Project Based Learning – giving it a go in an English Classroom

I’ve been reading about Project Based Learning for some time now, and struggled trying to find a way to integrate this kind of pedagogy into my regular classroom practice. I think I do a fairly good job of challenging my students and getting them to think beyond the obvious, but my English classes do tend to follow what would be perceived as traditional structure.

This last term we studied Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We did make a decision early on to plan the unit using the principles of Understanding by Design, and this meant we had a driving question to help us focus. Our question was, ‘What drives the choices we make?’  It took us some time to get to this question in one of our planning sessions, but I’m so glad we went to the effort of doing this. I referred to this constantly throughout our study and it really helped the students to think carefully about the motivations of  the characters and the circumstances surrounding the tragic outcome of the play. I’m not ashamed of saying that my instruction involved some fairly explicit teaching in that we examined the text thoroughly and focused on key scenes. Our classroom was full of spirited discussion and some moments where we employed drama techniques, but our intent was to understand the complexities of the play in order to respond effectively in a text response essay at the completion of our study. That my students did, and quite impressively I might add.

For the last two weeks of term, we’d decided that we would try and have them do something creative in response to Romeo and Juliet, and have them work on a multimodal task as per the requirements of Australian Curriculum. Specifically, we were looking at the following content descriptions and achievement standard:


Interacting with others:

Identify and explore the purposes and effects of different text structures and language features of spoken texts, and use this knowledge to create purposeful texts that inform, persuade and engage (ACELY1750)

Elaborations: ·  applying knowledge of spoken, visual, auditory, technical and multimodal resources (for example sound and silence, camera shot types, lighting and colour) in conjunction with verbal resources for varying purposes and contexts

  • selecting subject matter and language to position readers to accept representations of people, events, ideas and information

Plan, rehearse and deliver presentations, selecting and sequencing appropriate content and multimodal elements to influence a course of action (ACELY1751)

Elaborations: using assumptions about listeners, viewers and readers to try to position them to accept a particular point of view

Create texts:

Use a range of software, including word processing programs, confidently, flexibly and imaginatively to create, edit and publish texts, considering the identified purpose and the characteristics of the user (ACELY1776)

Elaborations: designing a webpage that combines navigation, text, sound and moving and still images for a specific audience

Create sustained texts, including texts that combine specific digital or media content, for imaginative, informative, or persuasive purposes that reflect upon challenging and complex issues (ACELY1756)

Elaborations: creating spoken, written and multimodal texts that compel readers to empathise with the ideas and emotions expressed or implied.

Achievement standard: Students create a wide range of texts to articulate complex ideas. They make presentations and contribute actively to class and group discussions, building on others’ ideas, solving problems, justifying opinions and developing and expanding arguments.

Now, our usual course of action would have been to develop a task and have the kids make some choices about what presentation method they would use to explore it, and our focus in terms of assessment would have been on the outcome. I’m sure we’ve all been there. You have your students working in groups, but invariably there is one group member who either chooses to do the bulk of the work because they want to achieve a good result and can’t bear to have the rest of the group let them down, or someone gets left to carry the can for members who slack off. In these kinds of instances I have marked group members differently, but it is sometimes difficult to ascertain who has done what, particularly if they’re working in friendship groups and they don’t want to fracture the relationship so they cover for the group members who aren’t really pulling their weight.

My reading in relation to Project Based Learning told me there was another way, so I did what comes naturally to me and I suggested to the other team members that we try something different with this and give PBL a go. For those of you with no concept of PBL, here’s some information from the Buck Institute site that outlines features of a PBL unit:

A “Main Course” project:

  • is intended to teach significant content.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication.
  • requires inquiry as part of the process of learning and creating something new.
  • is organized around an open-ended Driving Question.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • includes processes for revision and reflection.
  • involves a public audience.

These points are elaborated here – I suggest you take a look.

For the other teachers I was working with this was their first exposure to the ideas surrounding PBL, so we spent one of our planning sessions with me sending them links to the writings of Bianca Hewes, an English teacher in Sydney who uses PBL extensively in her classroom, and to the Buck Institute site, where once you’ve registered (it’s free), you gain access to a range of curriculum resources to help guide you through the process. After we’d looked at the collaboration and presentation rubrics, we could see that this was a far better approach than the usual multimodal task. The reality for us was that this was going to be an assessment task, only this time what we’d be doing is assessing collaborative skills and the process that leads to the outcome; a far better way of measuring student input and one that ensured we could assess students based on their contribution.

A good PBL task has a ‘hook’ lesson to get the kids motivated. We knew we needed to convince our students that what they were going to be doing was of benefit to them, so we focused on a report called ‘Future Work Skills – 2020‘, that was published at the end of of 2011 by the Institute for the Future for the University of Phoenix Research Institute. I suggest you take a read of the report. The following visual (perhaps a little difficult to read here) is a representation of the ideas contained in the report.

