This post was written following a presentation given at Clickview Australia’s first Flipped Learning Round Table on October 7 2016.
The post will likely also appear on the Clickview blog.
At Parramatta Marist High School, we have undertaken a significant program of pedagogy change over the past decade. While the focus for our junior students has predominantly been Project Based Learning (PBL), we have moved towards models of Problem Based Learning (PrBL) and Flipped Learning for our senior students. In 2013, we undertook a whole-school shift to Flipped Learning for our Year 12 HSC students. Every lesson in every subject throughout the HSC is flipped. This was a significant undertaking and one that taught us numerous lessons as we refined our practice. 2016 saw us introduce a hybridised Flipped/Problem Based Learning approach for our Year 11 Preliminary HSC students. This model aimed to address some of the limitations of our One Day One Problem approach, modelled on that pioneered at Republic Polytechnic, Singapore allowing students to go deeper with the content when solving the problem. Parramatta Marist High has seen some significant improvements in one measure of academic success, the HSC examination, over the past 10 years of implementing a variety of pedagogy changes. While it is very difficult to attribute the improvement we can see to one particular school-based intervention, we can make some generalisations regarding the impact of some of these changes. Finally, our school formed a partnership with Erasmus University, Rotterdam and four of our teachers have commenced doctoral studies under Prof. Henk G Schmidt, a world authority in pedagogy, particularly in PBL. One of the focus areas for our research has been to construct and determine the reliability and validity of an instrument to measure student perception of the Flipped Classroom.
Scaling the Flipped Classroom as a Whole-School HSC Approach
We introduced a whole-school Flipped Classroom approach for our HSC students in 2013 in order to buy back class time for our students to engage in inquiry and to apply their content to better prepare them for the rigours of the HSC examination. Our students were also calling for a change as they had experienced three years of student-centred pedagogies. Surveys indicated that they were not engaged by the very teacher-centred traditional approach most HSC teachers had adopted in order to meet the content demands of the HSC. This shift was a challenge, as we needed to develop a model that promoted consistency across and within subjects whilst also respecting the professionalism of our teachers, allowing them to determine how the approach was adopted in their classes. Below are some reflections of what we felt are some of our key learnings from four years of scaling the HSC.
The importance of applying content prior to the lesson
In our first year of implementation, in order to determine whether students had engaged with the pre-learning material, students were generally required to ask questions or to make generic notes. While this was a suitable accountability measure to ensure that students had engaged with the content, we found that their comprehension was still rather limited. We have now moved to a model where students generally answer questions based on the pre-learning material. While these questions are generally framed at the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy, they still ensure that students are actively engaged in their learning and that deeper thinking is taking place. Student responses are generally collected electronically, affording the teacher the opportunity to read them prior to class and providing opportunities for the teacher to modify the focus of the lesson and to plan for differentiation.
Our original shift towards a scaled Flipped Classroom model was conducted hastily and did not allows us time to plan our video resource creation as carefully as we would have liked. Many of our original video resources were designed around whole syllabus dot points, or around all of the content addressed in a specific lesson. As such, the majority of our videos were over 15 minutes long. Student engagement surveys were used to determine student perceptions of the videos and the length was a factor that students identified was impacting on their engagement. This was supported by the work from Phillip Guo et.al who investigated video watching habits of MOOC participants. We determined that, within our context, videos should really not be any longer than six minutes long. This led us to produce videos that were focused on maintaining their brevity and which were based more around single concepts and ideas, rather than broader topic overviews.
Curating or creating videos
With a scaled approach to Flipped Learning, incorporating all teachers, and with such a quick transition period in the first year, we did not stipulate that teachers were required to construct their own video content. However, this is something we have subsequently encouraged, though we also feel that it is unnecessary for teachers to compose all of their own resources. In a digital age where we see educators sharing their practice and resources more freely, I think it would be a retrograde step to expect teachers to work in isolation. The advice we give to our teachers is that if you can’t improve upon the video that you have found online, then why would we use our limited time to recreate something.
