Variations of Projects Key to Student Learning

Poverty and Environment Fund, Forest Ecosystem Services. Viet Nam

Not being a military man, acronyms often confuse me. I find it tough to keep track of all the acronyms we come across in education: SIOP (sheltered instruction observation protocol), CALP and BICS (cognitive academic language proficiency and basic interpersonal communication skills), ATLs (approaches to learning), CYA, etc.

This week I realised from my readings that I had a few misunderstandings regarding PL (project based learning), PBL (problem based learning), and CBL (challenge based learning). In fact, I had been interchanging all of these acronyms and the extended learning tasks they described for years!

Project Based Learning (PL)

As a grade 4 and grade 5 homeroom teacher, I was always amazed at how excited my students became when I mentioned the word project. It never mattered whether the subject was science, social studies, art, or English; I can only imagine that words like freedom, friends, imagination, and creativity bounced through their minds as they did mine.

Initially, I thought of projects in much the same way as I had experienced them in my own school years. Basically, I remember teachers assigning us projects around topics as in “You are going to do a project about the human body.” I recall working on such projects mostly alone, although later in my schooling there were perhaps more collaborative projects. Completion of these assignments forced me to engage in research through which I searched for, identified, analysed, took notes on, organised, and properly attributed information that was relevant. I developed a few visual literacy skills when I created posters and images to share with my peers. I also learned to present in terms of standing in front of an audience and attempting to orally teach the class about my topic. I also remember these projects often took upwards of a week or more to finish.

The Hoover Dam

In reading Suzie Boss’ treatise on Project Learning (PL) I realised that the current definition of PL seemed to involve a lot more collaboration than perhaps the projects I created when I was a boy. For the most part, however, I remember teachers preparing us students for projects in ways that Boss describes.

My teachers tried to present us with provocations to get our minds inquiring and wondering about the topic. For science projects, for example, we might have done basic science experiments leading into the topic.

Teachers laid foundations for working on projects by helping us develop our research skills, learn to take notes and create bibliographies, and organise data under topic sentences.

They used academic disciplines to give our projects relevance. I especially remember this as part of AP U.S. History and English Literature. In U.S. History, we had to complete projects based on research into primary source materials. Teachers discussed how this was the way real historians worked, by synthesising narratives from diverse perspectives from a given era. In English Literature, our teachers instilled us with the belief that we were all writers and literary critics and therefore we learned to follow a writing/design process in our literature projects and to back up our interpretations of literature with evidence.

We grew in confidence through practicing and presenting our findings and projects.

Teachers also created learning environments, from my memory, that were caring, open-minded, and supportive.

In thinking back about projects from my own schooling, I don’t recall teachers helping us create a buzz about our learning, unless in the form of school writing contests and magazines that we could submit our writing projects to.

Anyways…I had a lot of experience with PL as a student. Looking back on assignments I gave students throughout my career in Grade 4 and 5 as a homeroom teacher, I believe I probably assigned mostly PL type projects.

Problem Based Learning (PBL)

Having finished my teacher training in 2009, I had of course learned about problem based learning as one teaching strategy that moved the locus of control over learning from teacher to students. As such, I learned that PBL could foster deeper learning, as well as traits such as heightened self efficacy and independence in students.

PBL, as explained by Gijbels, Van den Bossche, and Loyens: is student centred, should occur in small groups under the mentorship of a tutor, involves the teacher as a facilitator, exposes students to problems that occur authentically during the course of the learning, causes students to examine prior knowledge when encountering these problems which leads to identification of knowledge gaps, and motivates the students to engage in self directed learning to fill in those gaps and solve the problem.

Back from holiday in China. Loved it.

In terms of my own teaching, I have tried to create PBL situations especially in my math instruction. In general, I began math lessons and units with problems that were probably slightly more advanced than current levels of understanding in the class. Discussions through these problems helped students (and teacher) identify holes in understandings. Multi-day lessons then involved trying to solve large problems or engage in math projects, picking up smaller skills along the way that were needed to solve the larger problems. However, many of these learning engagements were probably a bit more teacher led than in a strict PBL situation.

Also the PYP Exhibition, which I facilitated for three years, shares much theoretical commonality with PBL. During these Exhibitions, students worked in small groups with a teacher/mentor to learn about an issue of interest to them and were thus very student centred. Students “discovered”, through talking to various experts from non-governmental organisations, problems in the community and the world. They then thought about what they already knew about these issues and what they needed to research to find out more about. Other aspects of the Exhibition more closely resembled Challenge Based Learning (CBL).

Challenge Based Learning (CBL)

I only read about challenge based learning (CBL) this week but in terms of its ultimate goal that students take some sort of action to solve a problem and its clearly delineated sequence, it seems to be analogous to the whole PYP Exhibition process as well as the designing of units of study based on the Understanding by Design model and the PYP Unit Planner. In this respect, there is actually a clear process laid out for CBL, possibly as a result of it being somewhat proprietary in being linked with the technology giant, Apple. Students are heavily involved in planning all stages of a framework for their inquiries in CBL as part of this process.

