Layering questions in PBL classrooms

At the heart of project based learning are driving questions. There are questions that are irregular and not easily answered. Personally, I prefer them to be somewhat obscure, romantic, mystical or even ironic (jokes are great!).

The point to drive more questions though a systematic process. Unlike the traditional Blooms approach, my preference is to start with questions that pose binary opposites and evaluative responses right off the bat. I’ve been constantly surprised at the responses and generally it allows me to get into differentiated discussions fast. The last thing I want is for everyone to move forward at the same pace or in the same direction.

For example. “Has technology become the worlds biggest bully?”

This question will of course will draw out plenty of answers, and all of them to some extent will contain truth and fiction. This video is provided just to kick start the conversation – to pose a question in a context that has relevance to today’s young people. What follows will not be some didactic lecture on cyber-safety. Why? Because that’s something that appears from school, not from the rest of their lives, so kids often can retell and repeat ideal behavior, but disregard it when the influence of the teacher and the topic are removed.

PBL students use KWL charts to decide as a group what they believe they know, what they don’t. However, like most people, they don’t know what they don’t know, so they need directing. The point being, they don’t all need directing in the same direction. Below is a list of questions that could be added to the a KWL session to help kids focus in on a topic. They take multiple perspectives at the early stages because critical thinking isn’t about tuning in on the best solution as soon as possible, it’s about exploring as many possibilities. Design thinking (if there is such a thing), is best thought of as a systematic process that promotes divergent thinking.

For students new to PBL, giving them a series of questions helps. PBL isn’t driven by one question or one agenda – a series of questions can be recycled and re-framed constantly. They are also turn-around questions when students start moaning “I don’t get it this, it is stupid” or “what is the point” which is really them pinging you for answers – as that is the think that education has told them to expect.

Have a practice – get some groups together and give them 4 questions each to work on KWL charts.

Do you agree with the actions…? with the outcome…?
What is your opinion of…?
How would you prove…? Disprove…?
Can you asses the value or importance of…?
Would it be better if…?
Why did they (the character) choose…?
What would you recommend…?
How would you rate the…?
What would you cite to defend the actions…?
How would you evaluate…?
How could you determine…?
What choice would you have made…?
What would you select…?
How would you prioritise…?
What judgment would you make about…?
Based on what you know, how would you explain…?
What information would you use to support the view…?
How would you justify…?
What data was used to make the conclusion…?
Why was it better that…?
How would you prioritize the facts…?
How would you compare the ideas…? People…?
Is there a better solution to…?
Judge the value of… What do you think about…?
Can you defend your position about…?
Do you think…is a good or bad thing?
How would you have handled…?
What changes to.. would you recommend?
Do you believe…? How would you feel if. ..?
How effective are. ..?
What are the consequences..?
What influence will….have on our lives?
What are the pros and cons of….?
Why is ….of value?
What are the alternatives?
Who will gain and who will loose?


You are standing in what used to be the library

As most people probably know, video-games have origins in text. Back in the day, text was pretty much all there was. These games are not forgotten, but formed the basis of today’s semi-open world games, forging the foundations of game-rules and game-play. Despite the visual evolution of games, you can still find the origins of text adventures online – which began, and live on as Interactive Fiction. The magical words that spawned a generation, Adventure begins.

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

My idea was that it would be a computer game that would not be intimidating to non-computer people, and that was one of the reasons why I made it so that the player directs the game with natural language input, instead of more standardized commands. My kids thought it was a lot of fun.”

— William Crowther

There are plenty of these games still online, lovingly curated by people long forgotten in this era of gamification. But they were both romantics and adventurers who helped create the code that today powers the Internet and began the epci adventure we all experience daily as “ICT”.

Despite numerous studies and scholars attempting to find a definition for video games, something that seems to take an extra-ordinary amount of time, money and effort, it seems that no one has managed to come up with one that does more to describe how games feel to players than calling it Interactive Fiction.

I don’t like the idea of Serious Games, as it smells schooly and sells-out programmers like Crowther and fiction writers like Gibson in order to appease the minutia of experts defining them. Most equally they don’t like comics, cyberpunk, steampunk or Buffy. That doesn’t mean they are right.