Some have tried to suggest that a lesson cannot be considered ‘flipped’ if video media is not involved in the delivery of content for the homework students complete prior to the lesson. I would argue that this is a very narrow understanding of this approach. It is clear that subjects like mathematics, which are generally process oriented, might lend themselves to instruction through the medium of video. However, other subjects such as English and History, I would argue, are better serviced with a mixed-media approach to presenting homework. These disciplines, among others, are based on engagement with and interpretation of the written word. Video media is a great supplement to such texts and can lead students to a deeper understanding of the concepts addressed. I think this is a more realistic approach to Flipped Learning and one that acknowledges the nuances of different disciples.
Application time in class
One of our earliest mistakes with scaling the Flipped Classroom was the use of class time. Out teachers lacked the confidence in the flipped process in ensuring our students arrived to our classes with a foundational understanding of the content. As a result, many of our teachers were using a majority of class time to re-teach content already covered during the homework. This became apparent when we surveyed our students. There was a general sense of frustration at being required to sit through a very teacher-centred exposition of content already covered. We used this data to realign our practices and to promote the suggestion that no more than 20% of class time be used to recap content and that the majority of class time.
Hybridised Flipped/Problem Based Learning Model
In 2010, following the introduction of Project Based Learning in the junior years, we introduced a school-wide Problem Based Learning approach for Year 11 Preliminary HSC students. In this model, students were challenged with a problem to solve at the beginning of the day and then worked collaboratively to solve the problem throughout the day, presenting their solution for critique at the conclusion of the day. This approach was based on the One Day One Problem model introduced at Republic Polytechnic, Singapore.
What we found after a number of years of implementation was that students struggled to go deep with the content with this structure, as we were not adequately activating their prior knowledge. Students were exposed to important content and concepts prior to engaging with the problem itself, but we struggled to find the time to go deep enough with this content to prepare students thoroughly for the problem.
We also found that the presentations at the end of the one-day of problem solving session were often rushed and lacking in thoughtful preparation and rehearsal. We wanted to provide students with the time to think more critically about their presentation prior to the presentation.
In order to address these concerns, in 2016, we remodelled the structure of our One Day One Problem approach to introduce a Flipped Learning component and to provide reflection time for students prior to their presentation. Within a two-week cycle of learning students will meet as a class for four specific sessions which are outlined below and which are represented in the diagram.
Session 1 -100 minute lesson – Content Flip
Students introduced to new content via a flipped lesson.
Lesson time spent clarifying misunderstandings and applying the content.
Session 2 – 200 minute lesson – Problem Release and Problem Solving
Students are introduced to a challenging problem
Students spend 200 minutes working collaboratively to solve the problem.
Homework is for students to work collaboratively outside of school hours synchronously and asynchronously.
Students spend around an hour presenting their solution to the problem and critiquing one another’s presentations.
Teachers then had an opportunity to provide explicit feedback and to present an exemplar solution to the problem.
Session 4 – 50 minute lesson – Test and Application
Students then work collaboratively on HSC style questions at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, refining their understanding of the concepts and content addressed through the problem.
We’ve found that this approach has allowed students to engage with the problem more quickly and to access the problem at deeper levels than we had found before. We also found that the quality of student presentations improved as our students were able to spend significant time reflecting on their solution and rehearsing their presentations.
Improving HSC Results: One Measure of School Improvement
One measure of school effectiveness is performance in the Higher School Certificate examination. While this is only one of many methods to determine student achievement, it is one that is easily tracked over time.
Since the introduction of the Flipped Classroom at Parramatta Marist High in 2013, we have seen a significant improvement in student HSC performance. In the HSC students are placed into achievement bands based upon their overall performance in each subject. These bands are represented below.
80% – 89%
70% – 79%
60% – 69%
50% – 59%
Since the introduction of the Flipped Classroom in 2013, we have seen the percentage of students achieving in the top two bands combined (Band 5 and 6) steadily increase from 48% in 2012 (prior to the Flipped Classroom’s introduction) to 63% in 2015.
