From PBL to PBI

August 21, 2013 by
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Take a step back to inquiry

What’s a project-based school to do?  You’ve developed an incredibly powerful model that engages students through rich projects. Now along comes blended learning and competency education.  Is there value to these new approaches? Is it worth trying to integrate them into your model? And if so, how?

I rarely get questions about this…more like drop-down silence when I talk with educators seeped in the collaborative creativity it takes to develop project-based learning. But once in a while, a courageous project-based educator will admit, “It’s just really puzzling how to best leverage online learning in support of our learning goals.” A quick email exchange with Paul Curtis at High Tech Network got me to wondering if  we are in the process moving from Project-based Learning to Proficiency-based Blended Inquiry. I don’t have any answers but here is my best thinking. We’d love to hear yours.

Why? There is no reason to do something if it isn’t going to help your students.  So why should a PBL-school want to spend their time dealing with integrating new practices into something that works?  So first of all, you have to be committed to always trying to do better for your kids. Sure PBL works….but we can do better, can’t we?

Why Blended? There are at least two reasons a PBL school should be interested in blended learning.

1) Adaptive instructional software is a really good technique to help students build up the level 1 & 2 skills (I’m using the 1-4 knowledge taxonomy scale where 3 is analysis and 4 is utilization). For students that are behind, have gaps, need more practice, or just want the privacy of a computer giving them rapid feedback rather than the teacher, adaptive instruction is incredibly powerful. You’ll need a teacher with deep skills in the discipline to help students when they get stuck. Remember, it’s one thing to be placed in front of a computer all day long and another thing to make it as an option for kids to take advantage of when they need it. Adaptive instructional software can be a powerful supplemental tool for students who want to get oriented with a new topic or for support when they need extra help.

2) Placing part of the curriculum online increases the capacity of your school to be more flexible and personalized. If students have missed school, entering late into the semester, or even want to work ahead a bit, they can follow the curriculum (with videos, readings, rubrics, and assignments).  To personalize, you can provide options for students to do different readings, choose different ways to learn new content, practice and demonstrate learning. You probably do this already to some degree – putting it online may be able to save teachers some time. What it will definitely do is shift more responsibility to students to manage their own learning.

Why Competency-based? For many PBL schools, competency-based learning is just taking it to the next level. Many project-based schools have many of the elements of competency-based – clear standards, rubrics, performance tasks, and performance assessments. So what really is going to be different?  1) Some PBL schools still teach the curriculum, not students. Schools may not take the time to understand where students are in their learning progression or where they have gaps. If teachers don’t know, students can’t get the help they need to catch up.

2) Competency education forces schools to revisit how they use time and when there is a response to students that are struggling. These techniques can be used by any school, but competency-based schools will always be able to tell you how they have organized just-in-time supports, including building in daily time for kids to get help and flex time at the end of a unit or a course. For those few students still needing help, competency recovery is the way to go.

3) Grading systems still may produce “swiss cheese achievement” with students moving onto the next level with gaps in their skills and knowledge.

4) Many PBL schools emphasize the habits or college/career skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. Competency education creates an opportunity to give those skills the attention they deserve by separating out the academic skills from the habits so students get direct feedback on the important habits of work.


Take a Step Back to Inquiry
: Project based learning is about inquiry.  If you can take a step back and say that it is inquiry not just projects driving your curriculum, new opportunities will open up for using educational technology. First, problem-based learning is equally meaningful for driving inquiry as projects.  Rich, challenging problems can be developed for individuals and teams to work on with resources to help them solve it, made available online. Second, opportunities to use the Internet to access experts, special projects, and real-life inquiry are opening up every day.  Is your student interested in wolves? Most likely, you can find a field biologist somewhere who will share their work, challenges, and dilemmas with students.
Transparency and Empowerment:  By using a well-developed competency-based approach, students know where they are on their learning progression and what they need to do next. This can help your school take even greater advantage of projects, with students seeking out ways that they can demonstrate their application of skills and knowledge. The transparency opens up student voice and choice – soon PBL schools will find students co-designing projects that allow them to demonstrate what they’ve learned.


Personalization, Depth of Knowledge, and Projects
:  One issue that is still confusing to me is around knowledge utilization (level 4) and competency education. We drive toward it in competency education, yet it doesn’t make sense to me that every student is going to apply every standard in a project. Knowledge utilization can be applying a skill in a different context. Or it can be through application to problems and projects, drawing on a range of knowledge, skills and dispositions.  We can design the projects and problems to require us to apply what we just learned in Algebra 1 or in biology…but most likely we are going to be applying other skills as well, such as writing, graphic presentation, and collaboration.  So we can use a pre-defined rubric to assess the application of the target standards, but the fact of the matter is that students will also be demonstrating (and wanting credit for) application of other skills as well.

PBL schools design around deeper learning, draw out the interdisciplinary themes and back into the academic standards.  So the question is, can the information systems that are being designed for competency-based schools be easily converted to support inquiry-based schools using projects and problems as the primary instructional tool? Listening to the students and teachers at Troy Howard Middle School talk about their interdisciplinary academies, chock full or projects, makes me think that it must be do-able.

In closing, PBL schools have a lot to offer to schools embracing the Common Core State Standards as well as to competency education.  It’s going to be difficult to create opportunities for students to demonstrate knowledge utilization (i.e. deeper learning) without  problem-based and project-based learning and the performance assessments that come along with it.  For those of you thinking about organizing convenings, it would be interesting to create an opportunity for cross-fertilization among competency education, blended, and project-based learning.

Oh wait, the iNACOL Symposium is just around the corner. See you there

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