Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teamwork Makes The Dream Work: Thoughts And Reflections On Project-Based Learning

"Alright folks, if you would grab your things and head to the den for our project work please..."

Between 10:40 and 10:50 each morning you would hear me utter this exact phrase or something to that extent in my third period Spanish I classroom. The reason? It is at this time that the new material in my classroom has been covered and assessed and it is now on to time for students to work in small, collaborative groups where they must work together in order to complete a meaningful educational task. Long gone are the days when a "project" meant that students threw together a bunch of pictures on a large poster board and presented it as a way to show the culmination of their learning. This new model is known as project-based learning and it offers many exciting possibilities for fulfillment for both the teacher and student alike.

Before I get too in depth into the subject, I must offer a caveat. I am not an expert in project-based learning. In fact, this is my first real semester engaging in the learning model. I have read articles on the topic, but like most things in teaching, I have learned the most from seeing it in action. However, after using the learning model for only four months, I can already see many exciting applications for it. One of my earliest posts in this blog dealt with how discerning it was that we as educators do not have an agreed upon idea as to what the purpose of education is today in America. I still grapple with this question on a daily basis, but with project-based learning I have found a learning model that accurately gives students a glimpse as to what life beyond high school will look like. After all, isn't it our goal as educators to best prepare our students for life beyond the walls of our school?

In a nutshell, project-based learning is the idea that students need opportunities to collaborate together to create final products that can be showcased to someone outside of the school setting. It's one thing to hand in a report on genetics to your science teacher, it's another entirely to create a computerized model of DNA to show to local scientists and engage in discussions about the model with them. Students work in small groups (normally 2-4 people per group) and collaborate together on the brainstorming, design, and creation portions of the project. Students have a vision for an end product but have very little frame of reference as to how to get there. This helps spur investigations through both trial and error as well as internet-based research. Throughout this time, the teacher serves more as a consultant rather than an instructor. He or she is there to guide the students along, but does his or her best to give students the freedom and autonomy to both make their own errors as well as arrive at their own conclusions.

What I like about this model is that it is very indicative of the world that the students will enter after high school. No matter where students end up or what they will do, they will be engaged in several project-based learning type situations. In college, they will inevitably have to do some sort of group project with their peers. In the military, soldiers will have to collaborate on various training exercises. Heck, even at a fast food restaurant you are part of a team and you have your role which you must know and excel in or else the end product suffers. It seems that nearly every profession has some type of this learning model. If students sit in rows and take notes for eight hours a day how then will they be able to adapt to this model? The truth is, they won't. No matter where they end up, it will be essential that they be able to collaborate with others with an end goal in mind.

When project-based learning is going well, it almost feels like I am cheating as a teacher. Students will be doing their projects for half the period, and I will be around to check in with each and every student. Students tell me they're fine and that they "got this." Students work together and share what they have found and this sometimes is information that even I as a teacher did not realize. Decisions are made about who should be doing what instead of the teacher assigning roles. Another positive feature of project-based learning is that there is always more work than can be done. When we have a modified schedule (shortened periods) I dedicate each period to projects. When a teacher is out, the expectation is that students are working on their projects for that class. Being a charter school, we don't have the luxury of hiring substitute teachers, so this learning model works great for that situation. High school students need structure and the project-based learning model presents that to them on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Unfortunately, this learning model does not always provide us with perfect rainbows, sunshine, and peppermints. First and foremost is the idea of collaboration. High school students are fickle. They either want to work with their friends or they want to work alone. Divvying up groups is always a challenge to a teacher and project-based learning is no exception. There is also the challenge of students who want to zip through everything quickly in a way that creates low quality work. These are my "Speedy Gonzalez" students as I have come to call them. It is always a challenge trying to instill a sense of internal motivation to these students. I struggle with them because I know I cannot do the work for them and I want them to be able to showcase a quality product to the community. However, that's not always the case and I will just have to hope that they have some (small) feeling of shame when their showcased work is clearly not up to par with their classmates or their capabilities. Lastly, there is the issue of my "mule" students. These are the ones who take a long time in doing their work. They are on task, but for a variety of reasons they just aren't meeting the project expectations or deadlines. These students are always difficult to judge because they often have IEP's or undiagnosed learning disabilities. With them, you just have to keep encouraging them and not rush them to get everything done. As is with everything in public education, it is much better to have quality over quantity.

Project-based learning is difficult. As our assistant principal told us during the early planning stages of our school, it often feels "sloppy." My project has changed dramatically from what I had initially envisioned. There have been hiccups along the way and constant tweaking of deadlines. New requirements have been added. Old requirements have been replaced. There have been many "A-ha!" moments. There have also been many students using Facebook rather than doing the project. Like a ceiling fan, I've been osculating back and forth from being encouraged to discouraged about the project. As of now, the final products are due in a week in a half. I have one student who is already done. I have two students who haven't even started yet. One group of partners has only been together for about half the days due to what seems to be rotating absences between them. As much as I get discouraged, the one thing I keep coming back to is this: Project-based learning is unpredictable.

Just like the real world.

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