PBE vs. PBL

IMG_3254 (1)Placed Based Education (PBE) is the idea of embedding learning in a local, authentic context. It is community centered with students addressing local issues. A great example would be this school in Canada. PBE does not ignore bigger, “world” issues, but rather seeks to have students find entrance into them through their own community and local contexts.

I recently went to the Great Lakes Placed Based Conference and it was much more science focused than on any other subject. PBE seems to target science and the environment, but social studies fits it too with a focus on local history. I think the emphasis on science comes from its origins in the environmental movement and it is now expanding to a broader focus. Another key part of this is the idea of uniting science and social studies together instead of siloing the subjects.

Our water project is one example of PBE that I have experienced. One thing that I can definitely affirm is that the local connections and purpose to the project made it more “real” to students than any other project that we have done. I brought a couple of students with me to the Great Lakes Placed Based Education Conference and we shared the project with them.

Some thoughts and observations about PBE:

  • There are many schools doing incredible things in PBE, but the majority of them are not publicizing their projects.
  • Social media is mostly absent of the PBE concept. I don’t see blogposts, tweets, or chats about it. One theory I have about this is that PBE people are more “outdoor” focused than “tech” focused. Not that these things have to be mutually exclusive, but it seems like they are in practice.
  • PBE is heavy on science, but is expanding into social studies.
  • PBE is not really unique. It is a “flavor” of PBL, just like service learning or passion based learning can be (depending on how it is done).

So on the one hand I think PBE deserves more exposure, especially the great projects that schools are doing, but on the other hand I wonder do we really need it as a separate movement from PBL? How many different labels do we need?

“Tap dancing and farting”

http://kingston-upon-thames.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TAPPY-LADY.jpg

http://kingston-upon-thames.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TAPPY-LADY.jpg

The title comes from this great post by Chris Baker Understanding Without Design. Go read it now as it is a great post!

I want to respond to this post that I agree with 100%. The thing is, that although I agree with its philosophy, I don’t often teach like this. I plan out most things in my class from entry event to the culminating product. I already know most resources and workshops that I will do before we even start the project. I do allow plenty of time for research where students discover their own things on a given day and I love it when that happens.

So I guess that I am torn between what I believe and what I often practice. Somehow I feel like there must be some kind of nuanced balance between tap dancing and farting on the one hand and planning on the other hand. Left to themselves some students would do amazing things and others would waste time playing games or texting.

Sometimes what I believe about education seems utopian. Sometimes I feel like I am a prisoner to state standards that I am supposed to teach. Sometimes I wish I had the guts to teach a whole year without plans or curriculum. I know that students would learn and do some amazing things. I also know that we would “hit” most of the standards anyway. But I also fear that some students would slack and not do much. In the system that we work in there is no room for that kind of failure and I would be blamed for lack of structure.

So how do we balance planning with tap dancing?

#MyParty14 Results

The #MyParty14 election project was a great success. Our students participated in the political process by creating their own parties around issues that mattered to them. We had a “primary” at our school and the top ten commercials were shown to local congressmen along with a two minute stump speech.

My students came in second place in the state wide competition, but I know that we “won” because I watched the students get excited about politics and issues that matter to them. Getting students to realize that they have a voice if they choose to use it was the best part of this project.

Here are a couple of news articles about the project: Huffington Post and School News Network. 

Why I am proud of “unpresentable” projects.

In PBL we often talk about the importance of an audience to drive students to produce high quality work. But I think that we need to consider the goals for each project. I believe there is a time and place for a polished, final product and a time for more of a “rough draft,” conceptual, final product. We need to consider the learning goals behind each final product rather than judge it by how shiny it is.

A case in point was our American foreign policy monument project that we just completed. We spent five weeks on this project building up background knowledge that we will refer back to for the rest of the year. Even though we spent weeks on the project we only gave students one week to design and build their monument. We did have an authentic audience of architects, engineers, and designers come and look at the pieces while students explained them.

