Project Based Learning – How Structured?

When it comes to reflecting on my own examples of Project Based Learning activities that I have designed in the past, little of it seems to be doing “new things in new ways.” I have viewed PBL as a means to achieve old ends in new-ish ways, meeting standard and benchmarks in a more student centered way that is sometimes constructivist, but often prescribed. PBL is so often just an extended, active version of the mindreading demanded by teachers; guess what I want you to know becomes guess what I want you to know how to do. Of course, I have some good PBL units that allow for discovery, but these are messy units, with loose time frames and challenging appearances for anyone beyond the classroom, like administrators.

If we take for granted that “Social and recreational online activities are jumping-off points for experimenting with digital media creation and self-expression,” then a way to do something new in a new way is to allow for students to control and design outcomes based on their interests and fashioned in ways that can be social while meeting learning targets (35). Fears about transgression online seem unfounded and often remind me of Puritanical fantasies about how sweet we were as kids. I haven’t thought that most kids are behaving any worse online than they are in analog, and this seems supported by the “Living and Learning with New Media: Report of the Digital Youth Project”:

In our work, contrary to fears that social norms are eroding online, we did not find many youth who were engaging in behaviors that were riskier than what they did in offline contexts…We do not believe that educators and parents need to bear down on kids with complicated rules and restrictions and heavy-handed norms about how they should engage online, particularly if they are not attuned to the norms that do exist among youth. Simple prohibitions, technical barriers, or time limits on use are blunt instruments; youth perceive them as raw and ill-informed exercises of power. (37)

A way to change PBL to become more real, more authentic, more student-centered, more constructivist, more “new,” is to let go entirely. This would be very hard, very messy, and entail authentic risks – kids might not learn at a quantifiable rate, and they may learn only that which they want to learn or need to learn from their own perspective. I think this is probably what they do anyway in the teacher-centered model until their spirit is broken and they become compliant. Will Richardson wrote yesterday about designing schools for kids, not adults. He wrote “We’ve been taught to hate ambiguity, that only one answer exists, that if we have enough money, we can game the test. We’ve been taught that learning ends once the test is mastered, that our passions don’t matter, and that numbers rather than goods tell our educational story.  Yet, this is what we perpetuate because for the adults, it’s the easiest path.” Instead, adults could get out of the way and allow for peer-based learning contexts:

Peer-based learning is characterized by a context of reciprocity, where participants feel they can both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture…More expert participants provide models and leadership but do not have authority over fellow participants. When these peer negotiations occur in a context of public scrutiny, youth are motivated to develop their identities and reputations through these peer-based networks, exchanging comments and links and jockeying for visibility. These efforts at gaining recognition are directed at a network of respected peers rather than formal evaluations of teachers or tests. In contrast to what they experience under the guidance of parents and teachers, with peer-based learning we see youth taking on more “grown-up” roles and ownership of their own self-presentation, learning, and evaluation of others (39).

This would lead to a stepping back for teachers, allowing others, including the students themselves, to become the experts. For most teachers, this would be a nightmare. But, even when I think about the writings of Ruby Payne on poverty that I read in my first Master’s program, I imagine that a structure like this would work in high poverty schools often labeled “failing” under our current system, schools that can be admittedly grim places for kids and adults alike. If students were engaged in real peer networks that included adults fluent in the skills and discourse of the area of interest, they would learn languages and modes of operation within different cultural contexts that would expand their abilities to work successfully beyond their immediate cultural context. These networks operate in the following manner for teachers:

Unlike instructors in formal educational settings, however, these adults are passionate hobbyists and creators, and youth see them as experienced peers, not as people who have authority over them. These adults exert tremendous influence in setting communal norms and what educators might call “learning goals,” though they do not have direct authority over newcomers. The most successful examples we have seen of youth media programs are those based on kids’ own passionate interests and allowing plenty of unstructured time for kids to tinker and explore without being dominated by direct instruction. Unlike classroom teachers, these lab teachers and youth-program leaders are not authority figures responsible for assessing kids’ competence, but are rather what Dilan Mahendran has called “co-conspirators,” much like the adult participants in online interest-driven groups (39).

Co-geeking out is what this “co-conspirator” might mean, and if the teacher isn’t the appropriate geek, then the role of the teacher is to allow the student to find the right geek or help guide him or her to a knowledgeable geek. As the report asks in conclusion, “what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions” (39)? All educational contexts could function in a more decentralized manner and, while this would mean a giant leap of faith for a conservative body of people – the conservators of culture mentioned in “Shaping Tech for the Classroom” – but would be a move into a new culture that is happening anyway, one shaped by the youth who live in this culture already to differing degrees.

In designing PBL, I wonder about ways to build an ecosystem in which kids can interact online, socially, within the school context, to learn skills of online interaction if they aren’t beyond “hanging out.” Then, good projects would lay out learning goals, provide models along a variety of possible outcomes, and then allow students to plan a timeframe and reach out to networks of interest, exploring or operating fluently, depending on their level of skill and comfort. Outcomes may be assessed on rubrics created by the student and “co-conspirators.” The teacher becomes a facilitator or coach in this model, giving up control for the possibility of greater student engagement and authentic learning.

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