Friday, March 20, 2009

The Proof is in the Project

Project based learning is deeply seated in research as an effective way to engage students and produce better test scores. As the body of research builds, I decided to do a little research on my own. What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)? If you’d like to see PBL in action, spend some time with Mrs. Abernethy’s Global Gorillas. Whether students are reading, performing science experiments, or preparing for the state standardized test, students are deeply engrossed in a collaborative, project-based environment. How do they feel about this type of learning? View the results of a recent survey below.

Survey in a Google Document

Survey Analysis

1. When asked whether technology has helped them learn better, students responded unanimously, “yes.”
2. Given the choice between a paper-pencil test and a project for a grade, 83% chose project.
3. Students were asked which they would prefer to do the most to help them learn. Their choices and responses are as follows: read a book (15%), have the teacher tell you (12%), or work in a group (73%).
4. Students were given a list of projects they participated in this school year, and they were asked to choose the project they liked the most. A description of the projects and the results are below:
a. Class Election: Students participated in a simulated election. Click to see how the election worked. Students participated in a primary, held convention parties, gave speeches, planned campaigns, and participated in debates. In addition, the electoral vote process was employed in the actual class election. Before the election took place, students went to the polls to see firsthand how it was done. Later in the week after watching Barack Obama get sworn into office, our new class president and vice president were sworn into office, too. To learn more about this project go to our Election Blog.
b. Literature Circle Projects: Students are required to read one novel per month. Each week students create projects to demonstrate comprehension of the novel they are currently reading. Students are given latitude to exercise their creativity and they really do. From web 2.0 tools to paper-pencil, regardless the medium, students show what they read. To learn more, please visit our Literature Circle Blog.
c. Dinosaur Collaboration: Our class does quite a few collaborative projects with Mrs. Blazosky’s first grade class in Clarion. This is one of those projects. Students have been collaborating to build a Dinosaur Blog. My fifth graders created projects to teach her students about dinosaurs. Her students responded with projects of their own. From movies to Toon-Doos, the multimedia is rich. In addition, the fifth graders edited posts done by their younger collaborators.
d. Morpheus Fortuna: A traveling bog turtle, Morpheus makes his rounds to various classrooms around the state of Pennsylvania. Students enjoyed their visit with Morpheus and created movies and more for his blog and wikispace. It was meaningful to them that other students in their state would be reading and viewing their projects.
e. PSSA Projects: Students created their own projects to give tips for PSSA test taking. They created movies, interactive Power Point presentations, and other media rich projects. They shared their knowledge with other test takers across the state on a PSSA Blog.

Student results were as follows:
a. Class Election: 34%. Although this project was done at the beginning of the year, students chose it as memorable. Some reasons given were personal in nature. For example: “We got to choose our class president.” “…I got to run for Class President and we got to do awesome commercials.” “I remember doing signs and voting for Cassie.” ”I was a candidate till the primaries.” In reality, the students probably remember this project so vividly because it was so real and correlated with real life happenings (the Obama election.)
b. Literature Circle Projects: 23%. Some comments include: “What made this project memorable was that you had to do one every week. And I would always try to make the best one I could.” “Because we did them so often and their were so many different things to do.” “I’ve done tons of stuff for it, easy and hard. I’ve done things I’m very proud of during Lit Circles.” In my opinion, the variety, the hard work, and the use of web 2.0 tools will be very valuable skills for these students in the future.
c. Dinosaur Collaboration: 19%. Student comments: “Dino project because I made a video.”
d. Morpheus Fortuna: 11%. Student comments: “He was awesome and so much fun to do projects on.” “…I liked taking him to music and gym..”
e. PSSA Projects: 11%. Student comments: “Because I had a lot of fun, I learned a lot, and I got to work with a friend.”

(To view more complete answers and answers to other questions, please take time to view the Google Document.)