Prior to Flipped Classroom
First Flipped Classroom Cohort
Second Flipped Classroom Cohort
Third Flipped Classroom Cohort
% Band 5 & 6 Combined
Performance in the lower bands is perhaps more pleasing. In 2012 17 precent of courses achieved were the lowest three bands (Bands 1, 2 an 3). Between 2013 and 2015, we saw this percentage decrease to 5%, with no students receiving results in Bands 1 or 2.
Prior to Flipped Classroom
First Flipped Classroom Cohort
Second Flipped Classroom Cohort
Third Flipped Classroom Cohort
% Band 1,2 & 3 Combined
While it is very difficult to attribute such improvements to any particular intervention or strategy, our feeling is that the introduction and refinement of the Flipped Classroom has had a significant impact on these results.
Flipped Classroom: Developing an Instrument to Measure Student Perceptions
As a part of Parramatta Marist High’s PhD program through Erasmus University, Rotterdam, under the supervision of PhD Promotor, Prof. Henk. G. Schmidt, I have been undertaking research into student perceptions of the Flipped Classroom. This research has taken the form of an attempt to develop an instrument to measure student perceptions of this pedagogical approach, as no such instrument currently exists.
A study of the literature and our own experiences with the Flipped Classroom led to the development of a 48-item survey instrument that sought to measure 9 distinct aspects or ‘domains’ of this approach. The survey was administered to 136 senior students and we were able to determine the reliability of the survey instrument using test-retest reliability coefficient and Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient. Moreover, student responses were strongly supportive of the Flipped Classroom. Students generally enjoyed learning in this model and they felt that this approach helped them to learn when compared to more traditional approaches. A paper entitled ‘Student Perceptions of the Flipped Classroom: Reliability and Validity of an Instrument’ has been written and is in the process of being peer-reviewed.
The next phase of the research is to administer the survey to a greater number of students from more diverse populations. This will then allow us to determine the validity of the instrument through structural equation modelling and factor analyses. In turn, this will help to determine that the questions measure what they were designed to measure and it will help us to further explore the relationships between question items within domains as well as the relationships between the domains themselves. From this, a more comprehensive understanding of student perception of the Flipped Classroom can be achieved.
Since the Flipped Classroom was introduced at Parramatta Marist in 2013, we have seen some significant changes. Our experience has led to a refining of our Flipped Classroom structure to design a model that fosters best practice while providing teachers with flexibility to use their professional judgment in regards to its implementation. The Hybridised/Flipped Classroom model we developed has afforded us more time to ensure our students can engage with the problems at a deeper level as well as ensuring a higher standard of collaborative problem-solution presentations. The introduction of the Flipped Classroom has also had a positive impact on our HSC results with both results improving both in the higher bands as well as the lower bands. Our research into student perceptions of the Flipped Classroom has also confirmed that students acknowledge the benefits of the Flipped Classroom and they feel that this approach prepares them very well for the rigours of the HSC examination.
A blog post from my team teacher Maddie Cleveringa of a Yr 9 History and English integrated PBL project we facilitated with Shamaine Jacobs, Toni Sheehan and Clinton Rodoreda. We are very proud of the work our students did in this project.
This year I have been making a concerted effort to create and alter projects to make them more authentic by focusing on establishing adult connections between students in the classroom and the worl…
We know that in our context, we consistently produce what we would consider very ‘good‘ PBL projects, many of which exhibit elements of ‘greatness‘. We were hoping that by engaging with this resource, we could shift some of our ‘good‘ projects to being ‘great‘ projects.
I thought a good way to examine some elements of Gold Standard PBL would be through some examples from a current Year 9 integrated History and English Project: The Shadows of the Shoah. This project saw students challenged to construct an interactive museum exhibit to highlight how one historical personality was affected by their experiences in the Holocaust. While this is a good project, there are still some aspects of the project that we can improve and so I thought I would discuss only 2 the Buck Institute’s revised 8 Essential Elements of PBL; Public Audience (which I’ve extended to include broader adult connections) and student Voice and Choice.
