How do I scaffold complex tasks in an authentic and engaging way? or What is the day to day of PBL?
Earlier in my teaching I used to think that in PBL we were intentionally withholding information. It felt like we were asking students to discover concepts and skills that were well established in academics and I didn't like the dynamic that it created. My perspective has changed since then and thought I'd share.
So you are trying PBL, and you need your class to learn how to do something that is complex, like writing a comic book or building a glider. How do you scaffold all the skills that go into that task? How can you individualize the learning for each of your students? In short, you need to let them try it first, then fill in the holes over time. Here are my suggested steps for doing that. I'll give examples for a few different types of projects.
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)
Time Well Spent
I spend a ton of time planning out time with my students and making plans for projects. There's a cycle of Idea --> Predict --> Observe --> Improve. Because I have had a lot of practice with this pattern it comes pretty naturally to me. Lately I have been recognizing that being able to go through these steps is a skill as much as writing, building or public speaking so I have tried to give students chances to practice the cycle of ideas.
Lots of times I will notice students get distracted or off task when something had gone unexpectedly. Their measurements were wrong or they forgot to add something important. My interpretation is that they are skipping the Predict step and not getting into the Improve step. By not making predictions they don't see potential conflicts or issues in their idea and my not being practiced in making improvements they see their first failure as the end of the process and don't continue to try new things. To be the most help to the class I've been trying to give them lots of opportunities to practice and develop these skills.
At the beginning of this semester I was looking for ways to improve in my teaching practice. I had had a fairly successful experience with my previous class though I hadn't collected much feedback from the class except for at the very end. I was asking a colleague how to know that I was doing a good job throughout the semester. What were some small metrics that I could keep track of that would indicate whether or not I was facilitating a good experience for my students? Among the advice I received then, one nugget of knowledge stood out and I have been thinking about it ever since. They said "Make sure everyone feels like they can be heard."
To address this I set out to try a technique called the "whip around". It's pretty straightforward and will get every student to respond to a question and helps get thoughts moving.
What: Start with a question that can be answered with a brief 1 or 2 word answer. These can be answers on a scale or yes/no responses among others. In this case I asked everyone to rate their sense of preparedness for exhibition, from 1 to 10.
Why: When I learned about this technique it was justified as a way to give everyone space to have their voice heard in the classroom. It's a low stakes, short response, and nobody needs to fight for attention. When I used this I told the group that it was important for everyone to hear the range of answers in how prepared we were so that they wouldn't feel bad about feeling behind, since there are others in the same situation.
How: Set up here is easy. The whole class is present, distractions away, and ready to listen. Give them the prompt and the scale. Before they responded I asked them to turn to the person next to them and discuss what their number would be. This is just another way to help people who might not feel comfortable sharing aloud plan out their response. Once they have a chance to chat for a minute, start going around with everyone just giving their number without a justification or explanation.
The value of this technique for me was in the follow up. Leading a reflective discussion was a great time in both classes, and I noticed a higher participation rate in this discussion than previously. Because they had all discussed their answers previously they seemed to speak up more. I asked the group to estimate the average preparedness based off of everyone's answers. I asked if they were surprised by group's answers or not.
To help everyone feel like they are able to be heard is a challenge. As a teacher or facilitator it isn't enough to ask good questions or keep everyone on time. One needs also to build in places where everyone is given a space to speak and create a culture of inclusivity. Activities like the above are helping me develop in this part of my teaching career. Like other aspects of teaching I've come pretty far and still have a long ways to go.
The following is a reflection on what it's like to use critique as a lesson format. I wanted to improve the quality of the writing in reflections that my students were writing, so I decided to show them examples of high quality writing and have them critique it.
Note on Format
Ever since I was exposed to the Launch, Explore, Summarize model of lesson planning I have been using it for just about everything. Whenever I need to deliver information to the class I try to collect it into those categories because I have had such success with it. This lesson was delivered in LES format and so I have chose to discuss each phase in this post.
** revisited after 1 year. Notes at end of post
For the last few weeks I've been hosting a type of lesson in my class that I'm really excited about. It has a lot of potential. Since I do these lessons once a week I call it Technical Tuesday. I don't always get it right. In this post I'm going to try and summarize what makes these lessons work and what slows them down. I've written two previous posts on the subject but after doing four I'm starting to get the hang of it.
Motivations and Goals
This is my 1st full year teaching physics. Last semester I gave it my best shot and felt that one of the biggest improvements I could make would be to expose the students to more formal physics. For this reason I set out to find or develop a lesson style that would give my kids both and intuitive understanding of physics content as well as exposure to more formal physics notation and problem types.
I also wanted to design these lessons to reduce the amount of time that I spent in front of the class delivering information. I'm not really good at that skill and don't feel that I make it very engaging to my students. In search of a more student centered approach I attempted to build a lesson values experiences over content.
For my final project in this class I wanted to study strategies for making groups in school that are as fair as possible. In my class I've made groups using a variety of methods but successes and failures of each led me to wonder if there was a strategy that made groups that were balanced and fair to students of all styles of learning. In my research I found that by combining both a random approach and one which takes into account the input of students a fair system can be established.
Many of my friends who teach also listen to podcasts. Because teachers are the ones who most likely will benefit from this information I decided to document and share what I learned by making a podcast. I learned about the topic but also how to make and share a podcast. In the future I hope to document what I've learned and develop a guide for teachers who want to make podcasts.
The podcast can be found on my website at philipestrada.org/podcast
My class has two more weeks to finish our project. It's a complex build between groups of 3 and 4 that requires lots of planning and revision and detailed work. Each of the students in the groups also have commitments to other projects that they are involved in and often the building portion of the project gets forgotten. It's common for me to find a student meandering and ask them how much they have left to do on their building project and they'll almost have forgotten all about that aspect of it.
Recently I've gotten interested in rock climbing. I go to an indoor gym pretty regularly and enjoy the challenge. As much fun as rock climbing indoor can be, it's nothing like getting outside and climbing some real rock. I recently went to Mission Gorge with a friend and got to climb a few serious walls. He's a very experienced climber who leads trips all the time so I should have felt safe but it was hard to tell myself that when I was preparing to rappel down a 100 foot face using some knots he had just whipped together for me.
In my class this week we were shown a presentation on Autism Spectrum Disorder and teaching strategies to help those in our classes who are affected by it. According to the presentation, major piece of what these students need is help developing relationships so it is suggested that teachers create buddy systems for their students who have ASD. Having somebody to model appropriate behaviours and habits is supposed to be really useful for students with ASD.
As I reflected on this suggestion I thought about climbing with my friend. I think we can all benefit from having partners and buddies in work or projects that we do. Because of this I thought maybe in future classes of mine I can set up study partners who help each other with make up work, submitting assignments and general check ins. I'm working to make my class as inclusive as it can be and so I hesitate to require something of a few of my students and not others
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.