What all of the student comments have in common is an enthusiasm for learning. Students enjoy working collaboratively with other students in their classroom and with others via the world wide web and video conferencing. In this day of state standardized testing, how do you justify project-based learning? Let’s turn that around. In this time of testing, how do we justify not using it? If you need further proof that project-based learning is effective, meaningful and worthwhile, please visit our website, and take a look around.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Exemplars of Project Based Learning

Exploration of Three Exemplars of Project Based Learning featuring:

“More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” - Diane Curtis, Edutopia

“Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” - Sara Armstrong, Edutopia

“March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies' Migration” - Diane Curtis, Edutopia

The Edutopia examples of project based learning run the range from first grade to high school, but they all share some common themes. Engaged learners, collaborating in real life problem solving abound regardless of the project or the age of the students. The projects cross multi-disciplinary boundaries and teach the learner a multitude of process skills. These include and are not limited to: planning, setting goals, researching, reporting, brainstorming, synthesizing, and presenting. In a project-based environment, content is based on what students wonder about. The curriculum is student driven and affords the learner real world experiences. It is an “I wonder” curriculum based on what students wonder about.

Although the projects appear to be student driven, the teacher plays a very real guiding role. Responsible for infusing curricular standards while maintaining a facilitative role is much more difficult than standing in front of the classroom. The teacher must be willing to think outside the box. Making connections from student interests to real world application and curriculum and standards don’t just happen. Time management and outside planning are crucial. The role of the teacher is to be supportive, encouraging, open-minded, and flexible. The art of active listening, providing resources, and process monitoring are just a few of the skills the facilitative leader of a project-based classroom needs. They need to be able to give up their own power for the good of empowering the learner. Creating life-long learners becomes the goal of a good facilitator. All in all, the teacher is a mentor and a coach that impacts student learning by creating authentic experiences for the students.

The students in a project-based classroom have a different role, too. No longer are they the passive digester of spoon fed knowledge. They must take responsibility for their learning in a way the traditional student never did. The students need to develop a desire to learn and key into their internal curious nature. The learners need to become creative problem solvers. The textbook no longer gives the answer to the problem. Communication, collaboration, and decision making are skills important to all students in a project-based classroom.

In all aspects of the three examples, students were given meaningful learning experiences. The projects they were a part of became a part of them. Given a paper pencil test at the end of each experience would most likely show that the students learned the skills teachers deemed necessary to meet curricular standards. What this paper pencil test would not show is the realistic relevance and depth of the student learning. The final products including verbal explanation and tangible products gave a much wider view of their learning. These were not experiences that would easily be forgotten after the “test.”

Creation of a Schoolyard Habitat

About nine years ago, my students and I embarked on a PBL (Project-Based Learning) experience. While learning about animals and their habitats, the class decided to create our own habitat for native species in our schoolyard. We began with a persuasive writing exercise to convince the schoolboard and administration to allow us to transform a part of school property. This was only the first of many letters the students wrote during the project. Letters to local business owners afforded us the opportunity to buy tools and plants for our project. Students even convinced businesses and individuals to donate plants, mulch and tools. A newsletter created by the students went home with with everyone in the school explaining the project and making the plea for help.

In addition to writing skills, students did research on multiple topics. They learned through the National Wildlife Federation that we could become certified as an official Schoolyard Habitat. I learned as an educator that there are national standards that can be met just by doing the project. I now had justification in case anyone questioned the validity of our project. After researching the requirements to become a certified schoolyard habitat, students began researching plants and animals native to our area. They also used mathematical skills to map out an area of the schoolyard to create the habitat.

After a lot of preparation, in the spring of 2000, the students were finally ready to break ground. A year later, the habitat was certified as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. Students were recognized in the local newspapers and we were interviewed on television by a local broadcast station.

The schoolyard habitat still lives today, and is maintained by my fifth grade class each year and students who volunteer to help during recess and after school. In addition, there is a schoolwide cleanup of the habitat in the spring on Earth Day. Go to our website to learn more about our Schoolyard Habitat or click below to watch the powerpoint.

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