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by James Fester
National Faculty

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January 24, 2018
Easy on the Spices: Using the Right Technology to Support PBL Teaching

by James Fester
National Faculty

Food Network star Alton Brown cautions viewers that “too much spice can ruin a meal.” At a recent tech conference in Minneapolis I began to understand what Brown meant, when in presentation after presentation I was introduced to a veritable cornucopia of tech tools that all seemed equally useful in a PBL context, but all seemed to do the same thing. Which one was the right fit for me and the teachers I supported? 


What I really wanted was for someone, anyone, to come over to me, look at the challenges I wanted to help my teachers with, and give me a tool that would work. Just one, not a dozen. With this in mind, I started a list of challenges associated with the Essential Project Design Elements in Gold Standard PBL. Here are three; each comes with a tech tool that has helped a teacher I’ve worked with, which I hope will help you as well.

Sustained Inquiry
Problem of Practice:
Independent inquiry is an important aspect of PBL, where students search for their own answers to class-generated need to know questions. If done well, these questions lead incrementally to answering the driving question and provide ways for students to demonstrate their understanding. But this still requires a good amount of teacher coaching and guidance, and some students require more help or more scaffolds than others. They may not understand that part of this process includes sharing among small groups, generating their own new questions, and answering questions to document and demonstrate their learning. How can teachers differentiate for students and help “guide” them in acquiring their own knowledge rather than just “telling” them the answers?   

Tech Tool: Insert Learning
This Google Chrome extension was developed by a classroom teacher in Minnesota to help differentiate during inquiry-based reading and research. A teacher can use this tool to insert helpful scaffolds for students into any article or website. You can highlight key points, include periodic assessments in the form of multiple-choice questions, break up longer texts by inserting your own notes or additional questions, or even record videos for students to watch to help break down more complex topics and concepts. Students who are able to follow the path of inquiry on their own, or those who need more support and guidance, can both use the scaffolds and additional information provided by the teacher to work more independently or to dial up the level of depth and challenge individually.

Student Voice and Choice
Problem of Practice:
Being a middle school teacher helped me realize that most students have no trouble sharing their opinions during projects. They’re more than happy to engage in discussion, critique, or share out what they’ve learned, even when you don’t want them too. While these kinds of students are great for moving along a discussion, they aren’t always as good at recalling what was said by others or even what they themselves said, making reflection challenging for them. There are also some students who do everything in their power to avoid talking or sharing, either because they are unsure if their ideas and opinions have merit or because of learning challenges that make oral sharing and analysis more difficult. How can you be sure that the voices of all students aren’t just heard, but critically considered by all their classmates and themselves for reflection and inclusion in later topics?

Tech Tool: Flipgrid
This video conversation facilitation tool allows students to record short video vignettes in an online forum. Teachers can provide a prompt, perhaps in the form of a need to know or the driving question, and students can then log in and use their computer or smart device’s recording feature to answer it or respond to another student. Time and posting limits prevent “oversharing” by students whose voices dominate in-class discussions, while those who are less likely to speak in the moment can take their time or re-record as many times as they need to, without anyone knowing. The videos are also saved and can be referenced later as a reflection tool.

Critique and Revision
Problem of Practice:
The more individualized a project is, the more engaged students will be. When students are allowed to consider and plan their own path to completing an individual project or contributing to a group product, more usually gets done. But total freedom is a double-edged sword as it makes parts of the process very tricky for a teacher to follow, especially with 25-30 students in a classroom. For example, if students engage in a critique and revision protocol, seeing how each student used feedback to inform and reassess their decisions or their process can prove to be nearly impossible unless a teacher can figure out a way to be in 30 places at once. How can otherwise “invisible” processes like revision be made visible? 

Tech Tool: Google Keep
In one of my previous posts, I discussed how Google Keep, a new addition to the Google Apps family, is a great tool for tracking the project process. Students can share detailed lists of tasks or successes with their teacher, and when they are checked off or edited the changes occur in real-time. This is great for individualization, but equally useful for getting students to show how critique and revision has informed their process. Students can use the tool to consider and categorize feedback into “actionable” and “questionable” lists which they can then share with the teacher. In this way, teachers can see the feedback they received and see what students have decided to use and what they have discarded. If they made a mistake or should have reconsidered a piece of feedback, the teacher has what they need to coach them.


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