Working through PBL – some mid-week reflections

Today I thought I’d take a break from some of the video-making that I’ve been doing earlier this week to reflect on how I’ve learned during the New Schools Training in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As those who’ve become familiar with PBL know, training is usually immersive and practical, making regular reflection even more important. Here are some of the thoughts that have been running through my mind:

1. “You might have a really good plan but if it doesn’t gel with where the students are at, you’ll need to change it on the fly” (Drew Schrader)

In delivering PBL programs, teachers and students inevitably have to learn to love more confusion, disorder and ambiguity than they might otherwise tolerate in traditional learning contexts. This is especially true when trying PBL for the first time. Many of the teachers and principals I’ve spoken with this week talk about the tendency for traditional schools to jump to conclusions on the effectiveness of PBL mainly on the bases of student behaviour and teacher reactions. While tolerating the extra noise, stress and occasional chaos, we can at least make a first step towards re-thinking some of the traditional assumptions about teaching and learning – but we need to critically evaluate those assumptions and see how they sit in light of some of the emerging theories and practices behind PBL.

2. In PBL, good students know what they NTK!

One of the bread-and-butter concepts of this week’s training has been the NTK or “need-to-know.” Project ideas are encapsulated in entry documents, which state the real-world problem or project – these simply start kids on the learning path. The critical difference with PBL is that students consistently work out their own path (at times with very little structure in the task or direction from the teacher) through integral series of next steps, NTKs, small workshops and the creative process itself. I really like this style of working and feel that it does reflect some of the best models of informal learning in the real world. To a large extent, subject areas like TAS (Tech and applied Sciences) and Creative Arts already make good use of individualized learning paths and NTKs as pivot points in the learning process. As a Music teacher at CCC, I’m privileged to work in a faculty of very talented teachers, all of whomunderstands the importance of working out gates, next steps and NTKs as part of a creative project. Nonetheless, PBL provides an excellent conceptual framework for many teachers – including those with a more limited understanding of the creative process and real-world contexts.

3. By professionally developing your teachers in PBL, you can create professionals who have a better understanding of why they do what they do.

One of the most initially frustrating things about this week was the extent to which PBL facilitators categorically refused to provide closed answers to the questions participants ask. Instead of concise answers, we’ve been met with responses like “what would you think if…” “if you’re asking me that, does it suggest this…” and “how might you go about finding an answer to that question yourself?” I think open-ended, hypothetical reasoning is one of the best tools for encouraging real ownership of issues and problems. All too often, it’s very easy for teachers to simply tell students what they think, and students often have a real dependency on the teacher’s opinion precisely because “they’re the teacher.” It’s therefore been a process of real-world discovery for me to realize that I don’t have to provide the answer to the question – regardless of whether or not I really know the answer in the first place! In good PBL, students startworking independently before lobbing into group work. They establish some individual ownership and take the focus off yourself as the teacher.

4. Workshops – when are they a good idea? When are they not?
Workshops provide a degree of choice and are usually contextually relevant to what students are learning at the time. They break up the monotity of the “sheep dip” model (where all students are treated equal and learn the same thing on a matter of principle and practice) and establish a culture of students owning what they need to know and determining next steps accordingly. However, they can be problematic when there are uncertainties around the ways teachers determine what to teach the whole class vs what to teach individuals during workshops. Where individual group members attend and don’t pick everything up, do other group members then lose out? Is the group no stronger than the weakest link? If so, what are we doing to ensure equity in relation to success? Do we need to shift the goal posts? If not, why not? Maybe I’m already thinking in PBL terms!

5. Theory and practice – where one begins and the other ends.

My misgivings at this stage in my training are about the need, for me at any rate, to connect theory with practice. You can’t immerse yourself in something you don’t fully understand – or can you?Ultimately, my impression from the sessions this week has been that to really understand effective PBL, the theory has to be embedded in the practice. As we engage in the practice, the theories behind what we’re doing (and why we’re doing it) have to be at the forefront of our mind. It’s making that happen that will be a really important part of the way that I work with my very talented and professional colleagues back home – and indeed, with the students that I already love teaching.

In any case, it’s going to be an exciting next term!

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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