Suzie Boss, co-author with Jane Krause of Reinventing Project Based Learning with Technology, visited St. Gregory for the past two days, and it was a great pleasure to share our school with her and discuss together project based learning with technology at St. Gregory.  Her presentation to our faculty (to reiterate, it is  Suzie’s presentation, not my own), is above, and it stimulated conversation for several days.

I have listed links to  the resources she shared in her presentation below at bottom (click more).

After her presentation to the full faculty, she then was kind enough to spend the next day and a half visiting with small groups of teachers for a block at a time; in each block teachers shared with Suzie for her feedback projects either already implemented or already in development.  I am intending in a near-future post to share some of our teachers’ “take-aways” from these conversations.

Project Based Learning with Technology has been identified by the National Association of Independent Schools Guide to Becoming a School of the Future as a core “Unifying Theme” of Schools of the Future.   Many in 21st century learning, including the Partnership for 21st century skills, High Tech High, and New Tech Network Schools emphasize PBL-T as an essential vehicle for students to better actively learn and master skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communications– the skills we highlight as essential goals for our St. Gregory students.

I didn’t participate in most of the faculty sessions, but I enjoyed a sequence of dinners and lunches with Suzie and various others, and over the course of two days’ conversation several key themes about PBL emerged for me.

1. We need to be cautious about the idea that PBL can be effectively deployed as a primarily at-home/homework event.    Parents understandably fear the idea that PBL will be accomplished via a Science Fair project, or a Build-your-own mission activity, assigned by teachers to be done at home over a period of a month or two.    These types of activities sometimes work brilliantly for some students and families (and sometimes they don’t) , but PBL isn’t best done this way; PBL in the contemporary, high quality way is something that happens in the classroom primarily (though not exclusively), embedded into the teacher’s core curriculum and closely supervised by the teacher.   It involves teams working together at school and at home on assignments that contain high levels of core curriculum content.

2.  We need to differentiate between “activities” and “projects” when discussing high quality PBL.  Activities that seem like useful extensions, or hands-on applications of the curriculum unit, can sometimes be useful learning events, but only in moderation, and sometimes they are just extraneous or silly (not that silly is always bad).  Projects are far more substantiative than activities: they require multiple steps, research and analysis, careful planning, comprehensive rubrics for assessment, and a sharply defined and rich end-product.

3.  Planning for projects begins with the end in mind.  Define first, rigorously, the learning outcomes intended for any given project.  Determine and decide clearly what you expect students to learn and demonstrate first, and then work backwards to design a project that will require students to develop and display these skills and understandings.    The converse: it is much less effective to begin a PBL by envisioning an interesting activity seemingly related to the topic at hand and then trying to build into that activity your intended learning outcomes.

4. Comprehensive rubrics are not only essential, but they need to be built out before the project is launched and shared at its commencement.    For more about assessment, see Suzie’s recent monograph on that topic for edutopia.

5. Students presenting to other students, orally, whether with posters, powerpoints, or props, should be used cautiously and sparingly.   We do want student work to be exhibited and shared, and we do want to students to develop presentation skills.  But we need to be cautious about thinking that we improve learning, or that we are effectively deploying PBL, when the final product is a 5-15 minute oral presentation by a student or group of student to other students or parents.   Though this can be, sometimes, a modestly valuable experience for the presenters, it can often be far too tedious for the audience.   Instead, help students learn the value of succinct and concise presentations– with additional information or resources available on-line.  Use a press conference format for more interactivity, or perhaps a debate format.   If powerpoint it must be, use a “pecha-kucha” format: 20 slides, 20 seconds each, automatic advancing, absolute time limit of 400 seconds.  Better yet, have students distill their presentation to a 90-180 second video, no longer, enhanced by music and other attention grabbing elements.

Links for some of Suzie’s recommended resources:

  • Pixie Project: changing the image of rescue, one animal at a time…
  • Hero Rat:  HeroRATs provide a simple, innovative solution to some of the complex global problems facing humankind today. By working together, we can save even more lives and limbs.
  • Dan Meyer’s Math Blog: dy/dan: less helpful
  • Manor New Tech High’s youtube channel
  • Expeditionary Learning Schools Quality of Student Work Gallery: Our students produce meaningful, high quality work that sets a standard for scholarship and contributes to the community beyond the classroom. Students K-12 are involved in standards-based, skills-rich projects during school, which result in products for real-world audiences. These projects engage students with an authentic purpose for their learning and a reason to strive for excellence. This rotating gallery features examples of the diverse student products that our schools deliver on a regular basis.

In concluding I want to express my enormous gratitude to Suzie for taking the time to travel from her home in Portland to Tucson to visit with us and engage us in this reflective and learning process.