Archive | September 2010

A First Impression of PBL (EDIM502 u01a1)

In reviewing the exemplars of PBL in week one of EDIM 502, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu after reading about and viewing the work of Frances Koontz and her class as they participated in the Journey North activities. Quite a few years ago (dare I say at least 15 to 20?) I was involved in the Jason Project with my fellow fifth through eighth grade teachers at my previous school. That was the closest we ever got to project based learning, though we did not use that term at the time. It was an amazing journey of learning, exploration, and discovery initiated by Dr. Robert Ballard and a team of scientists. Some lucky students across the country applied to be part of the Jason expedition as “argonauts” and got to experience it first hand, though none of our students ever participated in that way. It was interdisciplinary, required us to team teach, took extensive planning on our part as teachers where we had to decide which areas of the curriculum we would be responsible for, which of the learning activities we would be able to incorporate, and how we would bring this experience to life for the students. The culminating activity was a trip to Lehigh University which was one of the hosting sites that communicated live with the expedition and we never knew when we booked our day exactly what the scientists would be doing and what we would experience.   We were in awe of the “technology” used at Lehigh for the live interaction with the expedition, especially since technology was almost non-existent in our classrooms at the time.  

Was that true project based learning according to the definition used today? How did it compare to the three exemplars from week one of the PBL course?

I will confess up front that although I am probably the most daring member of my faculty and the most willing to jump in and try something new, I am still somewhat “jaded” by the fact that so many of the great ideas out there in education sound wonderful in theory but sometimes leave one extremely frustrated in the harsh light of reality. Having been around for so many swings of the pendulum, one of the first things I tend to do when I see video clips of awesome projects being done in a particular classroom is to count the number of students in the room and note the amount of open space they have available. When you work with classes that average around 35 students  and have very little open space this is a reality that cannot be ignored. After seeing in these three exemplar videos that the students shown numbered 20 or fewer, I immediately sense that there would have to be great adaptations made in my school for undertaking similar projects. I struggle very often to see the glass half full rather than half empty!

In each of these projects there was a driving question of sorts, though not the Big Question with global implications as presented in the Apple CBL model, at least not directly stated, although the Monarch project and the related activities on the site are global projects.  Perhaps the articles just didn’t particularly name that or for the younger students that is not part of the vocabulary. It seemed that each of the three derived the driving question from a different source. For Mrs. Huemer’s class in Newsome Park it seemed the students’ interests and curiosity drove the project focus. In Miss Reeder’s geometry class in Seattle it seemed that she set the focus and the goals she wanted her students to achieve and designed the architecture project around that, and in Frances Koontz’s class the questions were derived from the Journey North curriculum projects.

All three projects had the students working in groups and engaged in hands on activities. The geometry students obviously were more self-directed as far as group dynamics because of their age, but the collaborative experience is vital for all age groups and is a very important skill to develop.  Assessment needs to be considered in the planning of projects and assessment was really only mentioned in the geometry project. I imagine there had to be periodic assessments by the teacher along the way and not just at the end of the six weeks. I am concerned about 40% of the final project grade coming from the assessment of the architects, but again, there is probably much more to this than was presented. Having coached students through PJAS (Pennsylvania Jr. Academy of Science) projects and having experts in various sciences be their judges, that can certainly be a flawed process if not screened carefully, but obviously she had developed a relationship with the architects and shared her project goals with them.

Project based learning still needs to incorporate curriculum standards  and Frances Koontz did mention how she was able to work in her language arts standards in the project, and also the idea of multiculturalism.  Miss Reeder’s class apparently scored very high in testing so she obviously did a great deal of preparation and planning to develop a project that incorporated the necessary benchmarks in geometry throughout the course of the project.  She was concerned with skill transfer but in the projects with the younger students that point was not raised.

Although I guessed as much coming in to this course, PBL entails a great deal of planning behind the scenes on the part of the teacher in order to be able to develop activities that will engage students and provide authentic learning with global implications, and still meet state standards. Planning time is definitely at a premium for most teachers and as Mrs. Vreeland noted in the “barrel of worms” article, it does take a great deal of effort. All three exemplars brought in outside experts in the field to speak to the students and interact with them, helping them to see real life application for their learning.

 Although the concept of PBL appeals to me and I see the educational value, it also seems overwhelming and I understand how someone might look at it and say “How would I ever have time to do that?” I can see that without administrative support it may be difficult to undertake. Without a teacher who is willing to work off the clock, waaaaaay off the clock, it won’t happen. But if we want our students to be engaged and to develop a desire to be life-long learners, we have to take baby steps and be willing to give it a go.

I especially liked how Mrs. Vreeland said that “the students know that Mrs. V. doesn’t have all the answers, and they also know that it doesn’t bother her in the least.” We are all students, some of us are just much, much older than others. This student is looking forward to learning more about PBL.


 glass half empty  CC 2.0 license

 Robert Ballard CC 2.0 license

clock CC 2.0 license