Can we go back to the origins of the adventure, and find ways of using game-play that doesn’t have to have a ‘sanitised’ label on it? I think so.

Today, this idea of transmedia is being explored taking advantage of new tools – and requires new literacies. It has close relationships with Augmented Reality games and even the what you are about to see more of – devices that augment console game play – like the new Skylanders, where your physical characters unlock pathways and talent of your in-game character (which is marketing’s brilliant idea that sucks). Just for the record, as soon as it say’s “sold separately” you sucked the fun out and I’m not playing. So while I advocate for games, I don’t advocate for this idea that shoving a console in a room creates more motivated and engaged humans.

There are plenty of people keeping the idea of adventure alive — though now is has morphed into “transmedia’ – and these games don’t have to reside on devices most people will associate with games.

Schneider (2005) states that “the readers of hypertexts appear as empowered readers, liberated from the constraints imposed by ‘traditional’ literature – some commentators even raise the question whether the very terms ‘reader’ and ‘reading’ might not have become inadequate for hypertext reception”. This type of reading requires skills not required in traditional reading.

Oh no, so moving from printed to page to ePub isn’t as 21st Century as it seems. In an era of ‘push me’, i’ll do everything read/write technology, it seems that we are no more creators now than when we started, as few people are actually learning how code works, and how to link the medium’s together. I recall the phrase “A good story, well told” by Adam Elliot. To me a this isn’t using one media, or embedding some widget inside another widget, it’s understanding the media itself, and then linking them together to tell a good story. In many ways all Internet media is Interactive Fiction, as reality is only that we experience first hand.

Take a look at The Amanda Project as an example of what I am driving at. The Amanda Project is the first collaborative fictional mystery told across an interactive website, and an 8-book series published by HarperCollins.

Amanda Valentino is the most mysterious, the most magnetic girl you’ll never meet.

How good is that! No it won’t leap off the page and tell you exactly how to use it, you have to figure it out. However, I’ve posted the synopsis video and suggest you look at this post, just to illustrate the link with the original idea of mapping an adventure. Here’s a clip from a teacher talking about the Amanda Project.

It’s worth watching, then going back to the website and pulling it apart. There’s nothing in there that is impossible to re-create. Even if you didn’t use this book, there are plenty of ways to rethink reading and writing. There is a free teachers kit – which if you an educational developer would give you some clues on how you could re-package any story, or perhaps, with a little creativity, create just enough story for another subject. There are so many resources about writing, such as the Sydney Writers Centre that getting started isn’t impossible at all. Then there are tools, such as Inform7, which allow kids to create their own interactive fiction based on natural language.

These things are all games as much as they are books. Even if you’re not yet interested in jumping into Massively Minecraft with us, this post is a fore-runner to where we are heading with our guild. Almost all our players now have the skills to create Interactive Fiction, it remains to be seen if they’d want to. What we know is, that there has to be a constant call to adventure in which they explore their own creativity – and to me, Interactive Fiction is a game, and reading today is not about just about text or where it appears. All we have to do is make it part of the game, to facilitate the steps in the mission and to celebrate the end product.

I take great issue with games, when they deceive kids if the only acceptable meaning is that which the teacher wants, presented in ways they like to mark. My view is that using  play as a frame has strong links with the past – and quite happy to say that I believe using and then creating ‘transmedia’ as Interactive Fiction is an approach to ‘digital literacy’ that connects the dots for some students far better than arguing there read/write web is anything more now, that when Berner’s Lee invented it. You have always been able to read write, if you had the literacy of the day.

To figure out what’s next, we have to be willing walk down that road, and find out what’s in the brick building, not wait until some merchant appears from the distance and tells us as we hand over money. Adventure still awaits – and for the most part it’s still free.

How can we help you to learn with mobiles – PBL project

One of the fantastic project based learning solutions that came out of our Massively Productive #red project with K12 distance and rural educators was “How can we help you learn with mobiles”.