PBL experiences can connect them with experts and learning experiences they might otherwise miss. Larmer, Mergendoller & Boss, 2015
Project Based Learning provides us with unique opportunities to engage our students in meaningful real-world situations, connecting them with expertise in the field to support their learning and provide feedback.
For The Shadows of the Shoah, we launched our project with a lecture from an external expert. Dr Jan Lanicek from the University of New South Wales was kind enough to offer his time to provide a 40 minute lecture to pour students, introducing the Second World War and the Holocaust in general. Dr Lanicek is an historian who specialises in and has written extensively on this aspect of history. Although Dr Lanicek was unable to be physically present for the session, due to his schedule at the university, we managed to FaceTime him in to the students in our theatre.
Dr Lanicek was able to pitch the lecture at the student level and provide them with some excellent resources to start their project journey. It was a great experience and added weight to the task the students were asked to undertake.
Below is a short video of the lecture:
Another external connection we fostered throughout the project was with Museum Victoria. We connected with the museum education team who were able to share some very relevant resources on the role of museum curators and the construction of museum exhibitions.
Jan Malloy, Cam Hocking and Liz Suda were excellent contacts throughout the project. Their advice in terms of project design was indispensable and the resources they suggested we use were terrific and supported the students effectively throughout the project.
This connection culminated with a skype session with Liz Suda and Cam Hocking. Although technical difficulties meant that not all students were able to attend this session, the students involved found the opportunity to ask questions of the curators very beneficial. Liz was able to respond to all of the student’s questions with relevant examples from their own museum. The team were also kind enough to record the session for us so we could ensure all students had the opportunity to benefit from the session.
Below is a short clip from our hour long session with Liz and Cam.
Below is a short student reflection from a student involved in the museum Skype.
Another adult connection we were able to make was with the Auschwitz Memorial in Poland. Maddie Cleveringa, my team teacher for this project made this connection through Twitter and asked if there was a possibility of skyping our students in. Pawel Sawicki, one of their museum educators, was a terrific contact and was open to the possibility of a live skype; something they had never tried before!
Due to the time difference between Australia and Poland, we needed to organise the Skype for after school one afternoon. A large number of boys stayed behind after school to be a part of the experience.
This was such a powerful experience for our students and a reminder of how technology has become an important tool in bridging gaps and making connections. Having our students ask questions of Pawel as he walked them around the site was amazing. Being taken into the gas chambers at Auschwitz I, shown the barbed wire fences and having Pawel stand beneath the famous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, “Work Sets One Free” was truly a unique experience.
Student Voice and Choice
‘Some are concerned about controlling the classroom and planning every minute, so conducting a project with student voice and choice just seem too ‘messy’ and fraught with uncertainty’ Larmer, Mergendoller & Boss, 2015
Student voice and choice is such an important aspect of Project Based Learning. Although providing these opportunities can be fraught with challenges (more on that later), the benefits for the students far outweigh these limitations.
For our Holocaust project, we sought to provide a number of opportunities for students to provide their own voice and make their own choices.
Students had some ownership over:
Their team members for the project
The personality they chose to research
The style of narrative they produced
The structure of their museum exhibit
The artifacts they produced
One of the benefits of allowing students freedom of choice is that their end products are unique and more of a representation of the student, rather than being simply a ‘paint by numbers’ or ‘cookie cutter’ style of end product.
Cognitive dissonance can also be fostered through the provision of opportunities for students to make choices. When we ask students to direct their own learning throughout a project, this can cause friction within and between groups as students put forth ideas and challenge one another’s opinions in seeking to come to a consensus. These are unique learning opportunities for our students who we hope can take these skills forward into new situations when they leave our classrooms. This is well summed up by Larmer, Mergendoller and Boss.
‘Faced with a challenging problem or question, students must be able to exercise judgment and make decisions about how to resolve it. Otherwise the project becomes an exercise, a set of directions to follow.’ Larmer, Mergendoller & Boss, 2015
Below we have some students discussing the challenges they faced wit the choices they needed to make throughout the project.
