Saturday, March 31, 2012

Project Base Learning: An Evolving Process in Education

Students look forward to the endangered species unit each year.  They can't wait to "get their animal," then embark on research, writing and presentation.  It's a signature project in our school system--a memorable event that students look forward to every year.

This project has been a part of our school system for over 25 years. The project started long before the infusion of technology and prior to this information age. Long ago in the early stages of this project, it was eye opening to learn the facts and figures related to a specific animal, but now students regularly view that information on television, in books and online.  Hence, to report the facts is not as important as it was many years ago. However, to learn how to access information in efficient, focused ways, and then to use that information in ways that are relevant and meaningful to the learner and others is more important today.

Educon 2.4 led me to rethinking our signature project template and design.  I wondered about what really worked for this unit, and how I wanted to continue to develop this learning event for greater effect.

To start, I want to develop the introductory piece to this unit with greater intent.  I want children to have a working knowledge of the vocabulary and important information related to the study of endangered species.  I also want to give students a strong foundation of research skills.  And, I want to weave in activities and practice that will strengthen students' ability to read and comprehend informational text. Yes, I will be weaving common core principles into the unit.

Hence the project preview will focus on these essential questions:
  • What information do biologists collect and study when learning about animals?
  • How do biologists research and report animal facts and information?
  • Why are animals endangered?
  • Why is it important to save endangered animals?
Then, throughout the next four weeks of school, students will work in small teams, at home and with the entire class to read, study, respond to and discuss background information related to animal research and endangered species study.  I will tell students how and why I chose the initial information pieces, and then we'll discuss how to read and understand the text, videos, images and data. I will create a Google content website ("kit") to lead our work.

At the end of this period of research and exploration, students and I will begin to determine our research focus, essential questions, project design and process. Then students will embark on their independent (or collaborative) research, writing and presentation--the part of the project they are all looking forward to.

It is my hope that our research reports will result in a variety of presentations that not only report factual information related to an animal, but instead serve as an advocacy piece or action students will use to teach, inform, persuade and/or involve others in meaningful understanding and action related to the fact that many species in our world face endangerment.

This is the first of many posts to follow that will document the continued evolution of this unit to best respond to 21st century skills, tech integration and relevant, informed project based learning.  I know that students are ready to jump right in, but I want to take our time with this so that students begin to gain the discipline, focus, process and voice that are integral to project success and impact.

After the introductory period, I will allow for student voice when it comes to choosing their independent project focus.  I recognize the strength in letting children choose a subject they really want to study, but I also understand the power that comes from collaborative, community-focused project work.  Therefore I'll try to provide room for a balance between the two.

The students and I will continue to design and work on this unit.  In the meantime, if you have ideas for me, please don't hesitate to share.  Thank you.