But the thing is, most of them weren’t pretty. They looked more like craft projects than careful designs. To be clear, I am not criticizing the students here. They did exactly what we wanted them to do. We focused very intently on symbolism and looking at American foreign policy from multiple perspectives including a non-American point of view. We were ok with designs that didn’t look perfect as long as they had some depth in symbolism to them. The picture below is a great example.

Hands for Humanity

Hands for Humanity

It is not all that impressive visually, but if only you could listen to the students who made it. It was one of my favorite pieces and the students showed a depth of understanding of how America acts in the world. Check out their artist statement:

Our monument is inspired by Greek architecture, the WWII fountain, and the 9/11 memorial. Full scale, our monument would consist of marble pedestals, granite benches, bronze inscribed plaques and bronze hands. Our proposed location will be in the Ellipse Circle, in front of the White House, where it can be a reminder to future presidents of both the triumphs and mistakes of their predecessors.  The hands in the fountains represent the US foreign policy, a fist for brutality, an offering hand for kindness, a thief hand for greed, and a hand holding a flag representing the peoples’ nationalism and America’s want to spread a democratic government. The fountain is symbolism for the US having equal parts of both the good and bad things we’ve done. Inscribed on the fountain are various quotes: (Bold emphasis mine).

You’re not supposed to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. -Malcolm X

Maybe we ought to consider a Golden Rule in foreign policy: Don’t do to other nations what we don’t want happening to us. We endlessly bomb these countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us? -Ron Paul

Foreign policy is like human relations, only people know less about each other.   -Joe Biden

Many American pundits and foreign policy experts love to depict themselves as crusaders for human rights, but it almost always takes the form of condemning other governments, never their own. -Glenn Greenwald

We did not talk about any of these quotes in class. The students went out and found them. These students understood the nuance that we were trying to communicate that America is neither a hero or villain in the world, but a country that sometimes does great things and sometimes makes horrible mistakes.

I would argue that this “rough draft” monument is amazing, not because it looks great but because it represents a deep understanding of America’s complex relationships in the world. So rather than focus on the shiny, focus on the purpose that you have for the project.

Recycling Old Projects

"Two sides of the same coin" One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

“Two sides of the same coin” One side shows 9/11 and the other side shows American acts of aggression.

Sometimes old projects can be repeated and sometimes they need a makeover. In the past we did a 12 week study of American foreign policy starting with the Spanish American War (SAW) and ending with Middle Eastern conflict today.  It was too long and students could not see the relevance of the SAW part until the end. So this year we did one project combining SAW and 9/11.  We also read Ender’s Game to tie it all together.

We have always struggled to bring relevance to SAW as it is obscure and not given much space in most classes. We believe that it is vital in showing the beginning of American policy of intervention around the world, often by imperialistic means. We had students explore whether the United States was motivated more by Manifest Destiny or Imperialism through out the past 100 years in specific interventions.

IMAG0220 (1)

“Two hand, one gun” Perspective on our relationships with Iraq

The final product was a monument as “Speaker for the Dead” (from Ender’s Game) where they had to represent American foreign policy from multiple viewpoints including a non-American view. They also needed to have symbolism reflected in their piece. Students were challenged to look at America as not always “good” or a “hero” but consider the complexity of our actions and realize that we have made both good and poor decisions through out our history.

"America's shadow" The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

“America’s shadow” The shadow of America is on Palestine but as time passes it shifts to Israel representing a hope for balance in our actions there.

Previously students made monuments only based on 9/11 and many of them looked similar. By giving them more options (yeah voice and choice!) we had better variety and deeper analysis from students. We are definitely happy with the results of these “recycled” projects. Sometimes we fail in our first attempt on PBL but often we just need to re-package it in a more student friendly way. Student voice and choice is always important to making this happen.

Do you re-use projects? How have you successfully (or unsuccessfully) recycled a project?

Don’t put words in my mouth!

