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Lessons from Lockdown: How Central Coast Adventist School used PBL to keep students engaged

Project-based learning has been implemented at Central Coast Adventist School (CCAS) for about four years now. The school began our PBL journey through some high-level Professional Learning for staff, though it was largely up to individual teachers to gather resources, implement, monitor, and adjust their projects from then on. Unfortunately, this was a very ‘end product’ focused method for our staff – expecting them to run before they could walk - and was heavily reliant on our students' ability to already possess the key skills of collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking. Needless to say, this wasn’t the case.

Andrew Bateman - Secondary PBL Coordinator

Initial challenges

Our first few years of implementing PBL were a little bumpy as a result. My first experiences of PBL programs had entire school grades of 80-100 students put in smaller groups to complete challenges in a large hall or space with a group of teachers supervising throughout. A word often used to describe these lessons by teachers was “chaotic”. Students had started to view PBL negatively, where they were so heavily dependent on teacher-led, direct instruction and they were thrown into a very different style of learning with no real focus on these soft skills or the process of how to develop them.

It had even started to have a stigma within teaching staff as they struggled to see the benefit and serious lack of cross-curricula links. Projects were often one-off experiences (like gardening or building veggie gardens) which in theory was excellent but proved to be difficult with the large numbers, working time frames, students struggling to find relevance, and inexperienced teachers. These projects were hard to implement the following year and teachers were spending huge amounts of time programming and planning these lessons and then not being able to use, modify, and review for next time. PBL was beginning to be a negative experience across both the teacher and student bodies.

What changed?

Now, in 2020, PBL is a compulsory subject in Years 7 and 8 with four or five 45-minute periods per fortnight. We have ensured that the program is delivered in smaller classrooms (16-18 students) instead of grouping all students together in the hall. It’s hard to overestimate how important this step has been as it has given staff more time to work closely with students and build their skills. If any one teacher is away, the group sizes are small enough to collapse two classes together under the same teacher, ensuring consistency in program delivery.

We have taken our learnings from what was not working previously to create a much more robust and structured program, with a number of strategies and systems in place to keep the units on track and the teachers up to date. Rather than explaining what we did to get to this point, it is probably more instructive to highlight the changes we made using the case study of delivering our program through remote learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a few short years, we’ve gone from struggling to make a PBL program work well at school to being able to deliver PBL successfully while the students were all working from home.

PBL during a pandemic

COVID-19 closed schools across Australia for our Term 2, but we were determined to keep the PBL program running. Whilst a lot of schools might have found this idea daunting – and we certainly would have struggled to pull it off a few years ago – we found that the move to remote learning didn’t impact the way teachers or students worked through the PBL program at all. Here’s what we did:

Structure for teachers. Before we start every project, we now do a lot of planning to break down the project based on students’ expected progress, map that across lessons, and then break down exactly what should occur in each lesson for each teacher. The more granular you can make this, the better; we included lesson titles, dates, times, details/instructions, links to task worksheets, and what to post or assign in Google Classroom for students to access (see below). We had one teacher’s workspace as an ‘exemplar’ which other staff could access and repost to their class. This took a lot of planning time and stress off classroom teachers whose sole focus was now simply to follow a clear playbook in facilitating the program. Teachers have loved the clear instructions, structure, and ready-at-hand resources to be used each lesson.

Planning out a term of work up front takes some time and may require slight adjustments as you move through the project, but it has been well worth it. Though this seems quite simple, it is not something we had done previously, which had added to the uncertainty and structureless nature of our program. This time, we used our internal learning management system to create lessons plan for each teacher so that there was both consistency and confidence in the delivery of the program. These clear and succinct expectations have been so beneficial in helping our staff hold students accountable to expected progress and identify which students are struggling. This was especially important in lockdown when teachers were physically distant from their students.

Structure for students. While working from home, students followed a similar timetable to what they would have done if they were at school. A Google Classroom page was set up for the project so that tasks could be assigned with deadlines that would show up on their calendars. Again, this was done once as an exemplar and each teacher simply copied and re-posted it to their own class. Teachers would schedule meetings via Zoom to explain the tasks to students, what was required of them, where to access relevant materials, and how their teams should work together. All project resources were accessible in Google Classroom (via the ‘assign’ section) and students could therefore complete the tasks as a team under their own steam, provided that it was done by the agreed-upon deadline. Teachers used email and Zoom meetings with each team to help them solve problems or intervene when assistance was required.

We also found that building in a social ‘competitive’ component of the project was helpful in keeping students connected while they were all working remotely. Teachers would track student progress (based on task completion) and update a live leaderboard for each team. This competitive element was something the students really enjoyed, especially as they knew that the ‘winning’ class would receive a pizza lunch at the end of the project! Students were expected to collaborate as a team using Google Docs and were required to show evidence of this collaboration for tasks that specifically required it. Teachers could also actively monitor the extent of each group’s collaboration based on their Google Classroom activity. Because progress on a task was only recognised if each team member either completed their own copy or could demonstrate how they contributed to the task’s completion, each student always had something to work on at home. And because it was so visible to students and teachers when a work product was due, any student or team who was falling behind could be followed up proactively and helped to get back on track.

Our outcomes

The biggest vindication of our approach was that once students came back to school and into the classroom, nothing really changed. We still had students complete and submit all their work electronically using the same system as they did during lockdown. Students still collaborated on the one document, only now they could talk and chat in person. Seeing how well our delivery of PBL had gone during lockdown and how easy the transition was back to face-to-face learning was a proud moment and a vindication of the progress we have made on our PBL journey.

The biggest improvement that PBL drove for our school during lockdown was in keeping students engaged, connected, and accountable with deadlines. More broadly, we have seen real progress in the development of students’ soft skills through a greater emphasis on the process rather than the end product. Far from the initial resistance to and disillusionment with PBL, our staff not only see PBL as being valuable as a standalone subject but also as an approach that is directly applicable to our delivery of core curriculum. The stigma around PBL is starting to go, the students and teachers are bought in, and I am privileged to be a part of this ever-changing and exciting space.

Do you know an educator who is trying to make PBL work in a remote learning context who might benefit from Andy’s experience and tips? If so, please share this article with them!

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