsistencies in the amount of homework given; homework being assigned on weekends or holidays; homework packets or online accounts (i.e. IXL or RAZ Kids); some paraprofessionals grade homework and hand it back; some teachers mark homework themselves and provide feedback; some teachers rely only on the data provided from the online accounts; some teachers made students complete unfinished work at recess; others sent notes home or took away class points; others did not have a consequence.
  • Research: We are aware of a growing body of data that questions the effectiveness of homework in elementary grades.
  • Parent Complaints: Our principal confirmed that she had been fielding a growing number of complaints from parents about their frustrations with homework. Some parents felt it was too much and their kids were unable to participate in after school activities. Some complained that they never saw the packets come back to determine if they and their child had done it correctly. A few even asked for more homework. Some families with multiple children or twins, noted many differences between the class policies and practices around homework.
  • Does it Support our Beliefs: Most importantly, we decided to take on this hot topic because we wanted to make sure that our homework guidelines and practices support our beliefs around student centered education, standards based assessment and reporting, relevancy and authenticity in education, and the development of the whole child.

We have a school wide ‘Guiding Document’ about homework that is actually pretty solid and leaves room for teachers to personalize their homework practices, while still following the general guidelines. The problem is that we need to do the work that must happen in between the rules and the practice in order to make it attainable for the teachers. While there are already many differing opinions at my school, admin has made it clear that discontinuing homework is not an option.

IMG_4081The ELT team decided that we would use the Design Process again, similar to the way we had redesigned our ePortfolios last year. In order for us to get past our own ideas, The Design Process works well for our team to rethink ‘sacred cows‘. To begin, the Empathy Stage forces us to examine our practices through the eyes of our customers – students and parents. In our first session of ‘Re-Thinking Homework’, we gathered in groups comprised of colleagues from different sections (i.e. early childhood, grades 1-2, grades 3-5, Arabic, and specials) and went through several scenarios that depicted a range of parent and student issues around homework. Here are two examples:

Child One is a native Arabic speaker, and for Arabic homework, the student must read each day for 15 minutes, journal once a week, and occasionally practice spelling words. Parent One feels this is very important work, and doesn’t want to cut back on Arabic homework. Child One has homeroom homework to read for 20 minutes, as well as practice pages and/or website problems in math, and sometimes writing. Most of the time the child is able to do the homework independently, so the parent is unsure how the child is doing on the homework. Child One is very active in after school activities and sports, but after the drive home, it is now 5:30. The family finds it very difficult to get the child’s homework done, eat dinner, get ready for bed, and get the child to sleep by 8. This schedule also leaves no time for Child One to choose to play outside, a game with the family, Legos, or watch a show.

Child Two is naturally inquisitive, often looking up information on the internet about various interests and reporting back to his parents and teachers all that he’s learned. Child Two is very interested in gaming and computer coding. He has been learning how to do these things at home on his own. Parents fight with him daily to do his homework, and although the homework is very easy for the child, he’s unmotivated to do it. Child Two is very active and is often up moving around the room, speaking out of turn, and needs redirection to return to tasks. At school the child is required to stay in at recess to finish the work.

As they read through all the scenarios, the teams determined wants and needs of the parents and students, and wrote them on sticky notes – one idea per note. After the teams had read through the scenarios, we sorted all the ideas into groups (the Define Stage). The major ‘wants and needs’ identified were:

  • Differentiated
  • Guidance and support
  • Communication
  • Feedback
  • Flexible Timings
  • More choice and interest
Ideate Stage

In our second session, we did a carousel activity to add practical ideas to accommodate the wants and needs identified in our last session. After everyone had the chance to add their ideas, we also heard from a couple teachers who were already trying some new homework strategies with their class. One teacher shared several easy strategies that were used to meet the wide ranging needs in her class. For example, she posts her homework each night to her webpage and links the assignments to the external programs that differentiates by readiness and reports valuable data without her marking anything. She also always assigns a time limit, rather than a problem limit; some students might complete 10 problems in 15 minutes and other might only get through 5. The next teacher, from grade 5, had recently started to use passion projects for homework. He showed us the contracts and instructions he had developed, and also reported great success and enthusiasm from his students.TweetDeck

In our next session, keeping in mind our results from the previous stages, grade levels will develop prototypes of our homework plans. We will participate in another carousel to provide “2 Stars & a Wish” to give each other feedback or even gain a few more ideas.

Changes are already being tested! Photo courtesy of @DeidraWest3 via Twitter
Changes are already being tested!
Photo courtesy of @DeidraWest3 via Twitter

I have always thought that big changes were best tested at the end of a year so that I could come back in the fall with a solid plan. Similarly, the elementary teachers have agreed to put in place their prototypes for the month of May (Test Stage!) and gather feedback at the end of the year from both students and parents. The whole elementary school will also meet at the end of the year to discuss our findings in order to inform a “official” and more detailed elementary homework agreement.

This process has been lengthy and, at times, uncomfortable, but I know it’s been worth it. For the most part, all of the teachers have been excited about this process and agree that we can’t ignore this issue.  Youki Terada of Edutopia says it perfectly:

The question isn’t about homework vs. no homework; instead, we should be asking ourselves, “How can we transform homework so that it’s engaging, relevant, and supports learning?” 

I look forward to reporting back on our final agreement.

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
Image courtesy of New Tech Network via

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
Image courtesy of John Lamer via

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.