Intrinsic motivation is also fostered when we provide opportunities for students to make decisions about their learning. Larmer, Mergendoller and Boss also make this point very clear:
In terms of motivation, giving students an opportunity to express their own ideas and opinions and make choices during project work validates the basic drives of autonomy and competence, and contributes to intrinsicmotivation (Brophy, 2013). Larmer, Mergendoller & Boss, 2015
Below we have some students discussing the choices they made throughout the project and how this led to a sense of motivation:
The End Product
The work students produced in their end product was very impressive. The variety that excited in terms of the presentation of their museum exhibits was a testament to the choices they were afforded throughout the project. The quality of the work that was produced can be attributed in many respects to the opportunities students had to engage with experts globally.
This was such an enjoyable project to facilitate and our boys gained a great deal from the experiences they shared throughout the project.
I’ll put together another blog post soon with some examples of student work.
Throughout Term 1, in our Professional Learning Teams, we have been working on a whole-school literacy initiative focused on improving students writing. The DEC Literacy Continuum provided the framework for our work. As the continuum is so broad, encompassing 8 literacy foci, we took the decision to focus only on the Aspects of Writing component of the continuum. The reason for this is that our NAPLAN data for the past three years had seen our Year 7 and 9 students demonstrate improvement in some areas of their writing, but this was still a weakness our students were demonstrating, in comparison to the Reading and Numeracy components of NAPLAN. The Aspects of Writing component of the Literacy Continuum is also one the 8 elements that is not considered ‘constrained’, based on the work of Paris (2005). These ‘unconstrained’ stills are those that continue to grow and develop throughout a child’s lifetime and therefore are the areas on which we are more likely to have an impact with a whole-school literacy initiative. See image below from here.
We launched our PLT focus at the beginning of the term and charged our teachers with examining a variety of samples of student work and using the Aspects of Writing component of the Literacy Continuum to map students on our Data Wall.
Using the Technology
Our school has recently switched to using Sentral as our main student data management system (administration, assessment, attendance, communication, etc). Sentral includes as a part of its package a Continuum Tracker, which was a great tool to help us track student placement on the Aspects of Writing component of the Literacy Continuum. This was particularly important as we often had numerous teachers examining work for the same student and making independent judgments in regards to which clusters students were presenting at on the continuum, at that point, for the sample of writing the the teacher had chosen to examine. The Continuum Tracker allowed us to click on and off individual markers on the continuum so we could keep track of where students were at any point. When you hover over a marker that has been clicked on, a pop-up indicates which staff member had flagged this marker and the date. Sentral also allows you to see at a glance an overview of where students are placed on the various aspects of the Literacy COntinuum. You can see an example of this feature below. Any cluster where students have a marker highlighter will be shown in green and yes, that is me …
Introducing Literacy Interventions
The work did not stop with the mapping of students on the continuum. Staff were also challenged to develop and implement literacy interventions that would serve support the needs they had identified for students in their classes. A raft of writing strategies and activities were provided and our teachers had time and opportunities to discuss in their teams what they felt would best serve to support the learning of their students. They were also able to to unpack how much success these interventions had on the learning of their students each fortnight.
Our diocese has been successfully implementing Data Walls for the past four years, based on the work of Michael Fullan and Lyn Sharratt in their work Putting Faces on the Data. Below you can see Lyn Sharratt discussing how Data Walls support schools as they develop strategies and interventions to support students in their learning.
One challenge we have found with our Data Wall implementation is that, with such a large staff, there was not as much teacher ownership of where the students ‘are at’ with their progression on the wall. Another inhibiting factor was that the students were placed on the Data Wall based on the PATR test, an excellent diagnostic test, but one that teachers were not involved in developing or for which they needed to provide feedback. We hoped that by utilising the literacy continuum, with each teacher involved in examining student work and physically placing students on our Data Wall, we would see much more ownership of the wall itself and subsequently, of student writing.
