Monday, April 25, 2011

Recipe for Education . . . Fried with Technology

3 c. problem, question, or project
2 c. technology access (1 to 1 ratio NOT required)
1 c. collaboration with peers
1 c. presentation or publication
½ c. peer evaluation
¼ c. document/guides/stuff I’m giving you
¼ c. community involvement
½ T. teacher guidance

NOBODY likes to read theory . . . well, except maybe me, once in a while, but YOU probably don’t, so I’m going to tell you a story about Project/Problem/Inquiry based learning type stuff first, and then we’ll talk about theory. I’ll tell you when we get to that part in case you want to stop reading.

Waaay back in 2000 I was teaching lots of truly apathetic sophomores (10th graders, 16 year olds for you foreign folks), and I knew I wasn’t getting my job done. Many of them were failing, nothing I said to them mattered, they didn’t care about their work or grades at all, and I didn’t know how to motivate them to care. I tried to think about what motivated me to care about my work, and I decided it was the incredible weight of the responsibility on my shoulders, the feeling of letting my team/school down by not holding up my portion, and stuff like that. I figured I would try to turn the classroom into a place of business instead of a classroom and see what happened. I thought of it like this, I’m the boss of these apathetic people whom I can’t fire. They are my employees, and each of them has responsibilities. Let me divide them into teams, put them in positions, give them tons of responsibilities, then see what happens. After all, what I’m doing right now is completely ineffective, is killing me, and isn’t benefiting them at ALL.

I did that, and I stopped answering every little question. AND EVERYTHING (seriously, EVERYthing) changed. I called it Panthera Inc. (we were the Panthers), I gave everyone a team and job, I gave them an assignment that had to do with our regular curriculum, and I stepped back. Within a week, there was a firing. That’s right, Donald Trump style, a team decided to fire one of their associates and said nothing to me about it. Remember, these were the people who didn’t care at ALL about their school work, and suddenly someone wasn’t pulling her weight and had to go! I went over to listen, and the conversation went something like this:
TEAM: “We told you that you were going to have to do your part or we weren’t going to work with you anymore. You didn’t do it, now you’re fired and you’ll have to do the whole thing yourself.”
LAZY STUDENT: “But I WILL do it now. I promise!”
TEAM: “No, it’s too late.”

I took Lazy Student aside and talked to her about what she had done (or not done in this case). I counseled her to do the work the team needed alone for a couple of days, then go to them, ask for her position back, and show them what she had done. She did this, then begged forgiveness, and they let her back . . . after two or three days.

This Panthera Project occurred during my second year of teaching, and I used the concept (though I dropped the name and business connections) for the rest of my teaching career, and I still use it today when I provide staff development. One of the key components was the “Question Slip.” I wish I could remember the speaker’s name who gave me the idea, but it’s long gone. Here’s how it works: If the team has a question of the expert (teacher), it uses one of its Question Slips to ask the question. The teacher can give out several at the beginning of the project or one every day or whatever seems appropriate. The team has to confer to decide whether to use the slip. They all sign and bring the slip to the teacher who then helps them as appropriate. This is the theory of how it works. The reality is that they were so loath to turn over the slips that I rarely got one back. What was really beautiful was that I required them for everything. “Ms. Mayer, can I go to the bathroom?” Ms. Mayer holds out hand for slip, student returns to team and says, “Y'all, I need to go to the bathroom, sign this so I can ask her.” Team: “What the heck? You should have gone to the bathroom before class started. I’m not signing that for you. You’ll just have to pee on yourself or hold it!” Hey, I didn’t say it, THEY did.

There’s a lot more to project based learning than what I have described here, but I wanted to share the most dramatic aspects of it so that you would give it a try. I’ve provided the original documents I created for this project here for your use.

Yeah, I said I was going to talk about theory, so here you go:

Common Craft Video: Project Based Learning Explained (From the makers of all those little paper cut out videos. Easy to understand, powerful message.)
Buck Institute for Education (Extensive site about PBL. Includes material and project downloads)
Wikipedia article about Project Based Learning (Has a bunch of warnings at the top but is really very informative)

The rest of the ingredients explained:
3 c. problem, question, or projectExample: it’s Shakespeare time in 11th grade English. Each team has a topic to cover and Bloom’s Taxonomy to help them level their topic to get the best grade. The food team cooks authentic food, divides the class into poor folk, rich folk, and the queen (that was me), and we all get to eat ONLY the fare designated for us. Only the queen can eat anything she wants. WOW! This is a real project the kids came up with.
2 c. technology accessEvery student doesn’t have to have a computer to make any of this happen, but computer access is a must. Teams have to be able to access computers/smart phones/information on their own to get these projects done independently and to create the presentations they need to show others what they’ve done.
1 c. collaboration with peers
½ c. peer evaluation
Collaboration with peers is essential but group grading is terrible practice and motivates people exactly like communism (which is not at all). Use a form like this instead. The teacher always grades the assignments not the students. The students grade each other and award a percentage of the teacher’s grade. If Sally does 100% of what she’s supposed to do for the team, she’s eligible for 100% of the grade the teacher gives. If the teacher gives the project a 92, Sally gets a 92 (100% of 92=92). Jack, who’s on the same team with Sally, is eligible instead for 80% of the grade because his team mates say he didn’t pull his full weight. He only makes a 74 on the same project (80% of 92=73.6).
1 c. presentation or publication
¼ c. community involvement
People work harder and better when there’s an audience and a product. Invite administrators (local and central office), parents, and peers to watch them present big projects. This strategy works for teachers too. If you want people to be interested in their work, create an audience for them and tell them right up front they’ll be there watching at the end. If you can find a real-world application that satisfies your need, bring the real world in. For example, when my seniors did technical writing, we created the website for the local Lion’s Club, and they paid us. We bought all our classroom supplies with that money.
¼ c. document/guides/stuff I’m giving youI made a bunch of documents that turned out to be unnecessary. All of the day to day student evaluation stuff didn’t have to be there, but you’ve got access to all of it just in case something works for you.
½ T. teacher guidanceThis is really the least important part. I used to take over the students’ learning by doing too much myself. It wasn’t actually as nice of me as it felt when I was doing all that work. The person who does the work gets the learning. In the immortal words of Pink Floyd: “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”

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