I think it was really useful using this with our students. It certainly got them thinking and provoked some spirited discussion. It’s also something I intend to revisit with them at the end of this task so we can evaluate what key skills we’ve addressed throughout the course of our PBL task.

Our driving question came into good use once again, and became the basis for the task. Here’s what we used with our students to help them get a handle on what they were going to be doing:

We have just finished our study of William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. While we were investigating the play, we used the following driving question to frame some of our discussion:

What drives the choices we make?

Working in groups, you are going to be creating some form of multimodal response to this driving question. You can use some of the ideas presented from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to frame your project, or you can take your project in a direction decided upon by members of your group.

Because we are studying English, we would like to see you incorporating writing, speaking and visual components to your task. Think about the following essential questions to help you develop a creative artifact:

‘A choice made today, will affect our lives tomorrow.’

‘What are the consequences of choosing wisely, or unwisely?’

 To help get you and your group started, use this thinking routine to start generating some ideas:

  1. What do you think you know about this topic?
  2. What questions or puzzles do you have?
  3. How can you explore this topic?

Think about the skill set of the members of your group. How can the differing skills members of your group have help you develop an artifact from your investigation?

Our next three weeks of classes will be structured like this:

Week 1 – Investigation

Week 2 – Process

Week 3 – Presentation

We will be looking very closely at developing in you what are considered 21st century skills:

critical & creative thinking, collaboration, self monitoring and self direction, leadership and project management skills.

I was concerned about grouping the students. Should we let them choose, or choose for them. After asking my Twitter network, it became clear that making the decision about groupings ourselves was going to be the way to go. This way, they’d be assured of having to work collaboratively with people outside of the normal social groupings they gravitate to. I decided to make groups of three, and this has worked very well.

Giving the students the task as outlined above was an interesting exercise. They were already sitting in their groups and watching their approaches to what they’d been presented with was eye opening. Some groups settled down to proactive discussion immediately, while others floundered with the lack of parameters surrounding the task. This is where you as a teacher really need to be on your game. This was definitely not a time to be watching events unfold. It was a time to be circulating, checking in, watching for cues that some weren’t comfortable. The thinking routine helped some groups focus, but other groups had students who were expressing agitation at the open nature of the task. These students in particular needed reassurance and reminding that this was something they needed to be shaping -they needed to be thinking about the course they could take and engaging in discourse to help ideas form.

The formation of ideas for each group’s PBL task extended into a second lesson the following day. One of my students entered the room visibly unhappy about the task. She was one of the most capable students, but was finding this a real struggle. I was concerned, but 10 minutes into the lesson I looked over to that group and was amazed to see smiles and animated discussion taking place. I moved over and asked what had transpired to change the mood. “We’ve got an idea!”, was the reply, and they were excitedly tossing around what they might do to make their idea a reality. To focus this session, I used the ‘Compass Points’ thinking routine  from the Visible Thinking site for examining propositions.

  1. E = Excited
    What excites you about this idea or proposition? What’s the upside?
  2. W = Worrisome 
    What do you find worrisome about this idea or proposition? What’s the downside?
  3. N = Need to Know
    What else do you need to know or find out about this idea or proposition? What additional information would help you to evaluate things?
  4. S = Stance or Suggestion for Moving Forward
    What is your current stance or opinion on the idea or proposition? How might you move forward in your evaluation of this idea or proposition?

I was doing a lot of circulating at this stage and monitoring progress. Two groups were working well, but were struggling to come up with a concrete idea. I asked if it would help if they heard from other groups about what their ideas were, and they were really interested in doing this. So a sharing session ensued and this helped these groups get a handle on the direction others were taking and seeded ideas for their own approach. One group needed more direction, and I sat down with them and talked through what the strengths of the participants were. This helped them narrow an idea down to something that drew from these skill sets.

What was reassuring during these sessions was hearing some students express excitement about what they doing. One group in particular who formulated their idea really early, were just buzzing with the possibilities of what they would do and what the outcomes might be. One of these students was someone who had seemed tuned out during our exploration of Romeo and Juliet, and yet here she was now, animated and driving discussion. One of the most powerful things this experience has shown me is the way some students power the group, and quite often, they’ve been students who have not necessarily been the shining lights in other classroom tasks. I’m getting insights into students that I wouldn’t have gleaned unless we were doing a task designed this way.

Now, where’s the technology in all this you may ask? It’s sitting right alongside and working as an enabler and facilitator. We’re using Edmodo as our virtual collaborative sharing space. All the students have joined the group I’ve created using the group code you get when you create one, and I’ve created small groups within this group to help them discuss ideas outside of class time. When you’re the teacher, you automatically become a member of each group when they’re formed and the space is visible only to members of that group.  I’ve made the students aware that I’ll be watching these group spaces carefully as it’s another sign of their collaborative efforts and will help with the assessment end of things. Again, it’s been interesting seeing who is sharing in these spaces and how the groups are using them for communication. One group is using a Google Doc for collaborative purposes and has it linked to their group. Their honesty is apparent in their reflections – for the most part, they’re certainly not afraid of acknowledging both their strengths and weaknesses.

