Sunday, August 18, 2013

I Believe PBL is the Answer

I just completed a class at Walden University titled Understanding the Impact of Technology on Education, Work, and Society. The biggest impact taking the class had on me as an educator was that it deepened my conviction that students need to be invested in their education. How that happens is immaterial, but it must happen for the time spent in schools to be worthwhile and education to have a positive  effect on student lives and their futures. In the United States a focus of change has become integrating more technology into the school day and building activities around solving problems. Both of these changes have the chance to positively affect graduates' opportunities for high interest, high paying jobs, staying competitive in a global economy, and becoming self-reliant, life-long learners.

I have been in education for thirty-four years and have seen many changes, most of them in the way society perceives schools and their success in doing the job society wants done. Over the years more and more responsibility has been put on schools as the solution to societal problems, and less and less respect has been given to those working in the field of education. More of the decisions about what should happen in the classroom are being made by non-educators. The education system has become a political football, tossed around and used as a tool to win an election or beat the other guy. Educators have to take back the initiative and do what is best for students. They cannot ignore the political realities of teaching in a public education system, but they have to act such that the time and energy students spend in the classroom gives them a harvest of success. Teachers have to use the power inherent in classroom situations and apply it to enhancing students' success when their years of school are finished.

The  true power I see in technology is the way it can focus students' attention and get them invested in activities in the classroom. Like all power it can be misused and wasted. It takes careful consideration and concentration to figure the best way to use the power offered by technology. It takes will on the part of the teacher to see the power and apply it at the fulcrum point so it can have the most affect with the least amount of effort. I believe that fulcrum is project based learning (PBL). It isn't easy, but I believe it is worth every moment spent on planning and implementation.  One of the statements that has stuck with me since I've been doing reading about PBL is that the problems posed to students should be ones that students are interested in, not ones that teachers are interested in. I think the best way to find those sorts of problems is to ask students. I know it might be difficult for elementary aged students to invent problems they want to solve, but with guidance and lessons that give the student skills, they can figure out what they want to figure out.

The process is not easy, nor it is simple. Making sure all of the crucial standards are being included in solving the problems proposed, that students will be able to handle the mechanics of standardized tests and that administration, parents and school boards will be willing to trust the process are all hurdles that must be overcome. The teacher has to be committed to the process because it will take work in ways that may be new, especially for teachers who have been in the classroom for a number of years.  One of the advantages of using PBL over choosing and implementing yet another curriculum is that the teacher is in the classroom with the students, he is in a relationship with the students and can see in the moment what needs to be changed, what needs to be emphasized and what should be ignored. Personal  relationship is crucial to all educational endeavors, but can become bogged down in teaching page 23 and doing practice sheets 15 and 16 on Tuesday. PBL requires a much more fluid approach to planning and requires student self-monitoring for success to happen, and the teacher's relationship with the students as support and guide is crucial to this process. Success creates a domino effect of one skill leading to another and when the problem is solved and the answer presented to others, the students will have practiced crucial skills without making the focus of the project those particular skills.

I am lucky in that the newest strategic plan has stated that each teacher will incorporate at least two PBL units during the year. Teachers have an extrinsic motivation to learn about and carry out projects, so even if there is some resistance, they have a reason to work with me and I can work to guide them so they have success and see the benefit for using projects. If, in the next couple of years, I can get at least one teacher in each school at each grade level to embrace PBL, I will feel that I have made a positive change in the practice in the classroom. I know from my experience in the classroom that if there is an enthusiastic teacher who has tried something new with great results, that enthusiasm may spread. So only reaching a few teachers will actually reach many more. If the results are as I predict, then the students who experience projects with passionate teachers will show growth in many more areas than just those targeted in the objectives of the project. Success breeds success, so I will concentrate and work hardest with those teachers who are most willing to give PBL a try.

To make PBL a success, I also have to continue learning about it and understanding its complexities so I can translate those for classroom teachers. I have to find resources that will be easily adapted for students who are deaf or blind, for students who have multiple disabilities, and for those who may have become used to and expectant of failure in school. Sometimes working only with special education students, educators can become focused on the differences between the students they teach and students in regular education. They can start doubting that the students they teach can benefit from the same sorts of activities students in general education benefit from. They see how much our students have to overcome and can start to believe it is too much to expect that they will succeed in the same way. I will have the task to show that PBL can and will work with our students; that resources meant for teachers in regular education classes can be adapted and differentiated so that they can succeed with our students.  I found an article about the efficacy of PBL with special needs students and the authors state at one point the PBL  "… is experiential, involves cooperative learning, and occurs within a meaningful authentic context.". They believe because of these characteristics it will be highly successful with special needs students, and I agree. If I can focus teachers attention on these aspects of PBL, I believe I can encourage them to use it, and use it successfully. 

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