At Ivanhoe Grammar, project- and inquiry-based learning is an increasingly important part of our curriculum delivery.
We believe that we are creating students will become model citizens in an ever-changing society if they can solve problems, think through and be empathetic to different situations and views, and understand challenges and how to overcome them. We believe that these are the skills that we as educators need to develop in our students.
However, traditional and conventional teaching methodology creates a mirror effect where students mimic and emulate, rather than question and think differently. As educators, we need to break the mould. We need to embrace the importance of teaching 21st Century skills and schools must move the focus from content to learning skills.
This can be just as challenging for educators as it is for students. In my early teaching years in the UK, a mentor spoke to me about ‘Radiator Moments’, which is where a teacher has to stand back, hold onto the radiator, and not dive in to save the students in processes or tasks which they found challenging. (Now that I am teaching in Australia I have found only a limited number of radiators! I have re-named them ‘Sit on Desk’ Moments). The key is to let students grapple with those challenges long enough for them to learn and (hopefully) solve it themselves, but not long enough so that they give up and lose motivation. With PBL, there are many ‘Radiator Moments’ and it can be difficult to prevent yourself jumping in to help students when they are stuck. I would urge you to, within reason, let students struggle and try and work their way through those challenges.
PBL at Ivanhoe
At Ivanhoe Grammar, we have embraced the development of these skills in our students by creating a dedicated Year 9 campus with an inquiry focus across the curriculum. However, in the lead up to Year 9, we have also now offered a Year 8 elective subject with a PBL focus, where students are given the chance to explore and solve an important problem relating to sustainability and the environment.
The course was run in both face to face and online environments due to the challenges presented by COVID-19. This allowed for the exploration of different strategies to enhance the skill development in our students.
I’ve shared some of the challenges students faced across our PBL unit and how we navigated them, both in class and in an online environment. I’ve structured those challenges based on the Design Thinking process, which is the model we use to scaffold our PBL units.
Empathising and Defining
Challenge 1: Helping students empathise
It is easy to conflate student research into a problem with the development of empathy and understanding of that problem. However, it is important to draw a distinction between the two.
Most students can research the causes and impacts of a problem to develop an understanding of what that problem is, though it is important to help students to understand the implicit bias which might be present in the way a problem or its causes might be reported.
It is more nuanced – and far harder - for students to internalise a deep understanding and empathy of why that problem is a problem and why it should be mitigated or solved. Developing empathy for others is challenging, especially for students who are maturing emotionally. However, it is a key skill to build; without it, it is hard to create the emotional engagement – the pre-cursor to intellectual engagement - that stems from wanting to solve the problem.
I have found that giving students time to empathise with the people, groups, or other victims of a problem is an important strategy. Students need time to ‘put themselves in someone else’s shoes’ and to be challenged to use deep thinking and imagination. They will often start from a ‘NIMBY’ (not in my backyard) mindset, so pushing them to develop a more global perspective and understand the perspectives of people different to themselves is crucial. You’ll find that this understanding of another person’s or society’s circumstances will help them develop better, more targeted solutions.
Tools and strategies I’d recommend in this stage of the project are:
Canva, which is a great tool for creating posters (they have fantastic templates which students can use). I encourage students to make posters which capture different perspectives on the problem and why it should be tackled
Screencasting tools (like Screencast-O-Matic) for students to make campaign advertisements. Again, students can do this to capture the essence of why the problem should be solved
Challenge 2: Encouraging the development of creative solutions
Students will need a lot of support here as they find the thinking and imagining associated with creative solution generation difficult. Discussing the metacognition behind this part of the project and giving them small tasks to build their creative skills before then applying them to the project is extremely helpful.
I’ve used the SCAMPER technique to help students manipulate existing ideas – or ideas they come up with – until they have created a solution which has their own creativity underpinning it. I’ve found that students often struggle coming up with their own ideas from a clean slate, especially when new to PBL, but they generally fare much better when they are given a base to work off (perhaps in the form of existing ideas that are already being tested). This helps them think about the potential effectiveness of those solutions, and then work through a structured process to think about how they might alter or vary those ideas to create a new solution.
I’ll also always encourage students to ‘pitch’ their ideas to the class and to seek feedback. This is challenging for students – it requires them to articulate their idea clearly, seek feedback and clarify it until they understood, and to make themselves vulnerable by having their ideas critiqued by their peers. I found that it was necessary to practice these skills with students first and clearly model how to ask for, give, and receive feedback, but I still frequently jumped in to stop students during the feedback process and allow them to rephrase their feedback in a more constructive manner.
Tools and strategies I’d recommend in this stage of the project are:
Brainstorming apps like bubbl.us
Challenge 3: Numeracy skills around scale drawings
Once students hit on a potential solution, they embrace the prototyping stage with excitement. However, applying mathematical knowledge and conceptual thinking to create realistic designs, plans, and sketches can be challenging.
I found that asking students to think about and plan/sketch their proposed solution was especially important during the lockdown period. It helped me gain a better understanding of what each student wanted to do, which then meant I could be more proactive in (a) advising them on potential changes, or (b) suggesting what items or materials they could use from the around the house to create it.
We started this exercise by discussing and exploring examples of product sketches from many products which they know and use (like an Apple Watch, PlayStation, Keep Cups, etc). This helped students conceptualise how a sketch could help them plan their product and communicate what it would look like and what it would be made from. They also saw and understood how detailed descriptions and labels in their sketch were not just a requirement imposed by me – they really helped bring the sketch to life.
Testing & evaluating
Challenge 4: The ‘Pitch’
Students loved their ‘funding pitch’ at the end of the project. It was a great way for them to showcase and explain their solutions.
I was a little concerned about how well this would work in a remote learning environment, but it ran smoothly. Students produced ‘TV advertisement’ videos where, using one of iMovie, Camtasia, or Screencast-O-Matic, they could easily create a video showing their product, their presentation, and them narrating or explaining what their product is and how it would work.
The students excelled at producing their funding pitch, they embraced the opportunity of producing ‘YouTube’ style videos to they could mix PowerPoints/Google slides with screencasting without any trouble. If anything, the biggest challenge for them was in summarising everything they know about the problem and how their solution would work! We spent time as a class examining what a good pitch looked like and how to represent information simply and briefly. Students were then expected to practice their pitches with other teams and make tweaks based on feedback before pitching to the whole class.
Some final advice
When embarking on a PBL journey, put aside your conventional or traditional teaching strategies. Walk into that thinking zone (I have ditched the word ‘classroom’) as a fellow learner and be prepared to share with students that you are learning along with them. They really need to trust you as their ‘guide’ to help them through the challenges they are going to face, and you are going to need to be able to trust them (a big lesson I learnt in the online world).
Be realistic and flexible about what you expect from students. If you need to alter timescales, alter them, rather than rigidly adhering to a notional plan or timeline. Let your students guide you in this.
My final piece of advice is that learning is not measured by what is written on paper! Some days the students would leave class mentally exhausted with not one thing written down.
Good luck, and enjoy your PBL journey!
Do you know an educator who is trying to make PBL work in a remote learning context who might benefit from Rachelle's experience and tips? If so, please share this article with them!