The first of the four Edifide district elementary pd days for 2014 is officially in the books. What a great day we had together at Calvin Christian School! We spent the day working in grade groups exploring project design in PBL. In developing our engagement for the day and “need to know” before launching into the project design, a key quote from Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence seemed to resonate powerfully with the group:
Most students, I believe, are caught on school treadmills that focus on quantity of work rather than quality of work. Students crank out endless final products every day and night. Teachers correct volumes of such low-quality work; it’s returned to the students and often tossed in the wastebasket. Little in it is memorable or significant, and little in it engenders personal or community pride. I feel that schools need to get off this treadmill approach and shift their focus from quantity to quality (p. 8-9).
In a fist to five check-in, there was strong agreement among the 100 educators that this quote powerfully expresses our need to change what we have students producing in their learning. We need to get off the treadmill of mediocrity and go deeper in our push of quality with less tasks: relying on expertise outside of the classroom in our inquiry, models of excellence that illustrate our potential products, collaborative cultures of peer critique, and presentations of work to an audience who can benefit from the good work.
Perhaps the quote concerns you because you’re worried that we’ll lose our focus on “covering content”, and I appreciate this tension. I think it is crucial to recognize that PBL doesn’t ignore the importance of significant content. According to the Buck Institute, significant content is one of the 8 essential elements of PBL. However, in my experience, committing primarily to covering content makes us feel more secure that we’ve done our job as teachers but forces us to ignore how much students are actually learning in our enslavement to the calendar. Covering content is the treadmill. We lose sight of the need to differentiate and accommodate, we get too teacher directed, we default to “easy” assessment tasks like testing, and students struggle to see the purpose in the work beyond their own academic marks performance and future. The motivated learn the content only as it serves an assessment task and then their brains discard it. And this treadmill creates teacher burnout under a mountain of marking.
Is it even possible to predict what content will be necessary to enable student success in their future? The focus in education has shifted from content coverage to developing learning skills that students can apply within a constantly shifting information landscape. This shift (which I appreciate) has been built into Growing Success, Ontario’s vision for assessment with a focus on formative assessments for learning, development of learning skills, curricular achievement categories—thinking, communication, application—in addition to knowledge and understanding, and reflection/metacognition as a common curricular strand in all disciplines.
With a strong sense of consensus in the room on the Ron Berger quote, we engaged specifically with this driving question for the day:
“How can I design projects that accomplish my learning goals and engage kids in culture making?”
Similar to the Buck’s PBL101 workshops hosted by Edifide and the Ontario Christian Teacher Academy, we tried to use a pbl pedagogy to learn about PBL and project design—we developed our own projects that answered our driving question and shared those great products with each other. Helpful and inspiring stories and resources from our own schools and organizations like the Buck Institute, Expeditionary Learning, and High Tech High helped us to see how PBL is a dynamic pedagogy that invites our students to be culture participants and makers in their own learning journeys. In particular, I want to encourage you to read Ron Berger’s (with Leah Rugen and Libby Woodfin) new book Leaders of their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment. I’m convinced this text can shape the way forward in how we empower students to understand and own who they are in their own learning journeys.
The day was broken into three work sessions in which we collaborated on our project designs:
- creating an engaging context for students in our projects, where we’re making meaningful products for culture and not just for a grade. This took imagination on our parts, envisioning what areas in our curriculum were important contexts in which to dive more deeply with our students, and how we can use entry events and driving questions designed with students in mind as the audience.
- accomplishing learning targets in collaborative learning communities as students create multiple drafts of their important products. In this session, we focused on the need to still accomplish important “learning targets” as Ron Berger’s book points out, “checking for understanding” through ongoing formative assessment for learning and differentiation strategies. Projects are the intersection of passion and curricular content/skills—the context in which skill development is honed within inquiry, critiques, multiple drafts, and reflection.
- celebrating and sharing the meaningful products we’ve made with an audience for whom the work matters. If we’ve engaged in good work, that good work needs to be shared! For me, the photos below are just that—a celebration of committed individuals collaborating together in important products that serve a valuable cultural purpose. What works as important learning for students works for important learning for us as learning leaders.
Each grade group (the tables pictured below) collaborated on their own important product—project designs—and produced at least one project for ongoing development. We then shared those projects with the other grade groups in a gallery at the end of the day, offering each other feedback with “I like” and “I wonder” statements. You can see the gallery of the projects below—click on the image to read the posters in full screen. Samantha has also transferred these project ideas and great gallery feedback into digital copies of each project overview and posted them in the eCurriculum groups so that the collaboration and implementation of them can continue! (If you’re a member in eCurriculum, you can access the groups here: (JK/SK, Grades 1/2, Grades 3/4, Grades 5/6, Grades 7/8. If you’re not yet a member of eCurriculum, you can request to join from our homepage).
[gallery link=”file” ids=”5215,5210,5212,5211,5205,5206,5207,5208,5209,5214,5216,5217,5218,5219,5220,5221,5222,5223”]
For those working in OACS schools (and beyond!) our hope is that we continue to seek ways to collaborate and learn from each other as we deepen our desire to learn with students in the development of meaningful, quality work. As we keep collaborating with Edifide in the remaining district PD days, our hope is that many more project ideas can not only be added informally to the groups, but also be published as curriculum resources like Lisa’s project after they’ve been implemented in our classrooms, where we can share more resources as we “live the learning.” Have you led your students through a project? How did it go? We’d love to hear about in the comment feed below, on eCurriculum, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And, although it may not make much sense unless you were at the day, here’s the Prezi that accompanied our work together. I look forward to continuing our journey in project design and engaging students in realizing their visions for culture making!