Playing, Learning and PBL

This year, I took up a classroom teaching position at the International Football School on the Central Coast. Having been part of the vanguard of PBL in Australia, via Parramatta Marist and doing my part to promote it as a teaching methodology. Over recent years, I’ve introduced many teachers to PBL – grass roots and also formally teaching using it and towards it at Macquarie University. It was always going to be interesting revisiting PBL after several years in higher education — and to see whether or not, theory land is in fact useful in practice.

PBL (project based learning) is something teachers do variously. Its most striking difference between other constructivist approaches or nuances is perhaps it’s language. Terms like ‘driving question’ and ‘critical friends’ are common sign posts for students, while other terms being used in PBL language such as ‘stations’ are well used among teaching more broadly. PBL uses this language to differentiate itself, and it’s no surprise that PBL teachers actively use differential language to represent themselves online. As someone deeply involved in technology, I’m really interested in providing a realistic ‘media education’ (which includes games, design thinking etc). I am in the media camp which believes school education has not achieved this to date for numerous social and political reasons. (see David Buckingham etc).  I have been keenly observing my middle-schoolers and their technological habits of mind and in that, just how un-schooled they have become though increasing media access. I never bought into the Tapscott or Prensky view of kids as technological experts and it seems from initial observation that kids do indeed annex games-system thinking from their schooling (no evidence to show here). Just a feeling I get from discussions. For example: I can have a deeply complex discussion about the mechanics of FIFA 14/15, and then have to show the same kid how to ‘share’ a file using air-drop.

I guess I need to point out that IFS is quite a unique place. Firstly, stages are taught in one open learning space with a ratio of about 1:25 in middle school. Secondly, kids are massive (and I mean massive) football or tennis players. Classrooms are LOUD most of the time, tools such as projectors and whiteboards are at best awkward. There is no default power-play relationship between student and teacher, and this is really useful in building relationships, rather than giving instructions. Kids are really motivated when teachers hand-shake and hi-five them into the room (and out of it later). It’s a small behavior which kids really warm to and links the soccer-field social-rules to the classroom effectively.

While experts like to proclaim “kids need to find their passion”, these kids are already passionate about football (soccer) or tennis and each day spend at least two hours with professional coaches such as Lloyd Owusu among many others. Kids arrive to the OLS (open learning space) at 11.30 and we do four hours until 4pm. Much of what is being done is in a block mode, so every teacher is supporting others all the time. We have no staff-rooms, permanent walls and no one calls me Mr.Groom which is great.

PBL is not just about giving kids an open ended problem to solve. My take away from working with US PBL at New Tech High School was that shared values and culture underpin the ideology, collegiality and success of PBL programs. While many have ‘gone PBL’ in their classroom at the individual level (often humanities based teachers), few schools have adopted PBL as a core post-modernist approach to learning and working with kids. When they arrive at 11.30, they have been doing what they love for two hours. Most are a bit tired and usually hungry. Most are getting up at 6am to get to school, travelling over an hour each way.

.Right now I’m working on creating game based learning infrastructure (towards fostering 7 positive habits of mind). The kids will be doing most of this of course. I’m drawing on scholarly works (old habits die hard), rather than some pithy Internet graphic. It’s a  systems approach for establishing the social culture and individualised behavioral supports needed for schools to be effective learning environments for all students. Reduce this down on medium heat to ‘game based learning’ for those on Twitter who don’t read long sentences. This also goes along with what I said before – membership – where there is no binary war between traditional and PBL methods.

Membership means:

  • Common Language
  • Common Experience
  • Common vision/values

These are the ‘outcomes’ of attempts to gamify learning. Our kids are members of a team, and we want to make sure that membership transfers from the field to the classroom as easily as possible. The last thing we need is a ‘field’ vs ‘classroom’ mentality. The game is not about remembering seven positive habits of mind (thats just the communication layer) the game is about supporting social competence, academic achievement and safety (PBL). The outcomes are therefore concerned with data collection; pedagogical, technological and social practice and systems. These support decision making, student positive behaviour and staff behaviour.

Ultimately, PBL is about a school environment which is predictable (I hate the teacher slow-release approach — what are we doing today?). It’s also positive, safe and consistent. It uses classroom and non-classroom, student and family sub-systems to sustain it. For example, calling every parent at least twice a term to talk about a range of school topics, not just a single child’s grades or behaviour.

This means the game must:

Define behavioural expectations, teach them and monitor and reward appropriate behaviours. It needs to provide corrective consequences for not doing so — and how students engage with this as a system — is information based.

Here are 10 values that I’m putting into this project to help kids learn within a game-liek system. This is a list I have stuck on the wall behind my modest desk space … it helps me to make sure I’m providing useful supports to the system (PBL and beyond).

  1. Know what is expected
  2. Have the materials and equipment to do the job correctly
  3. Receive recognition each week for good work.
  4. Have a critical friend or mentor who cares, and pays attention
  5. Receive encouragement to contribute and improve
  6. Can identify a person at school who is a “best friend.”
  7. Feel the mission of the school makes them feel like they are important
  8. See the people around them committed to doing a good job
  9. Feel like they are learning new things (getting better)
  10. Have the opportunity to do their job well

It’ still only week 4, so I don’t have much in the way of student data to know how well this will work (if at all). However, it has been long enough to know that simply using PBL language or funky-activities won’t help embed the core ethos and point of the school itself. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share and plot the progress of some of this … it might help others I guess.

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