Facilitating PBL

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Now that much of the design process for this PBL is completed, consideration of  my own behaviors during the project is the focus. In PBL, the role of the teacher and students shifts: student-centered learning takes center stage, so to speak, and the teacher becomes a facilitator rather than the sole deliverer of information. This shift can make many teachers uncomfortable especially when their performance is tied to student performance on standardized assessments. That kind of pressure drives us to control the process which often has the opposite effect on students.

For most of my education career (though not all of it) I have acted as a facilitator rather than a deliverer of content. Teaching online forced me to reconsider my pedagogical practice as it is much, much harder to find ways to lecture in an eLearning format. So there is not a huge shift to make in the face to face realm for me. That is not to say that I don’t have more to learn about skillful facilitation.

As indicated in the definition above, a facilitator makes things easier. That means that as I observe students work, I need to look for problem areas. Where are students deficient skill-wise? What content is harder to learn or understand? What do students need to be successful? Identification of student problems or challenges is the first critical component of effective facilitation.

Determining how to solve problems or support students struggling with an issue becomes the next step for a facilitating teacher. This may involve teacher research, inviting a professional to class, locating support documents, creating support processes or activities, or sharing student examples. Sometimes an act as simple as providing the right feedback to students can help students out of a problem.

As I mentioned previously, though I am used to facilitating, I can stand to learn more about effective practices. The best way I know to do this is twofold: first, to research other’s facilitation methods and\or read books on the topic can often help me reflect on my own practices and improve. Secondly, observing other teachers facilitate student work is immensely helpful. This can be done with colleagues or by watching instructional videos.

I believe that giving students independence through semi-structured learning activities in a supportive environment ensures that they learn – not only content information but skills as well. There have been too many instances where I have watched students wither under continued teacher-centered instruction to lead me to believe that student-centered classrooms are the best way to ensure student growth.

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Scaffolding PBL

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I had already touched on this in the last journal reflection but I’ll recap how I foresee scaffolding working in my project. Scaffolding is essential in any course regardless of whether or not PBL is being implemented. For students in my classes, it is likely that they have not experienced a PBL unit before and that they are not used to having lots of academic freedom\hands on time in a college course. Thus, structure and support will be essential for students to succeed in this PBL unit. Below is a brief summarization of how I have planned for scaffolding in my project thus far.

Activity Structure: Course activities and assessments are designed in such a way that they build from easier to more challenging. The students begin by completing individual explorations of upcoming content. I reserve the challenging activities for in-class activities where students can have the benefit of peer or teacher support when needed. In general, activities follow the we do – you do format where students are able to see an example of a process before being expected to complete it on their own.

Support Materials: When possible, resources and support documents will be provided to students to help them with course activities. For example, there are a number of helpful websites that provide information on how to take notes or critically read college-level content. For our primary source analysis activities, students will benefit from the use of analysis documents from both the National Archives and the Library of Congress. As we go through the semester, I will college student samples to help demonstrate what mastery looks like for each assessment.

Instructor Support: Most of the in-class activities are student-centered freeing me up to facilitate and support learners when they need it the most. As students explore primary sources or work on writing, I will be able to walk around. observe, and support on an as needed basis.

Institutional Support: At times, there will be topics where students need support that is better provided by someone other than me. For example, I can teach some writing skills but in extreme cases, a student may benefit from the assistance of a writing instructor in the writing lab. My college has a number of student support groups and facilities designed to help learners grow in terms of skills. When the need arises, I will either direct students to these experts or invite those experts into the classroom.

The Advantages: Integrating Technology into History

Teaching history today is far more complicated than it used to be even a few decades ago. The rapid availability of information and multimedia can make even the best traditional lecture look like a modern-day archaeology exhibit. Though the essence of history and its studies has not changed, the process by which information is gathered, learned, and shared has evolved.

The use of technology in the history classroom provides a number of unique opportunities for students not afforded by previous generations due to financial and geographic constraints. A student who has never ventured beyond their city limits can visit the ancient pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China with a few clicks of a button. These opportunities have the potential to create a new, digital world in which history can emerge for students. Below is a brief listing of the relative advantages of integrating technology into history instruction.

