Friday, April 15, 2011

Choose Your Own (PBL) Adventure

Jane recently described the travel metaphors we like to use in professional development settings where we’re introducing teachers to project-based learning. We advise travelers who are new to PBL that they may encounter some turbulence and occasional detours ahead, but also unanticipated wonders.

This week I happened to read two dispatches from thoughtful teachers who are on quite different journeys with project-based learning. One is moving full-steam-ahead, teaching core content through challenging projects. She seems to have good support from colleagues and coaches. The other, restricted by a test-prep school culture, is making side trips into PBL—but only with only some students, and only some of the time.

Shelley Wright, high school teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, writes a series of posts to describe how an ambitious Holocaust museum project has unfolded. Part 1 describes her decision to “take the plunge” and part company with familiar teaching practices. (Spoiler alert: There’s no yellow brick road. Doubts emerge. But courage and patience win the day.) In Part 2, initially wary students warm up to their new role as creators; our traveler gets more comfortable in her new role as co-learner. She reports, “To be honest, this project is so interesting, I want to be part of it. I want to help make and design it, and I’ve never had that impulse while teaching before.” In Part 3, empowered students race the clock to prepare their museum exhibits for a showcase event. Shelley comes up for air long enough to offer three nuggets of wisdom that are guiding her PBL journey: improvise, learn the hard way, and don’t regret.

Steven Davis is in his tenth year teaching high school English in an urban setting in northern California. In a guest post on Larry Cuban’s blog, Steven describes the learning that is happening not during regular class time, but instead through less formal experiences before school and during lunch. That’s when he invites a group of students who are English language learners to take part in hands-on activities. These aren’t full-blown projects, but they give students time and opportunity to experience things like curiosity and persistence. As he considers what students are gaining from learning to use a soldering iron or assemble electronic kits, Steven reflects, “The project has been less about teaching than it has been about providing students with mentoring, tools, and the setting in which they can learn for themselves.” He ends by considering, “Who knows where project-based learning experiences will lead?”

Sounds like more PBL adventures await. More postcards, please!