Thursday, August 18, 2016

Project Based Learning at the heart of Creating and Making

This week I got a chance to attend a meeting lead by Lars Hasselblad Torres, Director of the Generator as he kicked off a collaboration project between Burlington's  makerspace the Generator,  area schools, and Champlain College to help educators vision how MAKING can support Project Based Learning in their classrooms.   The day was filled with conversation and activities that kept us engaged in a process that started with sharing our own personal goals and ended with our being ready to submit project proposal that might exemplify a collaboration between K12 educators, college, and a community maker-space.

I  especially loved the way Lars got each of us to envision and articulate elements of successful project based learning by having us think with our hands.

Throughout the day I found myself revisiting some of my own  experiences as an educator where project based learning was at the heart of my classroom - which lead to my digging up this blog entry from almost 10 years ago. 

This entry was originally posted as an entry on aVTCITE blog following discussion about Project Based Learning in 2006. 

Project Based Learning

Authentic Audience - The Ring Story
One April morning in 1996 --the good ole days when perhaps one or two emails per day found their way to my inbox—I noticed a peculiar subject line on an email from a man whose name I did not recognize. 
Sender: Claude Williams 
Subject: Treasure Found. 
Message:  Dear students at NCUHS,  I think you might be able to help me with something that has been on my TO DO list for more than 15 years.   In 1980 I was scuba diving in the Phillipines and when something shiny caught my eye.  It turned out that I had found a gold ring.  The ring had a bird of prey on top; the letters NCUHS on one side; the words “Class of ‘78” on the other; and the initials TKD carved inside.  Today I was trying out this new Internet thing and typed the letters NCUHS in Alta-Vista.  I found this Cyberfair Project from students from NCUHS.  Could this ring belong to someone from your school. 
I read the email to my students.  They immediately ran down to the guidance office and located the 1978 Falcon Yearbook. Todd K Durkee was the only student with those initials.  After a few phone calls they were able to locate a phone number for Mr. Durkee. “Did you ever lose a class ring?” they inquired over the phone.  He hesitantly answered “yes… in 1979 while I was cliff diving in Hawaii”.   Mr. Durkee got his ring back;  Mr. Williams crossed an item off his To Do list; and 15 students experienced accidentally discovered an Authentic Audience for what started as a project based learning activity using technology.
Probably one of the most motivating factors about Project Based Learning is the fact that you are solving an Authentic Problem for an Authentic Audience.  Today’s technology has made authentic audiences even more reachable than ever before. Years ago video production, publishing or  music production would have been cost prohibitive.  Today’s students can become web publishers,  music composers, and video producers for real audiences at a very nominal cost.   Projects like Cyberfair,  The Vermont Midi Project, The Green Mountain Mooooooooovie Festival,  provide forums for student projects with Authentic Audience.  When my fifth grade students realized that their podcast was going to be on I-Tunes, the quality of their work went up 200%. 
Project Based Learning using effective Technology integration increases engagement by making learning meaningful.   A well constructed project provides several opportunities for students to create different PRODUCTS as a result of an indepth study of different CONTENT.  A skilled teacher will create a LEARNING ENVIRONMENT for students with varied learning styles to experience the PROCESS of project based learning in a way where each of them can be a successful.   Starting with an Essential Question where the project provides the structure for a group or individual inquiry makes the Project even more powerful.  In my earlier blog entry I discussed how our Cyberfair project – Life On The Border --provided the opportunity for Differentiated Instruction.
But without the Essential Question and the Alignment to Standards the project becomes simply a “neat activity”.  Each year I search for a theme that ties into the standards of one or more content disciplines.  I look for partners who are ready and ripe to take on this type of learning.  I look for content standards from that discipline that would lend themselves to a project type learning experience.  Adding the technology standards is a natural next step.   Finally I meet with the teachers of that discipline to brainstorm Essential Questions that would provide the project with enough depth and momentum to drive the energy we are about to expend on this project.
Project based learning is hard work.  But the feeling of pride from the accomplishments of our projects is not just felt by the students—it spreads across the community.  The standards that we meet (especially those in the Vital Results) area cannot be adequately measured by standardized tests.  The challenge we face as educators is to continue to advocate for authentic assessments (such as those found in project based learning) to be considered as part of the ASSESSMENT formula that we use to measure the success of our schools.  If you have a chance to hear the student voices on  the Cyberfair 2001 video,  I think you would have a hard time spotting the ‘student’ whose learning disability would bring down your NECAP scores;  this is also the student whose performance on this project earned my highest praises in their letter of recommendation for employment.   While National Test stores tell part of the story, Project based learning tells the rest of the story!