Monday, January 30, 2017

Why Project Based Learning?

Regular readers will recognize that I'm relatively new to the Project-Based Learning (PBL) method of inquiry outlined by BIE, but not new to the approach.  Looking back on the Cultures Projects my high school students completed nearly a decade ago when I asked them to research an issue currently facing a non-western culture, do something to help that issue by connecting with organizations working on it, and then present their research to our school community, I can see clear connections to the PBL approach in my earlier curriculum designs. Whether you call it project-based learning, authentic assessment, passion-driven inquiry, connected learning, or flipped learning - all of these approaches circle back to the idea that students are at the center of their learning. Students need choice in their inquiry topics and voice in how to share their work with a real audience.  Voice. Choice. Purpose.  These are the cornerstones of the project-based approach.

I have had the opportunity the past couple months to teach the PBL approach alongside my principal to interested teachers in my building during our faculty meeting time. We've crafted driving questions, discussed group dynamics, and brainstormed community connections for our authentic audiences. A number of teachers are getting ready to try their first PBL designed unit in the coming weeks. Excitement and anxiety are swirling. And not just for our teachers. This is not only a new approach for teachers in our building, but it is an entirely new approach for our students as well.

In anticipation of sharing the PBL approach with my colleagues, I designed a mini-PBL project for my tenth grade honors students as an example of what the PBL process looks like in action. In November, my students and I took a hike, circling around our school, wading through milkweed meadows and climbing pine trees.  Why? For our unit on texts focused on the theme of "The Natural World." We were looking for inspiration. Students read works by Barbara Kingsolver, Emma Marris, Walt Whitman, and more.  We used our texts as mentors to guide our thinking and inquiry. And then I presented our driving question: "What is a local environmental issue that you can address?"  We used our nature walks as inspiration to look carefully at what was impacting our local environment.  We noticed butterflies and bees, trees and bats, garbage and water pollution.  So we had to do something to help.

Why project-based learning?  Here's why:

Maddie, Camryn, Amanda, Trinity and Maddie researched and built bee hives with the help of their science teacher.

And, here's why:

Students have real purpose and real audiences for the research they took on. My students taught elementary school students, interviewed hunters, built beehives, made posters to stop littering and promote recycling, tested our drinking water quality, and so much more.

This is what learning should look like.

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