Monday, August 20, 2018

NOTES Thinking Through Project-based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry

I've been teaching Humanities at a wall-to-wall PBL magnet for the past six years, so you'd think I'd be well-versed in designing PBL experiences for my students. While I've had lots of practice (mostly hits, but plenty of misses, too), I figured it was time to get back to the basics and see if I could glean new insights into some of the practices that have felt a little stale for the past couple of years.

Here are my notes on the book authored by Jane Krauss and Suzie Boos of the Buck Institute (PBL flagship). I'm posting them here for my colleagues, but I also thought they could be useful to anyone who's thinking about purchasing the book, as well. It can be purchased HERE.


Chapter 1:  The Whys and Hows of PBL

PBL definition:
Students gain important knowledge, skills, and dispositions by investigating open-ended questions to “make meaning” that they transmit in purposeful ways.

The goal is to help students develop into knowledgeable, autonomous, and life-long learners.

High-quality PBL involves:
    • setting conditions in which students are compelled to inquire
    • real-world concerns
    • open-ended questions leading toward essential understandings 
    • personalization: student choice around content, process, and/or product
    • potentially life-changing relevance: students care about the content enough to give quality thinking toward complex challenges
    • students learn together and from one another
    • learning is meaningful to people beyond school
    • students are personally affected by what they learn and so they're more likely to remember it
    • technology is used to investigate and construct new meaning and reach beyond the classroom to a community of learners (not simply to create flashy products)

PBL students:
    • aren't afraid to ask questions until they arrive at answers that make sense to them
    • don't give up when they run into challenges
    • know how to use feedback to revise & improve their work

Chapter 2: The Inquiring Human Animal

The personal path of questioning, investigating, and reasoning that takes one from not knowing to knowing.
Looking for patterns, analyzing systems, scrutinizing processes, exploring relationships, and solving problems.

Mind, Brain, and Education Science (2010), Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa synthesizes more than 4,500 studies to offer five key concepts:

Cultivate Wonder
In PBL, curiosity
    • is the engine for learning. If they don't care from the beginning, the project will fall flat.
    • drives students to ask questions, research, investigate, and reach out to experts.

Use Novelty Deliberately
    • Novelty causes students' brains to become alert and receptive. 
    • That's why lectures are less effective.  4-8 minutes of pure content before brain goes elsewhere (Perry, 

Executive Function
Self-directed learning develops executive function (cognitive processes that help regulate actions). Patterns of behavior become more established, and neural pathways in the brain actually become “hard wired” more so during the middle/high school years than any other time. 

    • New learning sticks best when it makes sense and has meaning.
    • To make sense, a concept has to connect to one’s current understanding.
    • To have meaning, a concept or investigation needs to matter on a personal and emotional level.
    • Assess and connect to students' prior experiences
    • Meaning = personal relevance of an idea
    • We assign meaning to things we value, find interesting, or respond to emotionally

Stress vs. Struggle
    • Rigor - putting students at the edge of what they know so they have to reach to grasp new ideas
    • Well-crafted projects are challenging without triggering stress that inhibits learning (Willis, 2007)
    • Pleasurable learning releases dopamine, stimulates memory centers, increases attention (Willis, 2007)

Liberating Constraints
Seek the right balance b/w stress and struggle by designing for "optimal ambiguity" (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2007)
    • Provide enough organization to orient students toward the work, while at the same time...
    • Permit enough openness to accommodate a variety of abilities, interests, and creative approaches
Analogy: Soccer game...within the rules, there's still room for brilliance. Without rules, a free for all.

Brain-based PBL Strategies
    • Pre-writing / thinking activities before discussion: gather thoughts, jot down notes, sketch
    • Getting people to think individually about a topic before combining their ideas is more productive than starting out thinking as a group (Kohn & Smith, 2010)
    • allow time for noodling around and exploring ideas from many different perspectives
    • Sleep on it. Allow time for students to think about and discuss the project at home before starting

Chapter 3: Making the World Safe for Thinking

    • Flags outside the doors for current projects and "Coming Soon" posters for projects
    • Video booth. Turn an empty refrigerator box into a three-sided video booth to capture student reflections. 

“Simply placing our students in problem-solving situations is not enough for these [thinking skills] to develop. Skillful critical thinking has to be explicitly taught” (Developing a Thinking Curriculum Coote, n.d., p. 6).