As a teacher, I’ve been working hard. This is no ‘sit back and let it all unfold before your eyes’ kind of activity. This is constant checking, questioning, supporting, encouraging, monitoring kind of work. My energy levels need to be high so that I can keep their energy levels high. For the last two weeks of term as we worked on the investigation and process phase, I was chasing links in my Twitter stream and finding ways to connect them to our driving question, and was pouring over YouTube videos looking for examples of collaboration to help get across to them the importance of a group working as a team. Here’s one we looked at that really got us talking.

What’s been incredibly encouraging is the spoken feedback I’m getting from students. I’ve heard some say they are enjoying the challenge of thinking, of directing their own learning, of working with people they don’t normally mix with. One student stayed back after class to tell me how much she was enjoying learning this way and that she’d never thought it would be possible to work like this in an English classroom. Many are excited about their ideas and are genuinely interested in seeing them come to fruition and sharing their artifact with others. Most of them have structured manageable tasks, but some have been ambitious. I’ve made a point of saying to them repeatedly that it’s the collaborative work and process that is important here, and if what they come up with falls short of their plans due to time restraints, it’s still possible to do very well on this task if they have done what is expected from them. As teachers, we decided to weight collaboration most heavily for their assessment and the students know this. They’ve been provided with the assessment breakdown so they know what they are working towards.

And that brings me to what I think is probably the most important element of this PBL task. Our classroom climate and their level of trust in me. I work incredibly hard in my classes to establish a respectful classroom climate where sharing is encouraged. I try to take an interest in my students and develop positive relationships with every one of them. This doesn’t mean I’m a pushover – far from it. I have high standards and expect all of them to work to their best of their ability, and I’ll ride them if they falter in this. My feeling is that there is trust in our classroom. They know I’m working hard for them and they trust me to make the right call in relation to their performance. If we didn’t have this, I’m not sure I’d be feeling so positive about this task, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be either.

It’s not over. We’ve had the school holiday break happening now and some of the groups are in the process of creating their videos, testing their theories, writing their blog posts, making their books, interviewing their subjects and whatever other method of capture for their ideas they’ve come up with. When we return, it’s to a lesson where they can come together as a team again to plan their presentation that will take place in the first week back. We’ve asked them to think about audience, and have suggested they invite people in to view their presentations to meet the requirement of having a public audience. I’m not sure if this is going to happen for all groups, but we have organised for a combined session where the Yr 10 cohort will come together as a group and each small group can showcase something from their task they’d like to share with everyone. I am very much looking forward to seeing their completed tasks – spending time with them all in their investigation and process stages has me excited about the possibilities of what sharing will take place in the presentation phase.

From my perspective, this has been one of the most rewarding activities I’ve been involved in this year. I’m invested in it and can feel that passion for what I do apparent when I’m interacting with the students. I’m not sure if what we’ve done is entirely true to PBL, but I do know we’ve done our level best to understand the process and try and make it happen. It’s exciting and it’s meeting some of the achievement standards of the Australian Curriculum for Yr 10 English as well as quite a few of the elements of the General Capabilities. Once again, my thanks go to Bianca Hewes for being such an inspiration and for helping me to see how PBL can fit into the structure of our curriculum. I’ll keep you posted as to what transpires when I return to school next week.

School’s out Friday

Now, I’m none too impressed with the weather this week in Melbourne, but this timelapse video, created by Filip Laureys for a project at Deakin University, makes me appreciate the city I live in. Melbourne really is quite beautiful, even more so when it’s a few degrees warmer and the wind and rain isn’t messing up your hair!

It’s been a busy week at school and I’ve got a bag load of essays to correct this weekend. Lucky me. I’ve also convinced the two other Year 10 teachers of English that we can try out Project Based Learning for our next unit beginning next week. This means translating my understanding of PBL to them, ensuring that we’re all on the same page, and that we have useful support material to do our best to make it work. We’re all trying out Edmodo for the first time to assist with collaboration for small groups and I’m interested to see how the kids take to it.

Sometimes I wonder what it is that drives me to create more work for myself, but I think I know the answer to that one. I want to make learning relevant, and I want to see the kids I teach develop skills that will be the expected norm in their future working lives. I do have to thank Bianca Hewes from Sydney, who very generously spoke with me this week and answered the stream of questions I had for her about PBL. Bianca has been sharing her experiences with PBL in her English classroom over the last year or so and I would encourage you to take a read of her blog and start following her on Twitter. She shares her practice freely, both the successful and not so successful PBL experiences. I have very much appreciated the guidance she provides through her sharing and feel more confident about the next two weeks thanks to the lessons she imparts.

Enjoy your weekend everyone. I hope to, despite the millstone that comes with a bag of marking. I’ll have find something to temper that! 🙂