Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Exploration into Project Based Learning

Winterboro High School
Last week, teachers from my school visited Winterboro High School to explore the incorporation of project based learning (PBL). We are interested in students taking responsibility for their learning in a more engaging environment. During our visit, we were impressed with how students from a low socioeconomic area utilize their resources to problem solve real life situations. Our students have access to any needed resource, but do not delve into such in-depth problem solving and critical thinking. We were a little ashamed of what we offer our students.

We did have some concerns with aspects of PBL. A few Winterboro teachers discussed the amount of time required to plan for PBL. Time for collaboration in elementary school is limited and we are unsure of how to manage this time constraint. Winterboro teachers were also concerned with covering required content, although their test scores show that they are meeting all necessary benchmarks. Our students may have a more meaningful and in-depth experience, but they may be missing some areas of the content. At Winterboro, projects were mainly completed at school. Most nights students do not have homework. Winterboro teachers are concerned that their students do not have the resources to complete their projects at home. Our concern is that our parents will complete the projects for the students if they are sent home. Most of the Winterboro teachers were in the first six years of their career. With a completely tenured faculty, we are concerned that we may be too set in our ways to make an easy incorporation of PBL.

After we visited a few classes, many of us felt that we were already using PBL. We all incorporate projects as part of student learning. Then, one teacher explained how the projects drove the students' exploration. In our classes, students are taught the necessary material and then, assigned a project at the end of the unit to assess knowledge. In PBL, students feel driven to learn the concepts, so that they can solve a problem. For example, in a collaborative math and music class, Winterboro students were composed musical ostinatos using found sounds by formulating one and two step mathematical equations. They were taught pre-algebra concepts and rhythmic notation as they were needed to complete their project. Here's their composition:

A distinction must be recognized between PBL and project oriented learning. This video clearly explains the difference.

Students commit to graduate
Winterboro has a clear commitment to student success. When students enter their freshman year, they sign a commitment to graduate. Since utilizing PBL, graduation rates have improved, college acceptance rates have increased, and the drop-out rate has dropped to zero. On our visit, Winterboro students were the tour guides. They were well spoken, engaged in our discussions, and quick to answer questions. I see great success in their future! Graduating seniors are honored for their accomplishments. One bulletin board displayed each graduating senior's picture along with a dialogue from one of their teachers. What a meaningful sendoff!

A tribute from teachers to graduating seniors

Obviously, our previous understanding of PBL was not accurate. We are utilizing some parts of PBL, but we need to fill in the gaps. For example, I collaborated with a classroom teacher on a poetry and songwriting unit, where students wrote their own poems, which developed into a song. This project could easily be transformed into PBL with the addition of a driving question and a public audience. This checklist could help direct us in the right direction when revamping current projects using a PBL focus.

PBL is an exciting focus to explore in the coming year. How do you incorporate PBL? What were the best resources when you began your PBL journey? What training do you think is absolutely necessary?

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