Project Based Learning

The Power of Student Choice

When we do technological innovation with our students, it is important the we keep the proper objectives in our minds. We want students to learn the content, innovate, collaborate, and think critically. These are absolutes.

That being said, the way they go about it does not matter so much. Does it matter how they do it? Do they all have to create something in the exact same way?

Recently, I had two projects in my classes, one for Frederick Douglass in my ELA class, and the other for the development of the North and South prior to the Civil War. I had been struggling to motivate and excite my students about ThingLink, but with these projects I opted instead to give students the option of using it. In other words, I let them choose the format for creating the project. They could create a ThingLink, an iMovie documentary, a blog post, a tri-fold poster, a Minecraft village, or any other ideas they they had.

The results far exceeded anything I could conceivably create. One pair of students created a professional-quality documentary, while another used a statistical map of the U.S. as the backdrop for a ThingLink. Others created blog posts protesting slavery by using Douglass’ life as evidence of its evils.

To be sure, I doubt that I could motivate every student to create a ThingLink or a village in Minecraft. Some were excited to write blog posts, but many opted out of that. The standards do not require students to master ThingLink or iMovie or Aurasma or Minecraft. Even the ISTE standards promote creativity and collaboration, but not specific apps or products.

In other words, when we learn about a fancy new tool at a conference, not every student will enjoy it, and that’s okay. It is one tool at our disposal, one way to motivate students.

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The Skill of Questioning

This past summer, per a recommendation of Moss Pike, I read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger.

The book describes the importance and value of questioning and how inquiry can lead to innovation and breakthrough. In a sense, Berger argues that we need less of skill ideology and more of good questioning. His book is replete of examples from the business world of how questioning can make a huge difference 21st century companies.

As I read the book, it was painfully clear that questioning would have to be essential for my future growth as a teacher. I have tried many times to have good class discussions, usually with little or no success. I had heard that having students come up with discussion questions would increase student engagement. This did work–with some success–but I found that the students’ questions did not meet my level of expectations. Berger deals with this very issue, because he enumerates a step-by-step process on how to get students to create and develop good questions. Essentially, students create questions, choose the best ones, and improve them.

I started using this process with class discussions and driving questions in Project-Based-Learning. It has already been very successful. The process has led to much better focus during project time and higher engagements during discussions. The students have done two things: take ownership of the learning process and create really good questions. One question the class developed for the novel Johnny Tremain was, “Do you think Johnny [who is an orphan adopted by a silversmith family] longs to have a real family?” I would have never created this on my own, nor would I have been inspired by it. However, this question led to a great discussion, which wouldn’t have happened with a question I had created.

I can’t do this book justice. Get it. Buy it. Read it.

The Joy of Project-Based Learning

Teaching can be a difficult job. We are constantly bombarded with gazillions of things to do, we make about 200 decisions per hour, we have to plan ahead, and we have to be present to the moment at hand.

Every once in awhile, we all might ask, “Why do we do this?”

To that I will answer: Project-Based Learning.

I’ve done projects for years, but it wasn’t until I started having students use iPads correctly that I was able to get the full Project-Based Learning experience. In my past life, I used to assign topics to groups of students, each group would complete a project, and we would all find a way to share with each other. What I have since learned is that students should find a topic of their choosing and investigate it before actually creating a product. Due to the ease of internet searching and the proliferation of information available on the internet, students learn a lot throughout the process and sometimes create amazing products.

That being said, the thing that makes it so rewarding for me is watching students huddled in groups, totally engaged. Some work on their products (perhaps Prezis, Google Slides, or video editing), while other search blogs and videos. If students are disengaged, it is very easy to redirect them. The other day, some students were playing around, and I asked them how their project was going. They said that they were going to create a Powerpoint at home, which could not be completed at school. I asked them if they had considered creating a Google Slide presentation. They jumped at the idea and immediately got to task.

Is there anything more inspiring than watching a group of teenagers totally engaged and excited about learning?