The problem statement surrounds the high numbers of students simply don’t respond to using a learning management system. They don’t log in, rendering all the instructional designed course beyond  unprofitable. This problem leads to a series of escalating pleas, threats and punitive measures which are largely ignored in a game of distance cat and mouse. As the project sketch played out, discussions turned to the transmissive use of SMS messages by schools. It seems most schools use SMS to tell parents that students are not attending school, however the gateway is not used in duplex – students can’t SMS teachers. The irony is that mobiles are banned for students  yet assumed that parents have them – as this is useful to the functional needs of school administration and proof of action. Mass SMS-ing, I am lead to believe is common practice at high public cost with un-reported results in it’s impact on improving student performance or attendance. It obviously ticks a complience box, but if this is all mobiles and SMS is seen as useful for, it’s quite depressing.

Giving students the teacher’s mobile was seen as risky, as was holding the student or parent mobile number on the teachers phone despite this information often being available via administration systems to teachers to call them. The convention is to use the official school phone to contact, or rely on the school SMS gateway to transmit a punitive message to the parent, which one assumes is then relayed to the child – assuming that is possible. In many cases the parents ignore it as well.

The project, as always, needs to make a product, and a case to an audience. The idea was to look at how kids use their phones to learn and to communicate – bringing in aspects of recent events in the UK, how developing nations are using phones, and some quantitative research around the students and their community. This case would them be presented to the people who are running the SMS transmission gateway, in order to argue how it might be better used by students to access and participate in online learning – especially in areas where actually accessing a computer and the internet is proving inadequate.

What is impressive here, is that this project was rendered by a group of teachers, brand new to PBL, in a day as their first. It is wide enough to work at all ages and stages, it has ties to current issues, known frustrations and solves a very large problem that both teachers and students face. Best of all it takes the case to the people who make decisions, policy and rules about the use of phones. The group mapped the project it NSW BOS outcomes, ISTE NETs for students and ISTE NETs for teachers and suggested several great ways of assessing the project. Best of all, it drives an innovation – as the guiding questions use SMS for delivery and response to the students. You might think this is too simple or limited, given the access we have to LMS, blogs and wikis. Consider though, that very high numbers of students simple do not respond to anything. Responding via a text might well be the first level of engagement with learning they have had in a long time.

Gratz! to the group for working so hard. It illustrates just why PBL  allows teachers and students to find, and solve meaningful problems – not cover content-standards, but leads to visible social action.

PBL – A code for students

Project Based Learning demands students communicate with each other. Contemporary project design requires the teacher to provide a climate for students to do this – with each other – and there are numerous ways to achieve it. Many PBL classrooms use wikis, blogs, forums and my personal favourite, Edmodo or Schoology. I also encourage classrooms to have a third space, where students can break-out and be – students.

These spaces should be owned by the students, and the teacher should consider themselves a guest, providing facilitation and support for the project development.

Having spaces for students to communicate, does not require the teacher to Tweet it, or publish it online – unless the project has a specific goal to do so. I am a firm believer that the role of the teacher in PBL is to provide a safe, trusting, learning environment to encourage discussion and sharing of ideas, but not overtly police or publish them.

To be effective as a communication space, it is important to develop a code of conduct – rules and expectations that will further the learning experience.

Here is a baseline code s to work from. Not every conversation will take place online – so the code should be developed to foster a spirit of participation in both face to face and online communication activities.

Code of Conduct

  • respect each other
  • criticise ideas instead of people
  • listen actively
  • seek to understand before being understood
  • contribute to group discussions
  • keep an open mind
  • share responsibly
  • attend all meetings
  • return all messages

This should be considered a ‘living document’. It should allow students to address and articulate other shared concerns they might have. At the end of a lesson or group meeting, they should use it to assess their performance and identify areas for improvement. This encourages a philosophy of continued improvement, using shared principles and criteria that matter to the student – and not just the ‘rules’ of the teacher or school – which have often involved to manage poor behavior and effort, not optimise better performance.

Over time, students develop a code of conduct that they believe optimises group performance. Initially they tend to focus on punitive statements, driven by past experiences of working in groups under the rule of teachers. The teacher should pay close attention to this, and strive to resolve and remove ‘deal-breaker’ rules whenever possible.

