by Al Summers
This year marks my 45th year in education: 28 as a middle school science teacher, three as VP of Outreach and Professional Development for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, eight as Director of Professional Development for National Middle School Association, three years as a PBL coach in NE Indiana, and three years as a consultant.
My first official work with Project Based Learning came as a coach in a grant from Talent Initiative in Ft. Wayne, IN. It was during that work that I became connected with BIE and, in 2012, became a BIE National Faculty member. A couple months after my first solo PBL 101 workshop, I met a teacher who had been in that workshop. He came up to me and, with tears streaming down his face, told me how PBL had changed his life. Not all the feedback I get is quite that dramatic, but the excitement and enthusiasm teachers show as they begin their PBL journeys are the things that really excite me and make me want to continue the work.
Two Favorite Projects
My absolute favorite project involved 8th grade math teachers who had their students design restaurant floor plans and menus. The student teams had to display and defend their designs to a panel of architects who visited with the students during work time and then attended the presentations at the end. The teachers connected with the state restaurant association, which was able to make lots of connections with architects. The teachers also got a software company to donate $10,000 worth of licenses so the teams could design their restaurants online. A favorite moment was when an eighth grader demonstrated the software to an architect who had never seen it.
My favorite personal project was a water testing project involving the watershed around the middle school where I taught. The students learned about nutrients and pollutants in our water. They worked with a local laboratory to learn the best ways to test for those ingredients and also researched to determine what those nutrients and pollutants did, where they came from, and how various levels affected the health of the watershed. We reported our data to the Lake Improvement Association and connected with the Ohio State University Agriculture Extension Agent to work with farmers to effectively reduce the amount of chemicals that washed off the farmland into the streams. Our students also devised an “Adopt a Shoreline” program that was welcomed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and, within two years, had all the public shores of the lake adopted by people/organizations.
A Teacher Team Fails Forward
In a school where I had facilitated a PBL 101 and was doing follow up work, the principal told me to be prepared for meeting with the fifth grade teachers, as the “wheels had come off” their project. I went into the meeting expecting the worst, but they all came in with smiles on their faces and handed me the planning documents for their next project. They were excited. They were ready to go. They basically told me that if something was going to go badly wrong, they were glad it happened in their first project.
They had learned important lessons and applied those lessons to their second project. They displayed two important aspects of our work. First, we sometimes fail but when we reflect on that failure and use the experience to grow, the failure becomes a springboard to success. Second, PBL had been so accepted by them as a teaching and learning tool that they did not give up when things went wrong.
Being a PBL Workshop Facilitator
Connecting with the teachers and principals is as important as teachers connecting with students. I strive to build those connections from the opening moment to the end of our work together. The other extremely important aspect of our work is modeling – modeling the way teachers should facilitate a project and turn the learning over to the students. When you see teachers do this, the results are powerful.
Every person who uses PBL to actively teach the knowledge and skills so important for success in life is on a journey. Some are beginners, some are more advanced. I think the idea is to help each person move ahead in the journey. Even those of us who have been steeped in PBL are on a journey. It is a journey in which the destination may not be reached. As in PBL, the process is as important as the product.
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