I know lots of people see PBL as a list of rules and guidelines for how to create the PERFECT project, but that's not really how we roll. Instead, we've taken the general structure (do a project about something) and mixed it with some #flipclass pedagogy, and then made a lot of stuff up as we went along.
The result is something that I know doesn't tick all the boxes on many "Are you doing PBL right?" lists. And I'm okay with that.
I was going to write this post about the unit we just finished, but that's too easy. Instead, I'm throwing caution to the wind (that's a really weird phrase, now that I think about it) and talking about the PBL work we're starting in my 6th grade Humanities class: China.
I know almost nothing about China. I may have a history degree, but the total amount of time I spent on China in my three years in college was about four hours. Yeah.
So now that my non-credentials out of the way, here's where PBL starts. I think about the end of the unit. I have six weeks, and typically, my students do a project with their puppets in that final week. I want them to be able to understand the importance of China, not only in the ancient world but in the modern world. I want them to get that it's not a clash of civilisations with the West, but rather a different set of cultural principles and beliefs that result in very different lives from our own. I want them to be able to find China on a map. I want them to get more from these six weeks than I got in the four hours I got in my degree.
That gives me a project (a puppet play, written by the students in collaborative groups) and a set of important understandings. The skills we're working on are expository writing, historical inquiry/thinking skills, using evidence to support a claim, and asking (and finding answers to) good questions.
So now that I have all that in place, I go looking for texts. The first one is a little odd: a documentary by Sue Perkins, a British comedian, in which she travels the length of the Mekong River. It starts in Vietnam, snakes through Cambodia, then creates the border between Thailand and Laos, before terminating in China. But the reason I'm taking four hours of class time in a China unit to spend time in Not China is that this documentary does exactly what I want: it shows what life is like for ordinary people from East Asia. The cultures there are different from one another, but they are similar in that they are completely foreign to my students (and me, even).
I will also pull out some primary source letters from various points in Chinese History, and I'll try to find some poetry and art as well. Students will take the role of historical detectives to uncover what life was like for people during that time.
Now, that's not a unit plan. But it's a plan for the next week or so.
Andrew and I find that too much planning means that we don't leave room for flexibility and new ideas. So we plan a few days at a time. It works because we know where it's going and what skills we want to teach.
It also leaves room for student choice. That is something so essential that it demands time and space during instructional time. Students will do Flash Research Projects on questions they choose after watching the Mekong River documentary. They will find areas of Chinese life and culture that interest them and do more extended research projects.
Ultimately, they will direct their learning. I'm just there to guide and provide resources and feedback for the journey.
As I said before, it may not meet the definition of PBL you can see espoused by articles, courses or experts, but it's what works for our students and for us. It allows us to push students from surface level knowledge to deeper learning where it is relevant, meaningful, and exciting.
The results so far from this year indicate that my students are learning, that they are having fun, and that they are becoming more adept critical thinkers with a stronger sense of engaged curiosity.
Is it a lot of work? YES.
Is it a big shift from how I was taught to teach? YES.
But it's worth it.