PBL at the DMV
On Twitter, I recently saw this posting:
— AASSA (@AASSA_SA) March 23, 2018
If the answer is yes, what would you learn? How would you know that you are reaching your goal? I bet many of us have recently learned how to do something. In my case, I had to master parallel parking in order to pass the road test to get my driver’s license from the state of Texas. I had been driving for a long time back in Quito, but parallel parking brought a lot of anxiety because I never learned the skill in order to feel proficient. But this time, I had an important reason—and a practical one—to get motivated to learn. To embark on this process, first I needed to admit that I am the kind of learner that needs to see exemplary models and clear instructions on how to do things. I am not the person who just gets a feel for how things work by experimenting. I started watching YouTube videos meant to instruct teenage drivers—such as the one below. I memorized the instructions so I could practice with my car, but one thing is knowing it in your head and another is applying the knowledge. Well, it took me about 15 tries and my husband’s coaching to be able to feel prepared. But, the real evidence of mastery was to parallel park during my road test, and, thankfully… I passed.
I described my experience because it exemplifies what I think is pivotal in any learning process:
- A relevant reason to learn something, which increases engagement and motivation
- Access to the most accurate information about the topic
- Transfer of new information to an application stage
- Receiving helpful feedback or coaching
- Creation of final product or performance task which is shared with an authentic audience so we can see the purpose of our work
How does this experience compare to the elements of Project Based Learning?
Let’s start with a definition. According to the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) PBL is:
…a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.
The Buck Institute emphasizes the Essential Project Design Elements for a successful PBL model:
Challenging Problem or Question: This is the reason why students are motivated to do the work. There needs to be a problem to solve or to find the answer to an important question. In my case, I needed to parallel park in order to have a driver’s license. However, in the classroom, how would I pose a question or a problem that motivates my students to feel compelled to learn? In my opinion, this is the hardest part to plan because its main purpose is to motivate and engage the student to want to endure the process of learning. Here is an entry event from Manor New Tech High School called “Gilgamesh-Ancient Espionage:
Sustained Inquiry: This is the research stage of PBL requiring one to be skillful about finding information relevant to the big question or the problem. In my case, YouTube was a great resource to find videos about parallel parking. In addition, my husband provided information about how he approached the task.
Authenticity: Was my pursue a real-world situation? Did it have a real impact? Of course, I needed to pass my driving test to have a license so I could drive my car and be independent.
Student Voice & Choice: Does the student have a saying on how they will go about answering the question or solving the problem? In my case, I decided that I will use YouTube videos to learn and then practice.
Reflection: Was I learning? Were my methods working? When unsuccessfully hitting the curb when parking, I realized that I was having trouble judging the proportions of my car related to the surroundings. I realized that I had to rely more on my built-in camera to see how close the curb was.
Critique & Revision: As a formative assessment, my husband observed me parking and gave me instructions on how to avoid hitting the curb.
Public Product: I had to parallel park without hitting the curb with a Department of Public Safety officer.
Moreover, even though the idea isn’t new, PBL has become a buzz word for a few years now, and, as Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, quoted in this post, affirms that the popularity of PBL is due to the increased accessibility to tech tools.
“…technologies make challenge-based learning more possible; students can just do this work, they don’t have to sit and wait for a teacher to tell them the information—they can look it up, find experts who know something, or watch YouTube videos describing how to build something. Those are the resources we can leverage more and more for learning.”
PBL applied in Profesional Development
Now that we understand how to make learning more engaging and long-lasting, it only makes sense to replicate it when planning professional development opportunities for teachers. For most of my experience as an educator, PD workshops have the obsolete model of “sitting and absorbing” the new information. However, Role-Reversal PD, as mentioned in the blog post, PBL Professional Development that Actually Works, may help teachers experience the role of a student by going through the same process of learning: pondering on relevant questions or problems, creating groups, researching, and designing a product that shows their deep learning.
In a way, as Michael Resnick’s book, Lifelong Kindergarten, suggests, we must re-create an experience of inquiry, exploration, and collaboration for our students. This would be a tall order to accomplish with educators, especially if we could argue that there is usually a time limitation when providing PD. However, shouldn’t we also aspire for our teachers to reach deeper learning? If the answer is ¨yes¨, then we need to not only inspire teachers to use PBL in their teaching, but we need to also tie their own professional development opportunities to strong interests and motivation. And, ideally, their own PD opportunities should also be constructed with all the components of PBL.