Project-Based Learning (now over 50 years old) is a proven paradigm that is being embraced and practiced in STEM classrooms across America (and growing). This week, over 500 educators from across the country gathered for PBL World 2015, hosted by Buck Institute for Education, for workshops and presentations on trends in Project-Based Learning. For a great recap of insights from the event, check out Bonnie Lathram‘s post at Getting Smart, Top 10 Conversations at PBL World Focus on Students, Learning.
Earlier this year, we wrote about emerging trends in PBL for 2015. As the demand for PBL grows globally, we can expect to see intriguing implementations of it with countries adapting it to their culture and unique school standards and systems. Why the sudden global demand for PBL?
In contrast with the passive, rote memorization curricula of the past, PBL actively involves kids in hands-on activities aimed at answering questions and solving problems. This American-made approach, made popular by education reformer, John Dewey who spearheaded “learning by doing” pedagogy, usually involves teamwork, critical thinking, and evaluation of resources. In other words, it emulates how real-world scientists work.
The excitement of solving a problem or putting the pieces of an idea together also makes knowledge integration easier; curricula can more easily build upon earlier units because those previous units are more memorable and meaningful. Solving problems in the classroom can also give kids the confidence to see themselves in problem-solving careers. Just ask Janet Kolodner, cognitive scientist and author of Project-Based Inquiry Science™ (PBIS) curriculum. “In PBIS, the kids are experiencing the joyousness that scientists and engineers experienced when they do what they do,” Kolodner explains. “Scientists and engineers work on the things that are interesting to them. The curriculum is designed to help to do what scientists do. And, it allows them to consider the role that they might play someday in the world as it relates to science, whether they’re scientists or engineers or not.”
Project-based learning is the fulcrum of the National Research Council’s Next Generation Science Standards. Why? Because it works. Recent research published by SRI International demonstrates that PBL is highly effective on a number of fronts. The study, which is based on PBIS curriculum, even smoothed out learning inequities across gender and ethnicity.
Is it no wonder why Project-based learning is being adopted globally and in new and exciting ways by school systems in countries that face problems very similar to our own here in the states? We all want the promise and opportunities for our children that PBL and the SRI study indicates.
Dynamic Project-Based Learning in the UK — Ready for Prime Time?
Researchers at Hull University in the UK recently released the results of a 2-year research study that introduced a new pedagogy – Dynamic Problem-Based Learning (dPBL). The paper, Beyond Problem-Based Learning: Using Dynamic PBL in Chemistry, was published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Chemistry Education Research and Practice.
This paper discusses the development of this new pedagogy (a variation of the original PBL) used to teach first-year undergraduates the relevance and importance of sustainable development and chemistry’s role within it. Explain the authors, Tina L. Overton (@TinaOverton) and Christopher A. Randles, “One of the major challenges for the twenty-first century is sustainable development. Chemists have an important role to play in developing sustainable industries, renewable energy sources, recycling and waste management amongst other issues. It is important that graduate chemists have some appreciation of the role they may play in a chemical industry that increasingly focuses on sustainable development and in ensuring a sustainable futures society.”
The focus of the study was to investigate whether dPBL was readily implementable, and how it impacted students’ learning and attitudes. dPBL consists of three elements: students’ choice of scenario, different initial background data, and the shift in problem-context. Researchers created four sustainable development scenarios that challenged 160 first-year chemistry students (divided into 4 groups of 40 students) to design a village microgrid, as well as analyze the cost of producing biofuels for a fleet of 42 buses. Each group based its work on its choice of six reputable papers – an approach that gave each group a different batch of supporting information. After reporting back to the tutor, the students received new information about economic, regulatory, or logistical issues that required them to adjust their plans and calculations.
What makes dPBL slightly different from standard PBL is that involves assigning groups of students “related but specialized” problems, and giving them different scenarios and data sets. It’s a kind of “choose your own adventure” where students solve similar challenges in different ways.
The results of the 2-year study were quite promising. First and foremost, the usual, positive outcomes of standard PBL were noted (with regards to skills development, critical thinking and engagement). Furthermore, results indicate that the resources used “motivated students to learn about sustainability and to successfully develop transferable skills.”
