By Tammy Tkachuk
Last week, Christine, Cheryl, and I attended two ERLC sessions at Michael Stembitsky School in Edmonton (http://michaelstrembitsky.epsb.ca/). During these sessions, we had the opportunity to observe Project Based Learning (PBL) in a K-9 school. I had a lot of questions about Project Based Learning when we arrived at the school. Last spring I attended a Project Based Learning session put on by the Buck Institute (http://bie.org/) and the ERLC. It was a three day session that took teachers through the steps required to plan a Project Based Learning unit of study. It was a busy three days and I left feeling a bit overwhelmed. I had many questions about how Project Based Learning would really look in a classroom.
I have always done a lot of projects with the students in my classes. These have typically been activities that students work on at the end of unit to wrap things up and demonstrate their learning. This is very different from what I have come to understand that Project Based Learning is. In PBL, the project is “the vehicle for learning.” Students can start working on their projects the first day of the unit and they continue to work on their projects off and on for the duration of the unit of study. Projects are done in steps or pieces, with instruction provided by the teacher as the students move through the different phases of their project work. Each lesson is tied to the overall project; building students understandings of the concepts required as they brainstorm and problem solve to complete a project of their own.
One of the projects highlighted by the staff at Michael Strembitsky involved junior high students who made and marketed their own chocolate bar. The project began as a way to cover the concepts of surface area, volume, and 3-D shapes in math. Students needed to package their chocolates in a 3-D container that was of a specified volume. Along the way they were required to build nets for rectangular prisms, triangular prisms, and cylinders that all met a specific volume requirement but could have differing surface areas. Students then chose the package that best fit their chocolate bar.
Once packaging had been chosen, the students worked with their LA teacher to design and deliver a marketing campaign for their chocolates. They created a website for their product and they also designed posters and attractive packaging. The focus here was on slogans, persuasive writing, and functional writing for a purpose. Students also had to deliver a “sales pitch” for their product at a launch party that was held at the end of the unit of study.
The chocolate bars were then made by the students in Science class. They learned about viscosity and density in class and then used chocolate to test these concepts. In developing their own chocolate bar, students looked at how different ways of tempering chocolate changed the texture, and they experimented with different procedures for producing chocolate until they came up with the chocolate they wanted to “sell.”
As a final component of the project, students were required to translate their packaging into French, meeting several requirements of the FSL program, as well.
Throughout the entire project, teachers provided structured lessons on the foundational concepts that students would need to complete the next phase of their work. Time was built into each day for self-reflection and feedback from teachers and peers. Students were constantly challenged to think about their own learning, and set goals for themselves and their groups. In the end, students presented their chocolates to parents and the school community at a product launch party. The results were amazing!
What impressed me the most about this whole process was the intentionality of each step in the project. Students were not simply told to make and market a chocolate bar and then left to their own devices to “discover” how it should all be done. Instead, there was a careful balance of direct instruction, skill specific tasks, science labs, teacher feedback, peer review, self-reflection, and project work. Throughout the whole process, students were responsible for their own learning, and teachers truly were the “guides on the side” providing instruction and feedback to push the learning further and deeper. But nothing was left to chance. The teachers at Michael Stembitsky were very purposeful in their actions and the steps in each projects were carefully choreographed to “scaffold” the learning of their students so that they would successfully complete their projects and gain the required knowledge and experiences.
I am very excited that a number of our PHRD teachers are beginning to experiment with Project Based Learning right here in our classrooms. We have a group of Grade 1 teachers who are looking to include PBL in some of the units that they are designing and planning. We see teachers at Pembina North, Busby School, and Clyde all excited to try PBL with their students. Christine, Cheryl, and I have all been trained in PBL and we would love to share what we have learned with anyone interested in designing and carrying out PBL units.
My favourite quote from Dr. Wright, the principal of Michael Strembitsky, is that “learning is messy!” The perfect project doesn’t just spring up overnight. It takes a great deal of planning and thought, and, chances are, that the first time you attempt the project, it will not run as smoothly as you had hoped. It will, however, be an amazing learning opportunity for both you and your students. The first time you try something new you are bound to make mistakes, but you pick yourself up, learn from your experience, and improve on your practice for the next time around. It’s an exciting adventure, and we hope it is one that we can help more and more of our PHRD teachers to take.
If you are interested in PBL, please contact Christine, Cheryl or me. You can submit a request to work with us by clicking on the following link, or you can simply send one of us an email. We are looking forward to hearing from you.
Click here to Work with Us
This blog and resources website has been developed through the work of various AISI coaches in PHRD. The lead collaborative teachers for the 2015/2016 school year, Cheryl Frose, Christine Quong and Tammy Tkachuk will continue to update this site. If you have resources you would like to share or would like to contribute to the blog, please contact us.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.