  1. Engaging: Who doesn’t find playing an American Revolution game far more interesting than listening to a lecture? Integrating relevant technology into history lessons can ensure that students remain interested in the material. These experiences may also serve to maintain student attention later when the content is not as interesting.
  2. Personal Perspectives: Technology provides the opportunity to access exhaustive collections of primary source documents which give students insight into a very personal aspect of the content studied in textbooks and other course materials. Frequently secondary source accounts glaze over the intricacies of events and time periods, tending to favor a summarized approach to the content. Online repositories such as the Library of Congress and National Archives open the door to new perspectives in historical studies.
  3. Practice Digital Skills: Any time students can work with technology or online, they have an opportunity to practice their digital skills as well as appropriate digital citizenship. By utilizing popular Web 2.0 tools (such as Twitter, WordPress, or Google Drive) students can practice digital skills just as professionals do in their daily jobs today. The classroom provides a safe environment by which to engage in this practice and learn new methods students may not have normally explored on their own.

Ultimately, integrating technology into history courses makes the content come alive. Students can explore the people, places, and events in new ways as they see fit making their learning experiences much more customized and personal.

References

Roblyer, M. D. (2016). Integrating educational technology into teaching (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Creating Effective PBL Assessments

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Assessment is always a touchy subject in education. The stereotypical assessments that come to mind include state or national standardized tests, multiple choice tests, and scantrons. However, assessments in PBL are much more than a simple measure of right or wrong. Well designed assessments help the teacher see how well students understand the material and whether or not they are growing academically. These measures should challenge students in a non-threatening way, align with their work in the unit, and guide their growth.

This week we developed assessments for our PBL units and were asked to reflect upon these assessments as they relate to J.S. McTighe’s key principles of assessment. Below is a list of my intended assessments and brief descriptions on how they relate to these principles.

Weekly Notes: Each student will explore the course materials for each week before we meet in class. They are to take notes on what they learned for use during in class activities. This is assessed as a completion grade but the true purpose of this activity is twofold. First, these notes are taken to ensure that students are exploring course materials before class. Secondly, the notes ensure that everyone has some sort of foundation before primary source analysis begins and that they have something to reference as they begin their analysis work in small groups.

Document Analysis Practice: This is the hard work of the course – learning to analyze and corroborate historical documents to answer guiding questions. Because this is truly difficult work, students do these activities in class in a small group with the professor available when they become stuck. These activities are designed to help them learn the analysis process in a safe environment, essentially scaffolding the research process.

RAFT Writing: Because this project focuses on how everyday people experienced history, working on understanding perspectives is an important learning target. As such, students will write from the perspectives of others about historical topics through RAFT assignments. Again, these are largely completed in class so that students can get the help of the professor or peers when they need it the most.

DBQ Writing: Similar to the RAFT writing, students will practice short document based question writing assignments in class. These are designed to teach students how to construct an argument using historical documents as evidence for that argument. These are also largely completed in class so that when students struggle, there is a support system immediately available to them.

Reflection Blog: The reflection blog gives students an opportunity to put the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to practice on an individual level. In this activity, students research topics related to the course materials of the week and locate 3 to 4 primary sources that help them answer the driving question (what was history really like for those who lived through it?). This is an activity designed to scaffold the final assignment – the anthology book.

Anthology Book: My plans for this assignment are still a bit blurry but the overall goal is for students to answer the driving question for each era studied in class by compiling documents from their blog and creating an eBook that answers the driving question. Students will put the primary sources in context of each era’s reputation through secondary sources and either corroborate, add to, or challenge the narrative. Ultimately, this activity encompasses all of the goals of the prior assignments: content coverage\historical background, source analysis and corroboration, perspective, persuasive argument, and reflection.

PBL & Active Audiences

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This week, our professor posed a question to us that I had been worrying about in prior weeks: is it still PBL without an active audience. According to the Buck Institute, having an active audience to view student project outcomes is a crucial component of the PBL process. While I understand that an active audience is part of establishing authenticity, it can pose challenges to teachers or schools who are not in a position to open their doors to the community for a variety of reasons (location, time, resources, etc.) At the same time, I think the meaning of active audience can be stretched to mean many different things in our current age of technology and interconnectedness.

