Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Class 5: 09/08/11-Fundamentals of PBI-Barron/Krajcik & Blumenfeld
I will begin with a one paragraph summary of the class session and then describe it in a roughly chronological fashion. The major topic for the class session can be summarized by the question “What is Project Based Instruction (PBI)?” The content (particularly after the first few minutes) was also focused around two papers: Barron et al on the one hand and Krajcik and Blumenfeld on the other. The session consisted entirely of discussion: most of the time the entire class participated in a discussion together, but at one point the class was divided into table groups. There were four major points of discussion, all of which were introduced by Sara, who ran the class (Dr. Petrosino was unable to attend class). The direction of the discussion was visibly influenced by the questions and comments of the students. The four topics were: (1) the students’ prior experiences with projects, (2) a description of teaching practices that use projects but do not qualify as PBI, (3) a comparison of the two major schools of thought regarding PBI (as expressed by the papers), and (4) a discussion about the advantages and difficulties of implementing PBI.
Sara, after expressing the importance of the two papers, began class by asking the students to describe projects that they had completed previously. Specific projects that were described were: an at-home project in which students constructed a Styrofoam model of a cell, a project in which students designed drugs to fight cancer, AP English projects in which the student (according to her choices) drew pictures and made crossword puzzles, a project in which a student built a castle, and a physics project in which students designed containers to protect eggs as they were dropped from a substantial height. Many other students named characteristics of typical projects without describing any individual projects. According to all these comments, Sara wrote on the white board a list of typical projects characteristics: taking place at home or outside of class, allowing student socializing, encouraging fun, involving rubrics (some but not all), involving research (some but not all), eliciting creativity, often taking place after the lesson to which they related, and involving freedom.
Sara then informed that class that two major schools of thought exist in the educational research community surrounding PBI. The first is centered at the University of Michigan and the second at Vanderbilt University. She said that one of the papers the class read, Krajcik and Blumenfeld, was representative of the former and the other, Baron et al., was representative of the latter. She also said the two schools have many similarities but that they also have differences. After making this important point, she asked the class to engage in a discussion about characteristics of teaching is not PBI but still involves projects. Based on student comments, she wrote the following descriptions on the white board: involving busy work (defined by the class to be repetitive work that does not introduce new concepts), completely teacher-run, involving only passive learning (or only lecture), one-shot only (that is, not involving revisions), involving recipes or step-by-step instructions, individual, and containing a closed or fixed ending.
Sara then asked the class to discuss with their tables the differences and similarities between the two papers. After allowing for a few minutes, she asked the class to report the characteristics of the Baron et al. paper. The class named: (1) non-specific feed back and revision, (2) appropriate social groups, (3) learning appropriate goals, (4) scaffolding, and (5) real word content (these are recorded as named by the class, not as written in the paper). Regarding learning appropriate goals, Sara remarked that successful implementation can be deceptively difficult and she references the model rocket example from the paper.
Sara also asked the class what was meant by the word scaffolding and the class (and the TAs) eventually stated that scaffolding is any structure meant to assist the students (like the structure of a building). Some examples given were lessons, labs, activities, problems, having students hold meetings, and deadlines. These examples led to a discussion regarding the “hidden curriculum” of schools which is the attempt to teach “21st century skills” such as collaboration, numeracy, critical thinking, responsibility, etc. Some examples of this practice were mentioned by the students, such as a teacher requiring students to have a planner and to write down learning objectives. Both TAs stressed the important of this sort of teaching and Tara emphasized the importance of being explicit with the students that it is part of the learning objectives. They also highlighted the usefulness of having the schedule and/or current learning objectives hanging in the classroom. Sara said sometimes one can feel like they are treating the students too much like children but it is okay.
There was also a discussion about the importance of deadlines and both TAs said they were somewhat relaxed, but that it was important not to be too relaxed. Sara emphasized that teaching is “a balancing act,” and in this case the competing forces are a desire to let students slow down to learn more effectively or complete projects if they fall behind (a concern raised by a student) and the requirement to cover the scope of the curriculum. Prudie added that often in AISD, “curriculum roadmaps” are required, particularly in schools with low exam scores. Sara reported that her success with meeting curricular benchmarks led the district to give her more freedom. On the importance of deadlines, Prudie explained that the best philosophy depends greatly on the personality of the teacher: deadlines are very important to her and she is strict about them. Tara emphasized that, with regard to deadlines and in general, the first project will typically go poorly as both the students and the teacher need to adjust. She said that it’s important to have intermediate deadlines because otherwise students will try to do everything at the last minute, especially the students who are used to being successful.
After several minutes of this discussion (which stemmed from the characteristics of Baron et al), Sara refocused the class on the papers and asked the students to name the characteristics considered by Krajcik and Blumenfeld. Throughout the discussion, the students named: (1) social organization, (2) scaffolding, (3) technology, (4) tangible products, (5) a driving question, and (6) situated inquiry (the latter two were named after Sara prodded the class; she also asked what was meant by situated inquiry and a student responded that the projects should be related to real life rather than demonstrating learning just for the sake of learning).
There was substantial discussion regarding technology in the classroom. The general consensus was that technology can be an added challenge because students are learning content and the functions of a device at the same time but that technology can be quite engaging to students. Tara emphasized the important of teaching devices and technology to students rather than only teaching them to perform certain tasks (such as finding the point of intersection between two functions on a graphing calculator). She warned against assuming students understand technology already: students come from a wide variety of backgrounds and do not all have access like we might think they do.
In regards to tangible products, Sara pointed out that when students invest in something, it can make their work more meaningful. As an example, she described a project in which her students picked a mythical creature or superhero and decided, with regard to organ systems, whether the creature could actually exist. The tangible products in this case consisted of power point presentations, movies, or even skits (as their form was left open to the students). She added that it was one of her favorite projects and that the students went much more in depth than she had expected.
For the final discussion point, Sara, asked the students to share their honest thoughts and feelings about the prospect of implementing PBI. Most of the students seemed to imply that they liked the idea of PBI: one student said there seemed to be lots of possibilities, one said he was hopeful, one said she saw lots of value, and another that she liked the avenue for creativity. On the other side, some concerns were expressed: one student said he was scared, another that she was afraid it would take too long to cover curriculum, and another that he was worried administration wouldn’t allow this sort of the teaching. Sara explicitly recognized the legitimacy of these concerns and said that the students should always feel free to express their honest opinion, even if it feels contrarian. Both TA’s expressed the importance of a willingness to learning alongside the students and Tara said she felt that administrators were beginning to come to an understanding of the importance of PBI.
Each day in PBI a different student takes responsibility for blogging about what goes on in class. Today’s blog is brought to you by David.