In CBL, teachers may present, with or without student input, a big idea or concept. Students in groups then assist in the creation of an essential question and a challenge that come under that big idea. For example, students may inquire into the big idea of conflict between peoples. They may then conceive of an essential question like: How do lack of resources and space contribute to conflict between people? Students then might create a challenge for themselves involving the knowledge they will gain through finding out the answer to the essential question such as: Reduce conflict at school by equitably sharing space and resources.

Bottle dome inside

After students work on these big picture elements of the inquiry that will frame their learning, they then think of guiding questions that will help break down the essential question and help them rise to the challenge as well as resources and learning activities that might help them answer these questions.

Students then begin to find information and learn new knowledge as well brainstorming solutions to their challenges. All the while, they are guided by a teacher/mentor who helps them keep track of where they are in the CBL process.

Students then implement their solutions to the challenge and evaluate the effectiveness of these solutions. After implementation, student groups share their findings, experiences, and solutions with the world.

Relating all of this to my general teaching…

In terms of how knowing about PL, PBL, and CBL teaching strategies may affect and or be applied to my teaching, I feel that these three strategies in that order move from being less intentional to more intentional, less student centred to more student centred, less structured to more structured, and less cognitively demanding to more cognitively demanding. I also know that these types of learning are very demanding, in terms of language needed for students to be successful.

As such, in my current role as a grade 1 and grade 2 English as an Additiona Language teacher, I’m not sure where I would incorporate these strategies yet. In whatever situation I do plan for use of these strategies, I would most certainly have to make some very big adaptations for my students. Perhaps I might need to get parents on board and make use of some of our schools’ mother tongue resources. At every stage of planning, I would need to scaffold language students would need to use to learn new knowledge and express themselves. I would also need to try very hard to help students find sources of information that they would understand.

Where does technology fit?

All of these strategies could incorporate technology in countless ways. PL, PBL, and CBL all explicitly call for collaboration between students, with CBL actually specifying that students need a shared work space for documents, calendars, schedules, information sources, videos for research and presentation. What better collaborative work spaces exist than cloud based office/creative suites such as Google Drive or iCloud?

Also, the creative, reflective, and collaborative characters of PL, PBL, and CBL situations lend themselves very well to technology tools such as iMovie, blogging platforms, Twitter, and YouTube for example. These are all technology tools through which students can make and share with the community and world various representations of their understandings, preferably in the form of digital stories.

From the perspective of a teacher leading one of these learning situations, I and my students can also draft effective rubrics and checklists using fantastic online tools such as Rubistar or Problem Based Learning Checklists. These sorts of tools can help us assess progress through these projects.

One final takeaway…

Dr. Seymour Papert, in an interview about Project Based learning said this:

If you know the history, this is the way that mathematics happened: It started not as this beautiful, pure product of the abstract mind. It started as a way of thinking about controlling the waters of the Nile, building the Pyramids, sailing a ship. It started as mathematical thinking, just edging into real activities, what was really being used.

This inspiring quote will serve as my compass when I think of incorporating PL, PBL, or CBL into my planning. Students learn best through large projects, by working with others, and by thinking about what they want to change or examine in the world around them. The best thing I can do as a teacher is help them do that.


4 Replies to “Variations of Projects Key to Student Learning”

  1. Hi Jon,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
    My school has challenged our ES teachers to create a PBL unit this year. Something new? I’m not so sure. And as you mention Dr. Papert’s quote, it really gives us reason to reflect back on our own past learning. Based on his quote it seems we have encountered a “mash up” of sorts right here in using the CBL model.
    The idea of CBL is new to me also, but it seems that it is really an old way of learning because I think in the days of pyramid building it might not have been called “learning or education”.
    I had this amazing teacher when I was in junior high. When we arrived in class, she had our class notes up on the board. (I don’t believe computers were in businesses at this point.) Once the notes had been copied we began class which was often whole group open discussions or group projects based on the current learning. This teacher has remained one of my favorites because she kept the learning interesting and always changing!
    In college I was in a class called Art and Literature. We read awesome novels and studied art works on the overhead projector. In the evening we would continue our discussions and pursue further learning that grew out of our class. Yes, our professor was with us.
    I think your right, teachers need to be inspired and motivated out of the lassez-faire mentality.
    My school is devoted to UbD and I like the framework. But I think challenging educators to strive for more thought provoking teaching will be a real asset to our students learning.
    Start small with your 1st and 2nd graders, they might be ready for CBL by the end of the year!

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thank you so much for such a great comment! I definitely am going to look at our unit plans and see if I can slide in some CBL.


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