I originally thought I would introduce Project Based Learning (PBL) concept to my year 4 class that I took over this year. Previously this class had real issues with group work and working in a team and I knew that this could have been something quite difficult. The concept behind PBL is well known, there are a few versions of it the Buck Institute or the New Tech Network are really the heavy hitters in how to create PBL units.
Creating collaborative groups that work can be a bit of a struggle. In my previous experience working with groups I know that getting the right mix of students is very important. The last time I tried PBL students were allocated groupings based on who they sat next to on a table (arbitrarily decided by a teacher for one reason or another). However, I had previous experience in my students working together with whoever they wanted to for our Design an App Science unit. This worked fairly successfully however there was a still a high degree of difference in the quality of work i received from all groups. So to try and find a fair way to organise a team I decided to try (Gibbs, 2001) tribe’s theory.
Kagan’s theory in a very short version is having students of mixed ability grouped together as a team to be able to collaborate and learn within a group environment.
Therefore, students were grouped by a mixture of their ability and personality traits and multiple intelligences. This was not that straightforward to set up originally and took a fair bit of time. If I had my time again, and knowing this class as I do now, I probably would have allowed them to work in the group that they would have chosen for themselves.
Driving Question : Explain the impact and consequences on the indigenous Australians by the colonisation of the first fleet
|Benchmark 1: Who explored Australia before the British?||Benchmark 2: Imagine you are an early settler; Create a diary entry for how you think life would have been in early Sydney town|
|Benchmark 3: Create a short 1 min video of how the British survived the early colonisation of early Australia||Benchmark 4: Explain the impact and consequences for the indigenous Australians by the colonisation of the first fleet.|
What didn’t go according to plan? How did we fix it?
So with all PBL opportunity you need a hook event, something to get the students really engaged and excited into what they were doing. BUT, we unfortunately didn’t have the luxury of setting up an entry event.
So when we started the groups/tribes worked collaboratively on Benchmark 1. Although they worked fairly well in groups (except for one tribe) all the other tribes worked fairly well. However, the students weren’t enthused by their time to work together as a group. Without that entry event it was all a bit flat. The second Benchmark of the project was to create a diary entry which we had integrated into our Literacy lessons but again they just weren’t into the time set aside for PBL.
We had to do something. <Insert crazy idea here>. That’s exactly what we did! We needed parents, teachers, other students to come into our room and go WOW! So this is what we did.
My team teacher and I started to build this epic ship. Using the groups biographies as the sales for this ship, students were able to feel like they contributed to making the ship. Their diary entries were collated, bound and put in a book on the ship so students could show off their work.
This was it, this was the hook. We gained a lot of attraction and interest from parents, other students, teachers and actually principals from other schools and the heads of different departments within our school network.
Benchmark 3 and 4 proved to be a massive success, and students really wanted to create their own videos and really make it their own. Each Benchmark was allocated 2 weeks’ worth of working time and we even got to a stage where students were so enthused they wanted to work on their project all the time.
In reflection on the whole unit it has left me pondering a few questions. As we went through especially Benchmark 4, unpacking of the driving questions for the benchmark became harder, as did the contextual language in there. This lead me to think on whether the questions were too difficult? For year 4 for students to understand what the impacts and consequences are may be a bridge too far?
The second issue is a combination of two points. Did I have too many benchmarks? The reason I am thinking that this is the case is quite simple, there were so many interruptions throughout the unit time and because History is not a subject that “HAS” to be done daily all the time, it was very often bumped or missed out altogether. What I think worked well with this unit though was that we combined our literacy unit to go hand in hand with the History unit. Therefore anything we did in literacy was directly related to the benchmark we were doing.
Thirdly and finally for the negative part of this reflection is having no entry event. I think this could have been an even bigger event if we had an entry event that really got the students hooked! Next time I will have an entry event to hook them in!
On the other hand, on the positive side the unit worked extremely well, at least from my point of view. Students performed at a level of expectations a year or two above where they are. The quality and standard of work, especially their videos was outstanding, i really wish that I could show them to you. Having year 4 students use complicated movie making software, using complicated techniques, creating and writing proper scripts was a fantastic experience to watch them grow.
The second win I feel is that because the immersion in the subject was just so large in that, anything we did in Literacy was a major hit on the outcome and indicators of History, I think we taught that unit to a level where when the students next tackle the first fleet, convicts and aboriginals in early Australia the teachers will have to step up because these students already know it.
What would I change?
The biggest challenge apart from having the students work well in their groups/tribes etc. Was probably my fellow colleagues, In our mandated guidelines we need to do a certain abstract grouping of literacy events I guess they could be called daily. As these need to be classified and programmed independently it was very difficult to have the programs and sometimes the activities double up.
Also with year 4, or any class that is starting with PBL. I would highly recommend scaffolding the project towards expected products. I feel once they have done one PBL course, and it has shown in my second, that students then know what is expected and have a higher standard of work. Also if you are thinking that you could introduce protocols within your first PBL course, I would only introduce a few, as in maybe one each benchmark. The group work expectation and monitoring and scaffolding a class needs in their first PBL experience is more than I thought. I only really only was able to do one protocol per benchmark, although i’m not sure that maybe better planning on my behalf would have helped?
Gibbs, J. (2001). Discovering Gifts in Middle School. California: CentreSourceSystems.