This year, my sixth grade class prepared and presented our school’s first Exhibition. As an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program candidate school, it was an opportunity for me to research project-based learning, put into practice the guidelines established by the IB, and for our students to experience a culminating project to conclude their elementary school lives.
The timing of the Deeper Learning MOOC, a massive open online course dedicated in large part to Project Based Learning, could not have been better. A host of organizations were introduced and resources shared and discussed, as well as models and frameworks that I could use to inform and enrich my role as a facilitator and coach.
During the Week 9 Participants Panel, moderator Rob Riordan remarked to me, ‘If you want to get engaged in deeper learning, a good way to start is to schedule an exhibition.’
His words reminded me of a quote by the prolific composer Duke Ellington: ‘I don’t need time. What I need is a deadline.’
If an exhibition is the overall objective of a school year, I discovered that it provides a strong structure on which to practice skills and pursue inquiry. But more importantly, it provides a deadline to complete a project. Deanna Mascle recently reflected in her post, Why Project-Based Learning?, ‘In project-based learning (PBL) the project is the learning – and the teaching and learning take place through the project.’ The trick for facilitators is to maximize, document, and curate the learning throughout the process.
Designing the framework
My own experiences with project based learning as a learner and facilitator have taught me the importance of choice. For a project to totally engage a learner’s interest, it must be self-directed. However, every project has arbitrary expectations and goals. The IB PYP Exhibition Guidelines are an ideal reference for designing an environment that balances student choice with general expectations. By connecting with and learning from several experienced Exhibition teachers, in particular Sam Sherratt and Kristen Blum, I attempted to design a learning and working environment with enough structure and support to set up students for success, yet with enough flexibility and freedom to empower students with agency for authentic action.
My solution was to use individual wikis as ‘home bases’ on which each student could document all aspects of their inquiries according to an outline of requirements. As they worked, we held regular consultations to discuss and document the formal elements, such as applications of academic skills and conceptual understandings, of their projects.
Looking back, I should have done more to structure these formal elements on a calendar. For example, while reflection with a teacher or mentor is important, it would have been more effective to schedule activities in which students cooperate to assess and discuss each others’ projects-in-progress by focusing on particular elements in each session.
While students selected and pursued their inquiries independently, one design success was to require certain tasks. Specifically, every student was required to complete an expository essay, a persuasive speech, and an expressive work of art.
Limiting the scope of the products was very effective for increasing student agency, although in the future, I plan to focus on each as an assessment task by itself during the school year to develop applicable skills.
Rubrics were also a key feature for setting expectations. These were created collaboratively as a class early in the process and were based on the model that we have used throughout the year. By clearly defining success criteria for the formal elements, I believe that we maximized opportunities for students to exercise choice and direct their own learning.
Synthesizing the theme
In December, we began specific preparations for the Exhibition by discussing and synthesizing a theme title and description. As I wrote in the post, PYP Exhibition Theme Synthesis, our theme needed to integrate aspects of all six PYP transdisciplinary themes and unify students’ inquiries and interests under a common conceptual theme. My solution was to play poetry magnets. By mixing and matching, the students were able to cobble together a theme description that, with a little semantic help from me, includes everyone’s contributions and provides general context for all of our work. How we interact is our theme title, and I have noticed that when students’ inquiries have wandered astray, referring them back to our theme has been very valuable to help them refocus or reorient themselves.
One of the most successful features of our project was a temporary Bring-Your-Own-Device policy. Normally, our students check their technology at the door during the school day, however, in order for our exhibitioners to take ownership of their learning and projects, I petitioned the parents and administration to allow students to utilize all of the tools at their disposal.
The result was increased motivation and efficiency as students learned how to apply the fluency they have gained with their ‘smart’ devices to their academic learning.
The only required ongoing tasks were two reflections per week: One blog post and one video. Surprisingly, while at times entertaining, this was one of the least successful activities in terms of student learning.
Why? The early reflections went as expected. Blog posts were recountings of activities. A culture of listing day-by-day even grew organically as a method to organize. Videos started giggly and progressed to more sober as the Exhibition became imminent.
Unfortunately, few reflections were ‘deep’. They generally lacked emotion and personal connection. This is my greatest challenge for future long term projects. How can we utilize technology for formative reflection more effectively?
One idea is to provide prompts for each reflection. Similar to the documentation process needing more structure and opportunities for peer-interaction, I think that the reflection process needs more scaffolding, at least in the beginning. There are rich possibilities, such as choosing prompts at random or me, as a coach, writing prompts that become increasingly complex and challenging.
If the project is the learning, then formative reflection and self-assessment is the most important facet of its documentation. This is an area that requires significant attention and a line of inquiry that I am excited to pursue and would welcome collaborators!
Personally, I believe that a culminating project, in this case the PYP Exhibition, is a rite of passage. Please see my post, PYP Exhibition: A Rite of Passage, for more details and to view my attempt at an inspirational and provocative video.
The resolution of the cognitive dissonance students experience occurs when they assume responsibility for their learning processes, agency for their choice of actions, and ownership of their learning artifacts.
This seemed to occur at various times and to varying degrees of intensity. While it is difficult if not impossible to assess or document, another of my driving goals for the future is to optimize opportunities for cognitive dissonance and resolution during the Exhibition. Again, I believe more activities to stimulate students to reflect on their beliefs about themselves would help.
Finally, to mediate the stress of concentrating on a long term, transdisciplinary project, we had fun. From research like the findings reported in the Wall Street Journal article, The Inner Workings of the Executive Brain, it is clear that while deadlines and schedules may be good for short term motivation, over time they cause changes in the brain to the detriment of creativity and productivity.
One of the best decisions we made was to schedule a field trip to an amusement park to ‘kick-off’ formal preparations for the Exhibition. Everyone’s mood flipped that day, and I noticed renewed focus and seriousness in the weeks that followed. I highly recommend such an activity to anyone pursuing PBL with their class.
Students were also free to manage their time independently, including taking breaks and playing games. I also planned some team-building activities that were enjoyable. Most often, I found myself reminding students to take breaks and suggesting that they go outside for a stroll to refresh their minds!
Project Based Learning is fun. My goal for the future is to plan and schedule a little more to provide a more stable foundation for students’ projects. This planning stretches to the beginning of the school year, as it is important to ensure that all students have had opportunities to practice the skills they will need to recognize and report on their learning as it is happening.
I’m curious to know other PBL facilitators’ strategies for supporting your students’ inquiries!