Fertile Questions
Six characteristics:
    • An open question. A question that in principle has no one definitive answer; rather, it has several different and competing possible answers.
      • Has the importance of the individual changed over time?
      • Are we more a part of nature or apart from nature?
    • An undermining question. A question that undermines the learners' basic assumptions, casts doubt on the self-evident or common sensical, uncovers basic conflicts lacking a simple solution, and requires the critical consideration of origins.
      • Just because we can, should we?
      • Does something we throw away ever really go “away”?
    • A rich question. A question that necessitates grappling with rich content that is indispensable to understanding humanity and the world around us. Students cannot answer this question without careful and lengthy research; such research tends to break the question into subquestions.
      • How does the debate over genetic engineering affect our future?
      • In what ways are stories a reflection of the time in which they werewritten?
    • A connected question. A question relevant to the learners, the society in which they live, and the discipline and field they are studying.
      • How would your view of water change if our taps failed?
      • How can I turn a hobby (or talent) into a business?
    • A charged question. A question with an ethical dimension. Such questions are charged with emotional, social, and political implications that potentially motivate inquiry and learning.

    • A practical question. A question that can be researched in the context of the learners, facilitators, and school facilities and from which research questions may be derived.
      • What does our in-depth study of the pond by our school teach us about oceans?
      • How does the availability of local food shape our diet and culture?

Chapter 4: The Thinking-Out-Loud-and-in-View Classroom

Foster a Culture of Curiosity
    • Make space for word play (38)
    • Invite students to ponder "grand challenges" in human rights, global health, engineering, etc. "How could the world's fresh water supply be shared equitably?"  Invite students to post their own challenges.
    • Discuss daily news:  How did the event come about? What might happen next? Is there more to this story? Is it part of a pattern? Question media sources
    • Read opinion pieces, opinion pieces, invite debate.  
    • "Buzz Talks" - Pairs, one topic for 3 minutes.  Prior to whole-class discussion.

Help Students Build a Thinking Toolkit
    • Developing a Research-worthy Question
      • Have students brainstorm a list of research questions before choosing
    • Knows <---> Need to Knows    (A spectrum, a circle)
    • Understanding a Key Idea
    • Understanding How Something Happened or Came to Be
    • When Stuck...
    • Instead of Waiting for Help
    • When Overwhelmed
    • Getting Thoughts Flowing
    • Solving a Problem Creatively
S = Substitute
C = Combine
A = Adapt
M = Modify
P = Put to other uses
E = Eliminate or minimize
R = Rearrange or Reverse
    • Giving Feedback
C = Clarifying questions
L = Like
A= Advice
M= Meet in the middle (discuss)

Teacher as "Meddler in the Middle"

Chapter 5: Designing Rich Learning Experiences

Step 1: Identify Project-Worthy Concepts
What important and enduring concepts are fundamental to the subjects I teach?  
ID 4 or 5 big concepts.

Step 2: Explore Their Significance and Relevance
Why do these topics or concepts matter?
What should students remember about this topic in 5 years? For a lifetime?
In what ways are they important and enduring?
What is their relevance in different people's lives? In different parts of the world?

Step 3: Find Real-Life Contexts
Who engages in these topics? 
Who are the people for whom these topics are central to their work? 5-7 professions
What are the interdisciplinary connections?

Step 4: Engage Critical Thinking
What might you ask of students? How might you push past rote learning into investigation, analysis, and synthesis?
How can you engage critical thinking in a project by asking students to:
    • Compare and contrast
    •  Predict
    • Make a well-founded judgment or informed decision
    • Understand causal relationships (cause and effect)
    • Determine how parts relate to the whole (systems)
    • Identify patterns or trends
    • Examine perspectives and alternate points of view
    • Extrapolate to create something new
    • Evaluate reliability of sources

Step 5: Write a Project Sketch
An overview and what students will learn

Step 6: Plan the Setup
A title, entry event, and driving question

Chapter 7: Language Arts

Individual writing tasks for lit skills in addition to team products (86)
Writer's Workshop model is an ideal fit for the writing that happens during projects in any subject.

Chapter 8: Social Studies

National Council for the SS:  (90)
Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.

NCSS recommends aligning curriculum and instruction with what kids care about—“unifying motifs” that represent developments in children’s social and emotional intelligence. The motifs include:
• Concern with self: development of self-esteem and a sense of identity
• Concern for right and wrong: development of ethics
• Concern for others: development of group- and other-centeredness
• Concern for the world: development of a global perspective

Chapter 11: The Project Spiral

When projects "go big" and generate local buzz, or they have a greater impact than expected.

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