What are we really learning?
In the past I've had a hard time adding content to my projects. They usually involve skills, like woodworking and CAD, but not easy content pieces that I could point to to say "look what we've learned". I think that this is for 2 reasons: first is that my projects didn't require very much content. to build furniture for your school doesn't really require much knowledge of physics so it doesn't come up. In fact, for the Making Space project I finished the project early so that I could go back and fill in the holes for the students with more content. The second reason is because I never asked my students what they wanted to learn.
Part of what draws me to PBL is the removal of the fluff around teaching. When I'm showing students how to make something the class structure is focused and intentional. I give a lesson in the moment because the class needs to know it to finish this part of the deliverable. Where I've fallen short in the past is picking deliverable that require both content and skills.
With Along for the Glide , the class need both content knowledge and skills to complete the objectives for each unit. Built a kite that flies, build a glider with a high glide ratio, these require building skills and knowledge of aeronautical physics. But with such a huge topic it's hard to know what to start with. So, I asked the class. Once they had had a chance to build a kite and try flying it, I had each of my students write down 3 questions on a card and turn it in at the end of the day. I combed through these for commonalities and found 3 overall questions:
- What makes a kite fly?
- What makes a kite not wobble when it flies?
- How do you fly a kite?
The answer to all these questions gets us into topics of lift and drag and balanced forces etc. And the set up for these lessons is really authentic: "Ok class I had a lot of questions last week about how to make your kites more stable in flight so I'm going to give you some ideas." or "Some of you were really able to get you kites up high last week, so I'm going to have us share some thoughts on what might make the difference when actually getting a kite into the air."
Instead of positioning myself as only the deliverer of knowledge but a part of the collaboration, these lessons are way more fun for me and engaging for the class and bring everyone in, which is the whole point.
How do I record and assess what kids learn while doing PBL?
A big question to be sure. In my practice I don't give tests or quizzes. I find these to be inauthentic assessments of what students have learned and what's more they cater to a certain type of learner. Lately I've been tweaking an assignment that serves as an assessment, reflection, and documentation of what the student has been learning in a given amount of time. I call it the T.I.L. (Things I Learned)
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.