In a post-study questionnaire, the majority of students responded favorably. A whopping 94 percent of the students understood the relevance of sustainable development and chemistry’s role in it, while 90 percent of the students liked being able to choose their project. With student-centered learning becoming more widely accepted, and with the discussion of choice-based learning being covered more in education blogs (How to Implement Choice-Based Learning), the potential positive effect of offering students a choice in their PBL can’t dismissed.
Though researchers are no doubt encouraged by the positive results of their study and potential of dPBL, they stress that more research will need to be done before they can say, either way, if dPBL is ready for prime time! Until then, you can find out more about dPBL by reading by downloading the full research paper HERE.
Phenomenal-Based Learning in Finland – The New Kid on The Block
Rather than teaching subjects like math, earth science, and history in isolation, Phenomenon-based learning (or Phenom-based learning) teaches interdisciplinary topics like climate change, civics, and social issues using relevant resources from a variety of disciplines. This integrated, multidisciplinary approach is based on the premise that, while individual subjects are important, the ability to put the pieces together to understand the world as a whole is what makes us informed, productive citizens.
In a recent article for EdTechReview, EdTech Meets Phenomenon-Based Learning, author Harish Lyer suggests that Phenom-based learning’s twist on Bloom’s Taxonomy makes it very learner-centric (with students participating in lesson design).“There are no set ways in which the phenomenon can be deconstructed and hence there is no specific pathway for construction,” explains Lyer. “Each learner will do it in his or her own manner, the number of linkages and the pathway chosen will depend on their prior knowledge. Educators can use a number of online platforms like Edmodo, Schoology, Flinnt etc. to engage their learners in a discussion on what subjects and concepts need to be learnt so that the phenomenon can be understood. Going forward edtech platforms could show forward and backward linkages to a certain phenomenon, this could assist the learner and the teacher to chart out their individual learning path based on their current understanding.”
With the announcement of the new National Curriculum Framework (NCF) being implemented in August 2015, Finnish schools will be required to have at least one extended period of phenomenon-based teaching in their curricula for 7 to 16-year-olds . Already one of the most innovative and successful school systems in the world, Finnish schools have actually been experimenting with the Phenom-based approach since the 1980s. While school officials are pushing for formally adopting Phenom-based learning, some teachers and parents question whether this approach is really better than traditional learning. There is, as is to be expected, quite a bit of push-back. But for Finnish school officials, maintaining outdated traditional pedagogy is an epic problem. Change is essential.
In an article for The Conversation, Finland’s School Reforms Won’t Scrap Subjects Altogether, author Pasi Sahlberg (@pasi_sahlberg) explains Finland’s necessary and urgent shift to Phenom-based learning: “Finnish students’ test scores have been declining in the most recent international tests. The answer is that educators in Finland think, quite correctly, that schools should teach what young people need in their lives rather than try to bring national test scores back to where they were. What Finnish youth need more than before are more integrated knowledge and skills about real world issues, many argue. An integrated approach, based on lessons from some schools with longer experience of that, enhances teacher collaboration in schools and makes learning more meaningful to students.”
Sound familiar? This is a recurring theme playing out in school systems around the world. Students need to be prepared for the 21st century STEM job market with solid, problem-solving skills that traditional curriculum can’t offer (at least, not the way PBL does).
Adding the Arts to Project-Based Learning in New Zealand
In an interview with School News, Alwyn Pool (the academic director of South Aukland Middle School) explained the school’s PBL foundation and the benefits school officials are seeing in its first-year implementation: “The projects give the students the opportunity to direct their own learning and work to a depth and breadth that can be difficult to achieve within a traditional structure. Working on the projects enhances their learning and thinking skills as well as their basic academic skills of reading, writing, and mathematics.”
What makes this New Zealand school’s implementation of PBL slightly different from standard PBL is that they are also incorporating music and art into the 8 projects students are required to complete per semester (from STEM to STEAM). Additionally, as far as assessments go, students also have their own “Individual Base Plan” (traditionally used only for special needs students) to help identify their interests, strengths and weaknesses – a process that is reviewed and developed between students, parents and school staff.
In the fast-changing global economy of today, where demands are placed on students to be prepared and highly qualified for STEM jobs that don’t yet exist, you can bet that we’ll be seeing more school systems around the world adopting Project-based learning to meet these demands.
It’s safe to say that Project-based learning is no longer a trend, it is the future.
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