I have been struggling all week to figure out how to frame an answer to this question that doesn’t get bogged down in fancy words and jargon. I am feeling the need for some clarity regarding the skills that I need to make sure I am teaching my students, the classroom structures and processes that are best for teaching these skills and finally, the best approach for changing my classroom practice in a productive way so that I am really teaching 21st Century Skills (in other words, what are the best first steps?).
It all started with a great post on 21st Century Pedagogy written by Andrew Churches. In the post he has a great Cmap (one of my favourite mind mapping tools) diagram illustrating the key features of 21st Century Pedagogy. They are,
? building technological, information and media fluencies [Ian Jukes]
? Developing thinking skills
? making use of project based learning
? using problem solving as a teaching tool
? using 21st C assessments with timely, appropriate and detailed feedback and reflection
? It is collaborative in nature and uses enabling and empowering technologies
? It fosters Contextual learning bridging the disciplines and curriculum areas
This is a great list and I agree with all the features, the problem is that there are too many. In my busy day to day classroom teacher life I don’t have the energy or brainpower to figure out how to incorporate all of these features into my curriculum. However, it seems to me that I actually only need to focus on project based learning and the rest logically fit into their appropriate place.
For the last 4 years I have been lucky enough to teach the IB Middle Years Program Technology Curriculum. This is a curriculum that is very well suited to project based learning and has really opened my eyes to the power of this approach. As a busy classroom teacher I believe that if I make it my focus to use project based and inquiry based learning effectively in my classroom then I will also be building technological, information and media fluencies, developing thinking skills, using problem solving as a teaching tool and fostering contextural learning (after all a project by it’s very nature is based on real challenges that cross curricular boundaries). It is also collaborative in nature.
This still raises the question what good project based learning looks like. I’m no expert but the elements that have to be there for me include:
- Using the Design Cycle explicitly. In my classroom this means that we take the time to break down what it means to really INVESTIGATE – PLAN – CREATE – EVALUATE an end product. We take the time to break down each of these steps into concrete actions and we agree on assessment criteria for each step before we begin (ok, if I’m being honest this doesn’t always happen, but I’m trying). I like what Andrew Churches says about assessment:
Students should be involved in all aspects of the assessment process. Students who are involved in setting and developing assessment criteria, marking and moderation will have a clearer understanding of: what they are meant to do; how they are meant to do it; why it is significant; why it is important.
- During the INVESTIGATION stage I take the time to teach my students the skills they will need to be successul in their project. Often this includes exposing them to knowledge, facts and information – the traditional classroom stuff. This gives them the base they need to jump off into higher order thinking activities. This is also where I often end up incorporating lessons on building technological, information and media fluencies.
- During the PLANNING and CREATION stages I have found a critical element of success to be the creation of Checkpoints and Milestones that groups can use to measure their ongoing progress. I am always so busy that this is a real challenge for me, but when I do manage to structure ongoing feedback during a project the end product is always vastly superior. Again from Andrew Churches:
Linked to assessment is the importance of timely, appropriate, detailed and specific feedback. Feedback as a learning tool, is second only to the teaching of thinking skills [Michael Pohl].
In the funny way that these things happen I was just sent this edutopia link today about a school in Pennsylvania that is using project based learning as a vehicle for teaching 21st century skills. They include the following excellent suggestions:
- Connect to Standards – don’t be distracted by the flash of the technology
- Plan, Plan, Plan – projects are complex, so a carefully planned framework is essential
- Expand Your Audience – using web 2.0 tools to expand the reach of students is motivating and gives projects context
- Walk a Mile in Their Sneakers – try the technoloigy yourself first. It often takes longer than you think.
- Keep it simple (this is my biggest challenge)
- Be on the lookout -stay connected to a community of professionals.
A fairly comprehensive list of project based learning resources can also be found here. So what have I missed? Are there any skills or knowledge that can not be taught using a problem based learning model? Are there any other key elements of project based learning that are essential to it’s success?