Saturday, 13 February 2016 22:22

The Awesomeness of Problem-Based Learning (Part 4) Featured

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In my previous post in this blog series, I shared the problem statement of the "California Choice Project" and described how my students had an opportunity to identify what they already knew about the project and determine what they still needed to learn before they could begin. The next step was to form groups. Because this project occurred early in the school year, the PBL process was brand new to everyone, and the students were new to one another. So, I organized everyone into pairs that I thought would work well together.

This would be the last time, though, that I would make the grouping decisions. Since then, the kids have had the choice of 1) whether they wanted to work alone or with others and 2) who would be in their group. I strongly believe that to maximize motivation, investment in the project, and work quality, children need to own their "choice of team." I accomplish this task by first seeing who wants to work alone and then honoring that choice. Next, I ask the remaining children to take a few minutes to walk around and find one or two partners with whom they'd like to join forces. My only caveats at this point are that they need to be sure that nobody's feelings get hurt and that they need to be sure to form groups that will be able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions. The first time we did this, I was shocked at how quickly and smoothly everyone found a group. I was prepared to step in and make any necessary adjustments, but that didn't happen this time around. I know that this method of "group forming" may not always work so smoothly, but I think it's important to give children this type of responsibility and see how they handle it. If it didn't go well, I could also do it differently next time.

Once the children were in their groups, their first task involved creating an action plan containing all the steps they would need to complete from the beginning of the project to the end. While each action plan differed somewhat, most started out with a research phase in which the children would use our social studies text, as well as other print and online resources, to find out the names of California's four regions; learn about each region's climate, geography, natural resources, and recreational activities; and identify pros and cons of living in each one. After the research was complete, the groups then turned their attention to choosing the region that would be the best fit for their company and creating the presentation (including visual aids) that they would make to their employees as part of the unit's culmination.

Every time a group finished a step of its action plan, the members would bring their work to me so I could check it. If everything looked good, I would initial that part of the action plan and send them off to the next step. If not, I would ask them to go back to fill in any gaps I noticed. This type of step-by-step accountability is absolutely critical in ensuring that everyone is learning the key objectives of the unit, an outcome that can only happen when these objectives are written in the original problem statement and, thus, need to be included in the action plan.

Completing the steps of the action plans took several class periods, and watching my students during this time was a joy. I was amazed by how focused, cooperative, and motivated they all were. I had never seen anything quite like it. Many of them asked if they could work on the project during our lunch period, and many others would ask me each morning at the door if we were going to be working on our projects that day. I realized what was possible when children were given the opportunity to execute a plan that they themselves created and that allowed them to organize, use, and present information in a way that made sense to them and excited them. In fact, engagement was so high, I honestly believe that there were many times during our PBL periods when I could have stepped outside the classroom for 30 minutes, and everything would have been fine. 

On the day of our big presentations in the cafeteria, the kids were eager to present their "California Choice" to their classmates, families, and other guests. Some groups created slide shows using our google chrome books, others made booklets and posters, and one pair created a four-part display, resembling a diorama, that included written information and visuals about each region of California.

Next time, I will describe our follow-up project and introduce an important tool we used to improve each group's functioning.     
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