How games teach students to work in groups

In massive multiplayer games, the code of conduct is often spelled out in a fairly simple group charter (Guild Code). Players in the game come from many Guilds, but when playing with others, they are acutely aware of the ‘core’ expectations and standards that will be enforced during the game. In Warcraft for example – high level players have learned the social-rules though hundred of hours of play – and experience. No one sets out the rules at the start of a ‘raid’ – everyone knows them and the group will ‘kick’ anyone who acts outside of them as it impairs the group performance. The goal is always driving group behaviour.

Give students a way to assess themselves and their peers that is meaningful

Another way of encouraging this in PBL, is to provide students with a self-assessment plan – and build it into the assessment (don’t make it less than 10%). Use a rubric – very often, often, occasionally, rarely, never. You can evoke self or peer review at any time. This is often a great way to resolve conflict within groups.

  1. I try to get to know my classmates
  2. I study with other students in the project
  3. I work with other students in informal groups
  4. I assist other students when they ask me for help
  5. I tell other students when I think they have done good work
  6. I discuss issues with students whose background and viewpoint differ from mine
  7. I offer to serve as a tutor, advisor or resource person when I am knowledgeable and can share skills with others.

PBL encourages students to take direct responsibility for their own learning. These two tactics foster, but also give a clear guide to students of your expectations. If you replace the word ‘student’ with ‘colleague’ – you might discover that this approach is not limited to the classroom – but to the whole community.

Integrating 3D into English Stage 4

Integrating virtual worlds and games into Stage 4 English isn’t technically hard — although they syllabus only mentions CD-Roms and Websites due to it’s age.

So lets start simply and work through an idea. I’ll add some examples and leave you to explore them later. The point of the post is to clearly illustrate that todays reading list should include things that students find more compelling that websites and CD-Roms. In doing so I’m using just three technologies. It would allow an entire unit of work over a term for US$100.00 and provide an opportunity for team-teaching.

Let’s take FICTION – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins being a great story, brilliantly plotted with tremendous pace. In order to be used “students must study examples of spoken, print and visual texts”. Okay so we can cover the print; but lets look at how games and virtual worlds fit in this. Spoken — well virtual worlds afford role-play in which students play characters, audio readings of the books and streaming of both video and audio into scripted objects and land parcels. Yes Katniss can be visualised as an avatar — allowing students to visualise the texts. All of which meet the need for students to present students with “a range of social, gender and cultural perspectives”. Tick, tick, tick.

The texts on the ‘list’ (why and English teacher can’t align a text without a list seems weird)  have to “challenge the reader, texts that have layered and multiple meanings, and that provoke thought”. Hunger Games does that on many levels, adding a virtual world allows them to rise beyond that – to create and make. Another tick.

Now lets look at what is on the list for a moment in this rough area – Animal Farm, Lord of the flies, The cry of the wolf — all great books — but I’m still sticking with Hunger Games. As one reviewer in said

“I am a young adult media specialist. I read a lot of young adult literature. I read all summer long, looking for the next IT book. I didn’t find one. Though I enjoyed “The Glass Castle,” “The Host,” and others there was nothing that I thought could match the “Twilight” fever. Suddenly this fall, I have read two books that I think are absolutely outstanding. One of them is “The Hunger Games.

Ah I slipped in – This is where I’d be putting the class to journal the book as they read it. The syllabus asks us to provision “composing extended imaginative, interpretive and critical texts based on their own investigations and their wider reading”. Hunger Games has wider reading in Fan Fiction for a beginning, so already I am thinking about getting them to reflect using one tool, read the authorised text and compare other texts to it online. We’re already cooking and no-one’s set foot in a virtual world yet.

I’m thinking about how we can not only look at the story, but also at the way we construct stories … with an eye on working towards creating a story narrative in a virtual world. There are numerous examples on Fan Fiction – but I’d choose something like this — so we can pull apart the construction of the writing itself, and compare it to the author’s work. The quarter quell is the topic of the second book. I would not make direct reference to Catching Fire, but allow students to look beyond the ‘task’. There are also stories mashing vampires with Hunger Games, so really what I would like to encourage is that students would find something of personal interest to read from Fan Fiction, as well as the book itself. So now I’m using Fan Fiction and Good Reads as my learning management tools. Nice and simple.

