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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

PBL and Eusessments

Last week, I attended professional development on Project-Based Learning, led by Drew Perkins (a former Shelby County teacher!) from the Buck Institute.  If you want proof I was there, here's a short video:

(Also pictured in the video from our attending Shelby County cohort: Jamie Mezin and Connie Putnam.)

The PD was crucial to help me understand PBL better.  Here are some highlights.

  • What is the difference between a traditional unit with a project, and an actual PBL? In short, a traditional unit may have a project as a final activity or assessment, but in PBL, the project is the unit.  For a great resource that breaks down the difference, review this New Tech Network's document.   The difference between problem-based learning and PBL is that the "problem" may not be authentic or relevant, nor is the audience (if one exists beyond the teacher) likely to be public or genuine.
  • In the same train of thought, make sure your PBL is a meaningful "main course," not a "dessert." 
  • PBL students need to uncover content, instead of the traditional approach of teachers covering content.
  • In the end, the PBL should have an authentic "publishing" moment to a genuine outside audience.  
  • You can't have PBL without a strong student questioning culture.  Drew discussed the Question Formulation Technique from the Right Question Institute, which is a process that starts with designing a question focus, followed by producing close- and open-ended questions, then prioritizing and planning next steps, and finally reflecting/refining before beginning again. For an overview, this ASCD Educational Leadership article can help. Or check out this tweeted pic:
  • Your "Driving Question" and "Need to Know's" should be on public display for students to interact with every day.  Google Docs might work if actually reviewed often by students; otherwise, a physical reminder (such as on a whiteboard or pad easel) might be better.
  • As always, rubrics help focus students on what needs to be mastered.  We were introduced to the "single point rubric" and could definitely see its potential in making feedback more effective. With it, you can ask the students: How are you below the standards ("Concerns")? How are you beyond them ("Advanced")?  (See the Cult of Pedagogy for a wonderful "Breakfast in Bed" rubric example.)
  • Consider a 80% individual mastery / 20% group presentation grade split as a way of avoiding a strong collaborative member unfairly propping up the skill/content deficiencies of the others.
  • Use calendars, contracts, and management logs to help keep the PBL organized and responsibilities clear.  For forms and other resources, visit BIE.
  • PBL should have assessments throughout the process, not just at the end.  Again, the New Tech Network has a great document that helps guide a teacher through this assessment process.
Last but not least, don't be overwhelmed when first implementing PBL in your classroom.  You may start small with a single unit at first.  While you are a PBL novice, consider the complexity of the task and how tightly you will manage it:

PBL clearly makes you think of assessments in a different way.  But something Drew said created an "aha" for me. He talked about the difference between distress (feelings perceived as negative that are unhealthy and unproductive) and eustress (feelings perceived as "good stress" caused from a "positive challenge" that spurs a person to grow).  The term eustress led me to consider the very etymology of "assessment", which contains "as-" (a directional tendency; toward) and "-ment" (a product).  Perhaps we as teachers have absorbed the meanings of this prefix and suffix more than we know.  Speaking for myself, there were certainly times as a classroom teacher that I was more worried that my academic unit was "working toward a product" than the value of what that product actually was.  Was it relevant?  Was the assessment shared outside of the classroom, or more importantly, did it lead to action to impact an authentic issue?  Was it simply the culmination of academic drudgery that let all of us know, "Thank goodness, we are finished"?  We should value an assessment that is more than mere compliance for completing an academic unit, and PBL can help us get there. "PBL is about student commitment," Drew reminded us, "not about student compliance."   If a student commits to an assessment, we should honor this by making the assessment have meaning.

With that in mind, I suggest a new word: eusessment.  The word is born of better parts, crucially replacing "as-" with "eu-" (good).   PBL can be full of these "good products," which engage with the outside world.  The best of these will seek to improve the lives of students and others.  As teachers, let us worry less about moving toward a product and more about working on products that are moving.