Immerse, Investigate and Act

I first started using PBL around 2006. My school at the time was the first in the country to adopt it’s ethos and Buck Institute method. It worked so well, that I became somewhat of an advocate, showing other teachers the method, and helping them craft their early projects. Many of those teachers have also shared PBL with colleagues and today, there are many teachers using it in Australia — although the modernist demands of the current educational-political climate is far from accepting, and a long way from cultures we see in Finland. In fact, to be a school (not a teacher) doing something ‘alternative’ means culture will call it ‘alternative’ just to ensure it’s own survival.

We hear time and again that imagination is lacking in schools – and to me, imagination is still the untapped secret in developing engaging activities. Many teachers are surprised to learn that “imaginative education” is not just a real thing, but one founded in research which also shows how well it works. If kids can imagine success or being successful, then they are much more likely to put the effort it – and not zone out. Zoning out and doing nothing much is the biggest single problem in schools (says recent reports) – and when bolted onto predictable lessons – or PBL cycles – I can appreciate why.

There is a big difference between a teacher using PBL and a school using it. Over the last ten years, I’ve found the BIE model of PBL less and less effective and more and more simplistic. PBL wasn’t designed for the information age, nor the media culture infused into children’s lives. It’s an 80’s progressive rock band still on tour, when the kids are listing to Flume and Architects. If the school is committed to doing something ‘alternative’ then that doesn’t mean the teachers are making things up or have abandoned the scholarship of teaching. Quite the opposite – it takes a lot of effort to create and sustain – and there’s no safety net.

Ove the last two years, I’ve been refining an update to PBL. Based on the work of numerous scholars such as Pappert, Salen, Gee, Egan, Seeley-Brown (and my own work!) – it simplifies the BIE cycle into something which provides a ‘challenge based’ structure to work within.

The students still get the whole project up front, but work through level-challenges at their own pace. A nano project might last a few hours, a mini project a few weeks or a a full project a term or even year.

Essentially, there are three stages, which are episodic – like a good video game, movie or TV series. There’s a big idea, an essential question or drama in each episode and our heroic students work to develop a deeper understanding using their imagination – before moving on to an investigation. In PBL, children are told to use their ‘need to know’ list and ‘kwl chart’ almost at the outset. In a world pre-Internet 2017, that might have worked – but not today. An investigation needs a method and students need to learn to recognise which method suits a particular style of investigation – just as we see different research methods in University disciplines. The homogenous approach of PBL (BIE style) and that I’m still seeing promoted in Australia – fails to account for the various methods needed to research using media – and the embedded information fluencies that lie within. In part, I think this is often down to some of the current exponents limited skill in using media combined with the goat-track-fetishism that takes them all down the same EdTech path – 0ne that allows them to share a common dialog at TeachMeets, Hashtag Fests etc., but once places severe boundaries on children’s own media experiences and skills. The second stage of a project is therefore about guiding and analysis – not need to knows.

Thirdly, students need to act. This comes from gaming – solve (mental work), implement (making, playing, modding, inventing) and finally evaluate – did it work, what the foundational knowledge and skills sufficient, did the research provide enough of a clue – do you need to try again?

“Imagination is the essence of discovery” – Winston, Overwatch (Blizzard)

Within this, the activities students do are tied to verbs – each episode in deliberately truncated when it comes to the verbs we can use. This ensures learning is scaffolded and starts with a ‘win’, but also allow students to craft thier own questions and make choices based on their current achievement and developmental knowledge of the topic.

So far, this process which is supported by the classroom organisation and socio-cultural norms such as ‘shoes off and headphones out’ is proving to be successful – beyond that I’ve had in PBL.  Onward and upward then ….