We were wrong. This was very challenging for our staff who found it difficult to engage with the complex language of the Literacy Continuum. Staff were also concerned about placing the students on the Data Wall as they feared they might ‘get it wrong’. This provided us with opportunities to work with each team to allay these fears and remind them that more important than perfect placement on the continuum was that we had begun what was to be an ongoing discussion about the literacy needs of our students and how we can support them with their writing. What was terrific was the genuine concern of our teachers to ensure that they were doing justice to this process and that their students were fairly represented on the Data Wall.
I think for most teachers, the act of physically placing the students on the data wall was very powerful. The discussions it generated around student writing and what we are all doing in our classes to improve writing were deep and thought provoking.
One of our Professional Learning Teams placing their students on our Data Wall
Where to from here?
The work doesn’t stop here… To maintain ownership of our Data Wall, our staff will continue to examine student writing samples from their allocated class during our PLT sessions throughout the remainder of the year. While the placing of the students on the Data Wall was exciting, looking forward to seeing our teachers owning the process of moving their students’ profiles into higher clusters on the Literacy Continuum as we progress through the year.
Our first 2016 focus for our Professional Learning Teams is to use the newly introduced DET Literacy Continuum to help us to place our students on our Data Wall.
Why the Literacy Continuum???
In previous years, our first PLT saw us implementing our school-developed Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Paragraph literacy initiative in Data Teams. I’ve blogged about the success of our HOT Paragraph program before, you can check it out here. Even though this was a really popular initiative and students and staff gained a lot from the process, we decided to change things up a bit for 2016. While we will continue using the HOT Writing resources, our goal is to map students against the newly developed Literacy Continuum and have our teachers become more invested in our data wall by having our entire staff contribute to the collection of the data and by having the teachers place the students on the data wall themselves too. The plan is to revisit this literacy initiative more formally once each term, with the opportunity to identify student improvement in the Aspects of Writing and to move them along the data wall.
So what’s this Literacy Continuum then???
Developed by the NSW DEC, the Literacy Continuum Overview probably explains its purpose most succinctly, so use a few quotes from it to explain the aim in its development.
The Literacy Continuum seeks to “maps how critical aspects develop through the years of schooling by describing key markers of expected student achievement” from grades K-10. It is important to understand that it is not a replacement for other learning outcomes (or standards to our US friends), but its purpose is to help “teachers to integrate literacy into all key learning areas” ensuring that we capture “the literacy connections that are critical to success“. The Literacy Continuum is a terrific tool for Assessment For Learning. It makes the learning (and the learning goals) very visible for teachers, students and their parents and allows us to clearly articulate what we are aiming for students to achieve. Our teachers will use this tool to “identify the ‘where to next’ for groups or individuals with particular learning needs“.
What Parts of the Literacy Continuum???
Although the Literacy Continuum encompasses a variety of components of literacy, the focus of this PLT is on the Aspects of Writing only. After this introduction, we are hoping to use the Literacy Continuum more broadly.
The Aspects of Writing section is broken into markers of student achievement, what students can demonstrate. These markers are then organised into clusters which represent where students should be at the end of each grade of schooling. The K-6 Continuum is broken into 12 clusters (four clusters for Kindergarten, two each for Years 1 & 2 and one each for Years 3-6). The 7-10 Continuum is comprised of four clusters.
While we are a 7-12 school, we will also be engaging with the K-6 Continuum, mindful that we have students whose writing has not yet progressed beyond the K-6 makers, at least in some areas.
What have we done so far and where to next???
As a Project Based Learning school, our PLTs follow the same general structure as the projects we work on with our students. We completed our Entry Event in our whole staff PD time and took some time to examine some Yr 9 students writing samples from the 2015 NAPLAN exam against the Literacy Continuum. When we met with our PLT teams, we reviewed the Entry Event and met with the Driving Question for the first time: “How can we use the Literacy Continuum in our Professional Learning Teams to populate our Data Wall and to provide targeted intervention strategies to help students improve their ability to compose written responses?” We completed our Know and Need to Know lists and then we took the time to gain a better understanding of the Literacy Continuum an then planned some writing tasks and resources we will use for our allocated classes.