In short, I do believe a unit can still be considered PBL without an active audience because it is not the audience that makes the unit project based. That being said, each PBL unit must have some element of relevance or authenticity to anchor the learning. Otherwise, the work students do loses some of its purposefulness. In lieu of a public presentation, the teacher could have students post their work online for others online to view. For a high school class, creating products intended to teacher younger students might be a motivating outcome. Alternatively, creating an online reference for users who need information could also be a useful outcome. I also think it could be really fun for two classes in two different places (i.e. different cities, states, or even countries) to study the same PBL unit and share their outcomes.

Understanding PBL Through Examples

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Exploring several PBL examples in detail this week has allowed me a few lightbulb moments or so about the focus of projects\process. First and foremost, many of the PBL units I discovered were very much inquiry-based and relied on primary source documents. Additionally, the examples were very student driven in that the students were doing lots of exploration and discovering information through the primary sources. Towards the end of the projects, students were tasked with reflecting on the consequences of the unit (i.e.

This realization occurred much to my relief as this is how I generally teach my classes. We do lots of hands-on primary source analysis and use those documents to answer guiding questions. The only major difference is that my lessons are day to day rather than an integrated, structured approach to a single driving question. As such, I think that it is going to be possible to create a PBL that will still allow me to cover material while simultaneously getting depth.

Despite my increasing comfort with some aspects of PBL, a couple of new concerns have arisen. First, most of the topics in the project seem to fall into one of two types – a) the project topic is very narrow (i.e. putting Truman on trial for dropping the atomic bomb) or b) the project topic is exceptionally broad (does history repeat itself?). Normally this would not be a major concern but the timeframes of the example projects (two to eight weeks in duration) do pose issues. This next semester I will be teaching eight-week sections of US History. That means that my students have to learn an entire semester’s worth of US History content in a short amount of time. Spending two weeks on a mock trial for President Truman won’t work for us. As such I don’t know that the narrow focus is a possibility in my classes. I am learning towards the possibility of a broad question we can revisit each session or week that helps us tie major ideas in history together between the eras.

For those curious, below are the links for the sample PBL units I explored:

Initial Thoughts on Project Based Learning

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This week has been a whirlwind introduction to project based learning. I have been interested in the topic for some time because of the extreme creativity of the instruction that goes along with PBL as well as the stories of impressive outcomes. Though I have never taught a PBL unit or created a training for teachers on PBL, I have always remained interested and curious about the process. Designing a  PBL unit or training has just seemed like a big, scary audacious goal to tackle on my own.

In this first week of study, I really tried to delve into the research on outcomes and was surprised to discover that there is not much of a body of literature on the topic. What I did find were a few case study-like articles and stories where project based learning has been adopted as part of a cultural approach. For at risk or struggling students, this instructional approach seems to have a positive influence on their academic and personal performance. Regardless of research on outcomes, PBL seems to have important benefits for students in terms of skills. The capacity to make decisions, conduct research, work in cooperative groups, and think independently are all skills students must have to succeed in the workplace.

There are only two elements that I cannot reconcile yet with PBL. First, I am a bit uncomfortable with the requirement that projects are somehow presented or shared publicly. This is not always a practical option in the classroom – especially in a small rural community with little technology resources. My second concern involves the coverage versus depth issue that always plagues discussions on curriculum and instruction. PBL is a great way to get depth in a history course. That being said, many state and institutional standards have coverage requirements. This is especially troubling in history where major eras, events, people, and dates are crucial for student understanding at a foundational level before any real depth can be achieved. I’ll be considering both of these issues in more depth as we continue along in the course.

References

Boaler, J. (2002). Learning from teaching: Exploring the relationship between reform curriculum and equity. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 33(4), 239-258.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1992). The Jasper Series as an example of anchored instruction: Theory, program description, and assessment data. Educational Psychologist, 27(3), 291-315.

Creghan, C., & Adair-Creghan, K. (2015). The positive impact of project-based learning on attendance of an economically disadvantaged student population: A multiyear study. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 9(2). Retrieved fromhttp://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1541-5015.1496

David, J. L. (2008). What research says about…Project-based learning. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 80-82. Retrieved fromhttp://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/feb08/vol65/num05/Project-Based_Learning.aspx

Heitin, L. (2012). Project-based learning helps at-risk students. Education Week, 31(29), 8-9. Retrieved fromhttp://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/04/25/29projbased.h31.html

Acceptable Use Policies

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In today’s world, there are few environments that are unexplored, wild, and free. When I think of the Internet and Web 2.0, it reminds me of the famed Wild West of the 1800s. Potential fortune and dangers lurked just beyond the horizon of the settled eastern United States for anyone brave enough to venture westward. Though we have already settled from coast to coast, Americans are always looking for new horizons to explore and expand into. The Internet today is no exception to these opportunities. Though virtual, the general theme is similar. 