Now lets look more specifically at an outcome

2.1 use a range of listening, reading and viewing strategies, including skimming, scanning, predicting and speculating, reading and viewing in depth and rereading and re-viewing, according to the purpose and complexity of the texts

I am going to meet that by using comments and discussion in Good Reads and by looking at other reviews.

2.15 processes of representation including the use of symbols, images, icons, clichés, stereotypes, connotations, inference and particular visual and aural techniques including those of camera, design and sound.

Here’s the kicker – the easy way to meet this outcome is to create a Power Point, grab a few images off Google, watch a DVD and then get them to respond to some directed questions. But let’s use a virtual world instead — Reaction Grid. This is the place to be in Virtual World Education right now, and I’ll leave you to explore what it is all about except to say, get your IT people to unlock a couple of ports and install Meercat browser, and grab a sim for a term for about US$100.00. Now you are ready to LET THE STUDENTS go nuts in a private, safe, virtual space.

Rule#1 – the sim is only open when a teacher is present. Rule#2, get Reaction Grid people to give you a chat-logger for the island. Rule#3, explain the rules of virtual space – they are the same as any other space — an opportunity to side track for a while to look at digital citizenship and cyber-behaviour that is syllabus-missing anyway. So now you’re adding value and the kids are pumped with ideas around your project. You might go and look at other school-sim rules too, but in the initial phase — you have to keep it simple. Being in-world of course is not a right. I would set in-world time as a reward for completing task milestones. That is significant – it creates group responsibility and encourages the teacher to design learning well enough from the outset to manage computer time. A good habit of mind.

Ah, I didn’t mention the project did I? – Well that’s for you to design – suffice to say, you are NOT going to build anything in-world — don’t panic!

In fact the world itself is just one outcome of 4 or more that you are aiming to hit. It is the activity, not necessarily the assessment. It is the motivation, the chat-room and the social space you need to get them reading and writing in other spaces. The project itself should allow students to visualise and make. Reaction Grid does not require any Linden $ in payment to do this – so you’re going to hit some targets with ICT immediately as you add graphics etc.,

Now go and see a computing teacher or maybe an art teacher, there are multiple lines you can draw – the point it DON’T WORK ALONE.

Computer teachers are probably building boring websites (the syllabus tells them to). If so, add a couple of ICT outcomes to your project — this will also buy you some more computer time if you are not 1:1 access – and it will allow them to look at 3D software, different graphic formats, resolution as well as sound and video. So now you can get year 9 to work with year 7.

By now your students are exploring and making and you’re blending learning and subjects — beginning to team-teach in an enquiry driven approach. You have a book, paper tasks, an online community in 2 and 3D accessible quickly and easily. A class of 30 is now in 6 or 7 groups — and you are beginning to act as the pathfinder and guide — not the font of all knowledge.

I have glossed over the project purposely – as learning about instructional design, project based learning or scenario based learning to me is a given in our hyper-connected world — and is indeed a something new to learn in itself.

However, this approach meets the needs of the syllabus and more importantly will create far greater realism and resonance – as right at the centre of it are motivating technologies – that connect students to their friends and their learning.

You could do this with Sims2, which is pretty cheap – the illustration opposite is fan art using it. Personally I think that would cost more and not provide an open-enough environment as Reaction Grid. Also note that I am not suggesting that as a teacher you would learn to ‘build’ either, that would be part of the skills kids need to develop in their PBL project. But as I started out saying games or virtual worlds — it is a viable option if your network admin believes that the a private virtual world is more dangerous than their filtered web. If that’s the case you have some myth-minded matters to attend to – as there is plenty of academic evidence to counter prejudice and fear — if they bothered to look.

In the new year Judy and I are going to provide a workable model of this though Second Classroom – and teachers will be able to come and learn about the design of projects in more detail. Contact me if you or your school are interested.

Tools needed: Private Reaction Grid sim,, Nice to have: Picnik browser plug in, Diigo class library browser plug-in
Pedagogy: Enquiry, Group based learning 8/10 students per group
Duration: Over a term
Swapping Out: Quiet Reading time – for active learning time