In our next meting, we will bring samples of student writing to discuss with our teams and start the real work of mapping the students against the continuum using our management system Sentral, and planning interventions to help our students improve the areas we have identified as weaknesses in their writing.
I am really looking forward to working with our teachers and students on this PLT initiative and I’ll definitely be blogging some more about how this literacy focus develops!
Often, I get to do walk-throughs with Principals who are looking for guidance with supporting their teachers who are trying to embrace Project, Problem, or Passion-Based Learning. I say I get to do this often, but I don’t think it’s often enough because in nearly every single workshop I give, I hear the same general fears from teachers who have bought in to PBL.
They beg me.
“Would you please tell my administrator that this is what s/he should be looking for? I keep getting dinged on ______.”
Sometimes it’s that they’re literally off-script from the colleague down the hall or across town. Sometimes it’s because they’re not using the lesson plan template that all teachers K12 are required to use in the district. Sometimes they’re not posting the learning objectives on the wall each day, effectively uncovering the mystery (read as: learning) for the kids before they even…
Our school introduced Professional Learning Teams a few years ago to provide greater opportunities for our staff to collaborate on authentic learning experienced that are really relevant to the needs of their students.
Our PLTs are made up of teachers from between 4 and 6 teachers, from various faculties, who meet for a 100 minute block fortnightly which is built into the timetable as a part of each teacher’s teaching load. Yes, we are very lucky to have a principal who provides us with so many opportunities for Professional Learning!
The program has been very successful and popular with teachers who have recognised the value in having time to work with colleagues on issues that have an impact on all teachers and students in our school.
I think one of the main reasons for the success of our PLTs has been that we have endeavoured to model our PLTs on the Project Based Learning process as closely as we can. In designing these learning experiences, this has also allowed usto model to our staff new ways of approaching common elements of PBL.
We also try to ensure that all of our PLTs are linked to the Australian Teaching Standards.
Our latest PLT focus, sees us reflecting on those aspects of Project Based Learning that are core components of the inquiry-based process, but that our teachers may sometimes neglect or may not completely understand their benefits. We particulary focused on the Know and Needs to Know process, the Group Contract and Group Management and the use of Benchmarks.
The submission for our teachers for this PLT focus was to construct their own professional blog (that we are aiming to use for the remainder of our PLT focus areas) and to compose a some public blog posts, reflecting on how their learnings from the PLT have translated into changes in their own practice in the classroom.
I’ll try to outline how the PLT was structured and some of my key learnings from the process.
The Entry Event
Our entry event for this PBL PLT consisted of two components. The first was a letter, written from one of our year 9 students to their year coordinator. The student was well-versed in how PBL should work and was concerned that maybe we could all (students and teachers) be better at our work in constructing high quality projects, and in working through the PBL process. The student had well thought-out points explaining which aspects of the process were working and which ones were not. He also took the time to pose some of his own solutions to these problems.
The second part of the entry event was a video collage of interviews of some of our students discussing important aspects of the PBL process: the use of knows and needs to know, group selection, the group contract and benchmarks. What was interesting was that these students all presented different experiences in regard to these elements. It highlighted that there were some clear inconsistencies among our teachers in the way they were utilising these essential PBL approaches.
This entry event was quite effective in that it was very relevant to our teachers. The student voice was well received and this provided breadcrumbs for our teachers in developing their knows and needs to know for this project.
Knowsand Needs to Know
We decided that we would focus on the Know and Needs to Know process for our first PLT session as these would be one of the first things our team members would construct together in competing the project. The entry event had made clear that a main weakness in our K/N2K process was that the list produced was not seen as a living document to be added to and amended each lesson. To model this to our teachers we introduced Scrumblr, an online live whiteboard for teams to complete their Knows and Needs to Know in. This allowed our teachers to continually move their Needs to Know into the Know column once they felt they had achieved this goal. Scrumblr is a terrific site, and well-worth a look as a supplementary tool to support project organisation.