In the West, there were tales of lawlessness and of brave, unconventional law enforcement agents willing to give their lives to counter such chaos. Though there are no outlaws or bandits to worry about online, the virtual world still harbors dangers that teachers and institutions must help students learn to avoid.  Acceptable use policies are a good step in that direction. 

AUPs stand to protect both users and institutions online (Roblyer, 2016). These policies are devised to communicate policies for use of institutional devices and services. They apply to employees and students alike though there may be separate policies for each group. The Consortium for School Networking (2013) states that AUPs exist for two reasons: to protect students online by managing approved behaviors and to provide quality access to online resources and media. Designing the AUP to do both is possible but can be challenging and may require revisions and updates over time. 

Sample AUPs

Because I work at a community college in Texas, I sought out several examples from similar institutions within the state. Other examples are from larger institutions within the United States. Also included are some recommended\sample AUPs from the National Center for Education Statistics.

References

Consortium for School Networking. (2013). Rethinking acceptable use policies to enable digital learning: A guide for school districts. Retrieved from: http://www.cosn.org/sites/default/files/pdf/Revised%20AUP%20March%202013_final.pdf

Roblyer, M. D. (2016). Integrating educational technology into teaching (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

 

Relative Advantage of the Basic Suite for Learning

Blogging about tools I have used for almost two decades was a true challenge. It was not until I had done some research and completed this week’s activities that I could truly reflect upon the power of the basic suite tools. Here are a few of those thoughts. 

Most of us familiar with technology have used the basic suite of software tools (word processor, spreadsheets, and presentations) so frequently that they have blended into the day to day routine of work and personal life. As an instructional coach and adjunct instructor, I find that I use Microsoft Word and PowerPoint (or Google Docs) on a daily basis to created assignments and instructional resources. Helping students learn to use these tools in a professional manner is a great strategy to teach them organization and productivity skills.

1. Everyone can create professional products

Regardless of ability level, with a small bit of knowledge of basic software tools, anyone can create professional-quality documents and resources (Roblyer, 2016). With such a strong push towards 21st-century skills arms authentic assignments, basic suite tools provide the foundation for such work to occur in a classroom. Students can quickly pull together flash cards in Microsoft PowerPoint or collaboratively create a document based question outline in a Google Doc with a group of students. The possibilities are endless.


2.  As an improvement to existing in-class activities

Discussion is a critical component of the social studies classroom. History content is, by its nature, filled with controversial topics best explored through class discussion and debate. As Roberts (2013) notes, face to face discussion on challenging issue proves problematic for even the most adept teacher.  Students may prefer to have time to reflect on comments made by peers or on the material itself. Others may not feel comfortable expressing their opinion in a large class of students.

The high level of collaboration potential on basic tools, such as Google Docs, provides solutions for teachers struggling to implement discussions in the social studies classroom. Roberts (2013) documents a case study where a face to face strategy called Chalk Talk was transformed into a digital one using Google Docs. Chalk Talk traditionally occurs on a whiteboard or chalkboard. The teacher writes a challenge question or controversial topic in the center of the board. Students take turns silently responding to the prompt. This strategy is effective but poses a few challenges in terms of logistics. Depending upon the amount of writing tools and board space, a limited amount of students can participate at one given time. Shy students are notoriously difficult to motivate in this type of activity. By using a Google Document as the Chalk Talk medium, students can simultaneously post and reflect upon comments at a pace that suits each individual. While new logistical issues arise with this solution (such as students deleting other’s comments), document organization or division into smaller groups may help improve the experience.

References

Roberts, S. L. (2013). The “chalk talk” 2.0: Using Google Docs to improve silent discussion in social studies. The Social Studies, 104(3), 130-136. doi: 10.1080/00377996.2012.703972

Roblyer, M. D. (2016). Integrating educational technology into teaching (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.