Observations and Discussions of Project-Based Instruction Classrooms

In the past month I have gone and observed two ‘classrooms’ where supposedly project-based instruction was being used. I have also been reading and learning more and more about the components and value of project based instruction in Teaching Science in Elementary and Middle School Classrooms: A project based approach by Joseph Krajcik. In the first section of this post I would like to compare and contrast my experience in these classrooms with how I believe a PBI classroom should be based on the following elements: constructivist learning, collaboration, classroom management and assessment.

 

Brief Summary of Observations

The first observation was at Schlagel Wilderness Center where we observed a math/ science activity day for Talent Search. Talent Search, works to engage first generation students in math and science careers and help them acquire the tools they need to be successful in college. The topic for the day when we observed was frog dissection. When we arrived the students were making origami frogs in their table groups (of 6-8 students each, 4 groups total). The lesson started with the teacher explaining the different organs and their functions for about 20 minutes. The students filled out a worksheet while she talked. Then materials were passed out, safety was discussed and the teacher guided the whole class through the dissection. I had to leave shortly after we cut open the mouth.

The second observation was at Olathe Northwest (ONW) in one of their 21st century classrooms. I was unlucky to have come on a day students were working on putting together their presentations because I did not get to see the teacher, Ms. Metcalf, instruct. The students had just written an essay individually on how food engineering affects the food they eat; each group had a specific food to investigate. I was able to talk with Ms. Metcalf and she said the main goal of having them present was to practice making good presentations and speaking in front of peers. She said this was somewhat of a light activity because many students would be missing class and spring break was soon approaching. I should note that this is an elective class for the students.

 

Analyzing the Components

Constructivist learning, as Krajcik terms it, is a form of learning where the learning is inseparable from the context in which it is learned. The idea of constructivist learning implies that the context in which knowledge is taught is extremely important because the knowledge is constructed through the task or activity itself. I was not really able to observe the learning of the actual content material at ONW, but I was able to see the students discussing elements of presentation such as deciding what backgrounds, how much text, text color, and content to put on each page. In this way, they were hopefully learning how to make better presentations through the process of making a presentation together. I’m sure seeing the powerpoints and presentations of other groups would also contribute to their learning as well. As for Schlagle, Although the students were first introduced to the organs and their functions in a traditional/ receptional style where they listened and filled in the blanks on a worksheet, the actual dissection of the frog was a great platform for constructivist learning in that the students could encounter and learn about the different organs as they dissected. This is where I feel the true difference between inquiry or project based instruction and a more traditional approaches lies: in traditional approaches knowledge is learned before the application [lecture then dissection] whereas in a project based environment the learning occurs while the students are exploring an application [learning through the dissection]. It is a very subtle difference, but I believe the latter is much more in-line with the constructivist learning model and that it provides a much more valuable learning experience for the students.

Student Collaboration is something that I am still a little fuzzy on. According to Krajcik, collaboration is a process in which students are working together in small groups on an investigation. Although it can look different in different settings because there are many factors that can change, collaboration generally involves independent roles for each student in the group, which fosters equality and mutuality. Collaboration should be equal, in that each student contributes equally; it should also be mutual in that students share a common goal, to answer a question or solve a problem. Neither Schlagel nor ONW were good examples of a collaborative learning environment on the days I observed. At Schlagel the students were not given much reins to work together because the teacher told everyone what step and when to do it. Students took turns cutting (occasionally), but there were not separate roles nor were they really working towards answering a shared question. I found a similar situation at ONW, they were simply working together, there were no roles and the question “how does food engineering affect the food we eat” had already been investigated by the student individually.

As for classroom management and assessment, I believe that in a PBL environment this is going to vary based on the activity and also the day. For example, we watched a video in lecture of a geometry class making blueprints of a futuristic school. (link to come) I think this video gives a much better example of what PBL is and how it is done in the classroom than either of the observations because it covers a whole unit whereas I only observed a day of the other PBI classrooms. In the video the classroom management is what you’d expect: the teacher walks around checking on students’ progress, asking questions, etc. She is still very engaged and acts as a guide/ coach instead of an authority figure who holds all the answers. As for assessment, the teacher in the video had a very structured rubric she developed over the years to guide the students, but in reality the assessment was that real architects looked at the student’s work and chose what they thought were the best plans. In the best case scenario, the assessment in PBI should involve the community and some sort of presentation where students can share their ideas. There does not necessarily have to be a test. 

All in all, I think there are a lot of ideas going around about what project based instruction is. Although I don’t think there is a strict definition, to me, there are certain aspects that must be present:

1. a Driving Question that is meaningful, relevant, feasible, and worthwile

2. Investigation, where students are the ones leading the investigation. Teachers should simply be guides and help students connect knowledge and step in when asked. The knowledge should be constructed through the situation or investigation, ideally, through the application in which the content is most useful. Inquiry is key. 

3. Collaboration, students should have roles and share a common goal or vision through the investigation. The community and outside sources should be involved as much as possible.

4. Technology- although I didn’t touch on it in this post as much, I believe we should incorporate technology as much as possible as a way to connect to the real world (collect real data, simulate real problem-solving, for collaboration, and to create/see multiple representations of data).

5. Non-traditional assessment- now this is all me, most of my other ideas on the theory of project based instruction (numbers 1-4) are based on the ideas of Joseph Krajcik and discussions from the Project Based Instruction class, but I think that assessment must be addressed.  For PBL to be valuable, assessment must also be. It needs to be real- not some standardized test that takes away the context of problems and asks students to merely crunch numbers or follow algorithms. Computers can do that. For PBI to be effective, the assessment must require students to share what they have learned and apply it to real life. This may be through a presentation, an essay, a unit test, whatever. The key is that we don’t lose sight of the connections, meaning, or reality of using math for more than the sake of math itself.

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