This session allowed us to discuss the importance of the Know/Need to Know process, showed how it should be used to drive the learning forward in the project and also modelled different approaches to presenting Knows and Needs to Knows to students.
Our next focus was on group construction. True to PBL form, we started by looking back at our Knows and Needs to Know and moved those questions we had answered into the Know column on our Scrumblr board. We then looked at back at the entry event video and letter to identify what the students had said about how groups were constructed.
We then looked more closely at different ways of constructing groups and the research that supports it. One resource in particular that I liked was this webpage from Carnegie Mellon on forming effective groups. If discussed the differences between homogenous and heterogeneous group selection and offered some suggestions as to how to form groups.
This was also a great opportunity for us to discuss as colleagues our different approaches to group construction and to think of better ways to team students up. I think that, for many of us, the selecting of the groups has become a bit of an afterthought. This has led me to include a new section on our project planning template, asking our teachers to reflect on how they intend to select groups for the project they are planning and why. Hopefully this will provide an opportunity for them to think about the best way to group students for each particular project.
Group management was our next focus area. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of PBL, particularly to those who are newer to this approach to teaching and learning. I remember my first year teaching PBL, where I completely lacked the skills needed to manage groups properly. My (limited and poor) understanding of PBL was that we spent weeks writing a project before handing it over to the students, dusting off our hands and leaving them to it for the next 5 to 8 weeks! Fortunately it only took me one or two disastrous projects to realise that group management strategies were a ‘need to know’ for me.
This session had some great resources on ensuring student groups are focused. I’ve added a few of the resources I particularly liked below:
Our last focus area was on benchmarks in PBL. This is a concept that I think has been challenging for some of our teachers to grapple with. Benchmarks should really be signposts in learning, or checkpoints along the path towards the final product. I think that too often, we see these as activities to complete, rather than as opportunities to formatively assess students’ progression towards a larger goal.
This was a really good opportunity to discuss in our PLT group how we can use benchmarks to map student learning, and how we can have students work with us to determine what the logical benchmarks are for any particular project.
We watched a really great video from some New Tech Network students determining the logical benchmarks for a project they were working on. Unfortunately, it is not available for public broadcast. It was terrific to see students planning and mapping out their own learning path!
A great example we discussed was the way we might establish benchmarks if the end product for students was an original drama production. Working with students, we might be able to cooperatively formulate the following benchmarks, which would be very similar to the approach taken by someone in the theatre industry:
Benchmark 1: Play theme and synopsis
Benchmark 2: Draft script
Benchmark 3: Set Design, props and costume design complete
Benchmark 4: Dress rehearsal
Each of these benchmarks clearly leads towards the final product and would elicit Needs to Know from the students when they arrive at this point in the learning.
When we map out our benchmarks collaboratively with our students, this also affords us with the flexibility to have students working on different benchmarks at any one time. We also looked at how we can use tools like Scrumblr to create a visual map of where our students are on the path towards the end product. This then allows us to see which groups need extending and which groups need additional support.
The culminating product for our PLT PBL Project was a blog post (this blog post is serving as my end product!). We asked all of our staff to create a their on professional blog and share it with their peers and to start blogging about their learnings from their PLT. This was particularly timely as our students have just moved towards using online digital portfolios to showcase their learning and to reflect on the learning process. This was a great time to have our teachers share in this reflective experience.
For many of our staff, this was their first experience of blogging and I am so happy that many have found the experience both enjoying and rewarding! Lots of our staff members are now regular bloggers and have started to write about other aspects of their teaching. These blogs will also serve as way for our teachers to reflect on their learning in future PLTs.
The aim of this PLT was to realign our teachers with some of core aspects of PBL. I think that as teachers who were usually taught traditionally and have experience teaching traditionally, it is very easy for us to revert back to traditional practices. Often we need a shunt to push us back out into orbit, beyond our comfort zone. I think that for many of us, this PLT helped to achieve this.