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by Benjamin Stern
Education Technology Coordinator for a school in NYC and Academic Liaison for Ponder

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Topic tags: why PBL, what is PBL, how to do PBL


April 10, 2014
The Best Unit I’ve Ever Taught

by Benjamin Stern
Education Technology Coordinator for a school in NYC and Academic Liaison for Ponder

(This article was originally featured on Ben's blog, EduMusings.)

The best unit I have ever taught was an accident. It wasn’t part of the curriculum, and it all took place during lunch, after school, and on weekends. And really, I didn’t do much teaching. Let me explain.

The curriculum for the 8th grade history class is a global studies project-based learning (PBL) course. Each unit has a somewhat abstract guiding question, and the units culminate with some end product that requires students to represent their answer to the question by employing some real world skills. The instructor’s role is to teach the skills necessary for the students to answer the question, to help groups resolve conflict or grasp difficult material, and to serve as a resource for the students when they get stuck.

Through much of the year, PBL wasn’t the most popular instructional framework with students and their parents. The hardest working students chafed at having to work with their less driven peers. Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content and following explicit instructions struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, “Can’t you just tell me what I should do?”

Nonetheless, we persisted. Though they probably wouldn’t admit it, the students began to collaborate more effectively. The very practical thinkers began to think more abstractly. Students who struggled in more rigid classes began to thrive. Although the limitations of PBL became clear over time (a subject for another article), its benefits far exceeded my expectations.

These became clear toward the end of the year. The second unit of the Spring semester focuses on Africa. Students are given a long list of social, health, political, cultural, and military issues facing different parts of Africa. After doing cursory research on a few topics that pique their interest, they eventually pick a particular region and a certain issue facing it to research in depth. Their task is to examine the history of the issue, current and past attempts to resolve it, and comparable issues elsewhere. Eventually, they have to outline a campaign that, in light of their research, they believe would address the issue’s root causes in some enduring way. They also have to make a short video documentary that is designed to educate an audience about the issue and suggest how people could get involved. The videos, campaign, and accompanying paper are all assessed for content, form, and mechanics.

Last year during this unit, I was browsing through ePals, a website that pairs classrooms from around the world. I was fortunate to come in contact with a man named Ibrahim A. Kamara from Congo Town, a neighborhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He told me a great deal about his school, The Empowering Children and Youth School (ECYS). His vision is to use technology to offer his students an education that they could not otherwise access. Ibrahim is a former child soldier who has dedicated his life to serving some of the most disadvantaged kids in his neighborhood. At only 22 years old, Ibrahim has raised money to build a new building, hired teachers, and brought together many families in his community in pursuit of this righteous cause.

I brought his story to the students to see if they would want to establish a pen pal relationship. Instead, they suggested that we help ECYS in a more impactful way. Empathizing with their mission and the idea of using technology to enhance education, my students suggested that we could send them the technology they need to make this dream a reality. Aware that they didn’t know how to launch such a campaign, the students went to our Director of Development and asked how to run a fundraiser. Aware that they didn’t know how to reach out to our community, the students reached out to a faculty member who had experience in social media outreach for a political campaign. Aware that they didn’t know much about lesson plans and curriculum, they reached out to their teachers to get copies of lesson plans and resources to send along with the technology. They organized themselves into groups, some in charge of documenting donations, others in charge of the Facebook and Twitter feeds, others in charge of communication with ECYS, others in charge of overseeing the whole project. And they did all of this in their free time. In the end, this group of 14-year-olds raised almost $7000, donated five top-of-the-line computers, paid for a year’s internet connection, helped the school pay its rent for the year, made the local news, and made everyone extremely proud. The campaign continues today, which you can find here.

The students’ experience with PBL made this Sierra Leone project possible. Their ability to work together, to dream big, to identify what they needed to learn, to consult experts, and to care about real world issues in the first place was a consequence of the skills cultivated throughout the year. Advocates of PBL-style instruction often forget how important it is to slowly build the skills necessary to implement it. Students who are accustomed to a very linear and straightforward class need the time to transition to the independent framework of a PBL classroom. Yet, once students have these skills, they are able to take advantage of this freedom. When they can own their learning in this way, students achieve considerably more than they can in a traditional classroom. All we have to to do is get out of the way.


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