Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Project Blocks, Not Bells: PBL in an Expeditionary Learning School

I'm currently reading the last chapter of a book recently published by ISTE: Learning Supercharged: Digital Age Strategies and Insights from the Edtech Frontier (Lynne Schrum with Sandi Sumerfield, 2018).   It's highly recommended, not only because it shares helpful narratives of edtech integration by real teachers and schools, but also puts digital tools in the context of effective pedagogies and popular areas of focus such as gamification, STEM, digital citizenship, and Project Based Learning (PBL).

PBL has been a particular passion of mine since my first training on it nearly four years ago.  Schrum and Sumerfield correctly point out that PBL predates digital tools and access. Still, there is no doubt that technology enhances the depth and reach of such projects, and teachers should embrace it despite possible misgivings: "Although incorporating technological tools and online resources can often feel overwhelming, the use of digital resources can strengthen student interactive experiences, facilitate more complex thinking about challenging topics among peer groups, and often streamline the assessment of student progress for teachers" (103).   Precisely!  Since PBL is based on solving problems or questions that have more than one answer/solution, and therefore have culminating products that can vary in type, digital tools can make this more manageable and multi-modal.   That aside, the authors caution us to avoid simply creating a 'technology rich" end-of-unit project instead of an experience where students truly have agency, learn with an end in mind throughout, and create something to share with outsiders.  It is not transformative learning if the end result of PBL is merely a well presented aggregation of researched bullet points instead of a new idea or creation that shows real reflection and growth of student thinking.

Finding more ways to support teaching in an "edtech frontier" was mulling around in my brain when I recently went with several Shelby staff members to visit districts near Denver, Colorado.  A common denominator of the schools was their belief in a competency-based education system.  One in particular still sticks out for me even a month later:  William Smith High School, a part of Aurora Public Schools.  They are officially designated an "expeditionary learning" (EL) school; the defining characteristics of students in EL includes high quality authentic work, demonstrating proficiency and deep learning, and the importance of character and ethics.  On a more pragmatic level, that translates into WSHS having students experience learning beyond the four walls of their building and having a daily schedule driven by "project blocks" of PBL work, not bells.  All students had access to Chromebooks, but it was clear that PBL pedagogy, not technology, was the driver of their education.

The schedules of WSHS students are particularly innovative.  Grades 10 through 12 basically have two "classes" a day -- one block in the morning, one in the afternoon.  Student choice and needs keep the schedules unique and personalized.  (It should be noted that Freshmen began building their student agency culture and necessary "soft skills" to succeed in such an environment in the summer prior to starting at WSHS with highly structured "learning bootcamps."  Once school begins, they have a more traditional period schedule at first and gradually release into the same kind of block schedule as the upperclassman have by the end of their first school year.)  Some of these project blocks last as little as three weeks while others are as long as two months.  Not surprisingly, the project blocks are frequently cross-content, and the teachers and admin work hard to ensure that students choose their classes wisely in order to demonstrate mastery of all their necessary core standards by graduation.

But the innovation at WSHS isn't merely the logistics of their scheduling.  The project blocks themselves are classes you would beg to take if you were a high schooler.  Imagine learning exponentials and logarithms while living inside a "Zombie Apocalypse."  By building their own "Escape Rooms," students learn both geometry and art/interior design.  In "Wild Wild West," the study of transportation and weaponry teaches you both U.S. history and quadratic equations.   By reading non-fiction text and a fictional novel on climate change in "Playing God," students learn evolutionary and developmental biology while applying literary analysis and debate.   We were provided a list of project block choices just for spring 2019 that included these four classes and several dozen more, with most of the titles and class descriptions sounding more like college offerings than what you would see in a typical 9-12 school. The WSHS staff also made sure we knew that the classes offered are a constant reflection of the continual feedback of what both teachers want to teach and students want to learn.

Framed examples of past project blocks line a hallway at William Smith High School.

A closer look at the upper left section of "Bean to Bar." 

As you can see in the examples above, it is clear these PBL's are very well designed.  These PBL planning document "posters" include the following sections:

  • Class Description
  • multiple Connections (to Academics, Habits of Excellence, and/or Community)
  • what Field Work is necessary
  • what Experts will be consulted (in people and/or anchor texts)
  • what the Product in the end should or could be
  • Guiding Question
  • Sequence of Learning
  • Core Content Standards Met
  • examples of student work
WSHS were kind enough to provide a Google Doc example of one of their PBL "Project Panels" on Native American Studies, as well as a blank version that you can copy to your Drive and make your own.

As we met both staff and students at William Smith High School, it was evident that their structures were vastly different than the typical high school experience.  Student engagement was strong and palpable.  I was thankful to see specific, concrete examples of how innovative PBL can be to transform a learning culture, and grateful to meet teachers so willing to be pioneers in the frontier of education.

Note:  Buck Institute for Education facilitated my first PBL training highlighted in the blog entry linked above.  They have recently rebranded as PBLWorks, and remain a rich treasure trove of resources, workshops and articles on PBL.

Update 3/16/19:  I added the links to the WSHS Project Panel example and blank template.

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