Monday, April 27, 2015

Designing Project-Based Learning

Throughout this semester, my friend Becca Holzrichter and I have been working on a project-based learning unit. We have spent hours brainstorming, creating documents, experimenting with technology, and designing a website to display our culminating project. We have come a long way since we first sat down to create our PBL in January. Through this project for our Creating Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments class, I now better understand the elements of a good PBL and the amount of effort it takes to create a useful PBL.

First, I feel that it may be important to give you a brief overview of our project. This PBL is about the human body systems. Its intended grade level is fifth grade, and it targets literacy, science, and 21st century skills standards. The driving question is, "How can we, as students, promote health awareness and healthy habits in our school?" Throughout the course of this project-based learning unit, students will work in teams to (1) learn about a human body system, (2) create an implementation plan for a health-initiative to target the health of that body system within the school's population, and (3) present their findings and implementation plans at a health fair. (Please feel free to view, or even use, our PBL. It can be found here, in case you would like to learn more about it or refer to our website as I discuss it later in this post. An image of the introductory page to our PBL is shown below!)

There were a lot of steps Becca and I went through in order to create a genuinely feasible and useful PBL. First, as you will see on our website, our PBL is aligned to the 8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning as defined by the Buck Institute for Education. According to these essentials, every good project needs significant content, a need to know, a driving question, student voice and choice, 21st century competencies, in-depth inquiry, critique and revision, and a public audience. In addition to these elements, Becca and I made a three-week project agenda, evaluated our use of technology within the project, and created a slew of teacher resources that educators could use if they actually wanted to incorporate our PBL into their curriculum. These teacher resources include a Google Form to use for assigning teams, group roles that could be implemented within each team, assessment tools for the project (including a presentation rubric, a content rubric, a 21st century skills checklist, and a group conference anecdotal records sheet), and resources to use with the students (including a daily goal worksheet, a list of local and national health professionals that students could connect with, a list of suggested technologies for the students to use to present, etc.). I am very satisfied with our final product and believe this is something that a teacher could genuinely implement in his or her classroom with success.

The most difficult aspect of this project was coming up with the need to know and the driving question; basically, we had to decide what we wanted the final outcome of the PBL to look like. We knew we wanted to address the fifth grade science standards we had chosen, but the supplemental standards were decided based upon the project idea we created. Becca and I trashed a lot of ideas throughout the semester, and it took us quite awhile to brainstorm the health fair idea. (If you'd like to see the very first document we created as an outline for our original PBL, click here. It is amazing to see the transformation our project has taken over the semester!) However, once we figured out exactly what we wanted the outcome of our PBL to be, the rest of it was very easy to piece together. 

Generally, I shy away from working in groups, even just partnerships with another person. I hate having to rely on another person to do their share of the work, and I like working on projects in my own time. However, Becca and I worked really well together. She and I have similar academic tendencies (such as liking things organized, being willing to delegate tasks and work on them later, and even preferring to meet many days a week for shorter lengths of time), which made working with her much easier than I initially expected. Though group work has never been my favorite form of assessment in the past, I definitely benefitted by having Becca on my team: we were able to bounce ideas off of each other, collaborate while simultaneously splitting the amount of work we needed to do between us, and even have fun while working on a project. We shared many groans of anguish, sighs of relief, and laughing attacks while working on our PBL, and I am truly thankful for the opportunity to work with another educator who takes her passion for teaching kids as seriously as I do.

As a result of this PBL, I definitely think I will be more open to group work (especially partner work) in the future. Additionally, because I have worked on a PBL from start to finish, the idea of implementing them in my future classroom is not nearly as daunting. I have learned that creating the framework for what you want your students to know and be able to do is key to a PBL, and after that, the rest of the pieces basically fall into place. Through working on our PBL, as well as listening to the stories and reflections of other groups in our CTELE class, I have also learned about a lot of technologies that I wasn't even aware of before this semester. I hope that I work in a school district that allows me to bring all of my PBL and technology ideas into my future classroom!

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