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CarbonNYC via Compfight cc

I was contacted by an organization that promotes teacher advocacy. They wanted me to join them as they represent teachers across the country. They are very connected politically and have some some big money behind them. The pitch was that they would amplify my voice by getting more media exposure to my writings and get my message in front of state and national politicians.

I immediately loved the idea of this. I am passionate about helping make our education system better. I want to see a decrease in testing and standardization with a shift to personalized learning that is student centered. A grassroots organization that promotes teacher voice in the media and among politicians is definitely a need in the U.S.

But of course there was a catch. The “focus” for this year was promoting the Common Core. Ugh. Not a topic that I am a fan of. National curriculum is low on the list of things that I believe will “fix” schools. I really don’t believe “content” is the problem in schools, pedagogy is.

But what really rubbed me wrong is that this organization is branding itself as “teacher voice” but only if we support their agenda. This “grassroots” movement looks strangely like top down strategy that needs some teacher pawns at the bottom.

When you want to LISTEN to my opinions about how we can change education first, then maybe we can talk. I won’t have anyone putting words in my mouth. I have plenty to say by myself, thank you.

How to get students to own their learning.

In previous years we have started school with a week of orientation. We did team building activities, had a huge, crazy scavenger hunt, and had students on a high ropes course. Although we felt those were successful approaches to the start of a new year we decided to do something different this year. So we started by continuing the Water Project that we ended with last year.

The Water Project was our best project ever because of how much ownership the students took of it. But this was a new class of kids whose only connection to the project was seeing it in the hall. How would we get them to buy in?

On the first day of school we brought in two guest speakers from LGROW, a local agency of our city government that works to promote good management practices of the Grand River Watershed. They shared who they were and the needs of their organization. We also did activities to teach students about watersheds and management of them.

Students brainstorming poster designs

Students brainstorming poster designs

By the third day students were looking at local problems and proposing solutions. At the end of the day they selected one of three “realms” to be a part of: Helping LGROW, working on our local campus, or working more broadly on a watershed where they live (our students come from all across the county and live on many different local watersheds that all feed into the Grand River). Once they were in these groups, they broke down into sub groups of things like making professional posters, promotional videos, and designing a social media campaign for LGROW. Other groups are designing a rain garden and a rooftop garden to grow vegetables for our school. They were calling local businesses for information and networking with the culinary and Ag science programs on our campus. The third realm groups are designing projects around their local watershed and some have already brought in water samples.

Student leaders are emerging in all groups. These kids are skilled and passionate about doing these things. One of the really cool things to me is that I had no preconceived ideas of who the leaders would be because I am just trying to learn their names. So I don’t know their academic history, but it feels like all kinds of kids are finding their niche and rising to the challenge. Yesterday one of the members of LGROW came back to school and the students pitched their ideas to him for feedback. He loved them.

This project will be unique for us in that students will work on it every other Friday for two hours for the rest of the year. It will be the first time that we try to sustain a project over time. One of the advantages of this is it gives the students time to do real work and develop relationships with the community and businesses that is just impossible in a 3-4 week timeframe.

Last year ended with students taking over and owning their learning. This year we are starting off with students taking over and owning their learning. I am very excited to see the real work that my students will do this year. Instilling this culture to start the year is so powerful! I am confident that they are going to surprise me this year.

So how do you get students to own their learning? Challenge them with real work for real people for a real purpose. And then quite honestly get out of the way. Teachers are still there to guide, but we must not control the project. One of my strengths is a lack of organization. So I dream big possibilities and give them to students. My lack of planning everything to a T gives the students space to take over and run the project. Sometimes all it takes is less of us so that there can be more of them.

What have you done to let students own their learning this year?

Stories > Data

We had one of those inspiring, motivational speakers to launch our new school year. I am not a huge fan of these types of events, but I did agree with his overall emphasis on telling stories to change the public perspective of schools. The idea of this image came to mind so I made a slide. Presentation slides I like (1)Feel free to share and use. It has Creative Commons license (like everything on this site).