For our current Professional Learning Teams focus at Parramatta Marist, we have been examining the recent work from the Buck Institute, Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, by John Larmer, John Mergendoller and Suzie Boss.

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.


Public Audience

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 intrinsic motivation (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.