We offered our first professional development this week to local teachers on PBL (project based learning). Since we are a lab school at the county level it was determined from the planning stages of our school to offer PD to the local districts.
One of my colleagues and I ran the PD session and I was struck by a couple of things. The teachers who attended did not ask very many basic questions about what PBL is or why it is a good pedagogical choice. Many of them had already used it in their classrooms in at least one project and were looking to further develop their understanding and practice of it. They did not need to be convinced to try PBL. In their districts they were the early adopters. They did ask questions about student motivation, managing the projects and groups, and grading.
The questions that hit me the most were questions about testing and assessment. They wanted to know how we assess; how we measure student growth (i.e. what standardized tests do we use and how often); were we concerned about how our students will do on the 11th grade state test (you know the BIG one).
These teachers were obsessed with testing and assessment. But to be clear these questions were not asked in a skeptical or judgmental way. They were asking these questions because that is the climate that they live in back in their home districts. It was very clear to me that testing was very emphasized in their schools and although they wanted to shift to student-centered PBL they were concerned about how their students would do on tests. They were looking to be assured that if they went all in with a PBL classroom that their students would perform better on standardized tests. To me, test results are not a very important part of PBL at all. I believe in PBL because I think it encourages a better way to learn and develops important life skills such as collaboration and communication that won’t be on any test.
Even though I taught in one of these districts two years ago, I have forgotten how dominate the testing culture is in most schools today squeezing out everything else. I am truly blessed to be free from the fear of these tests. My students will take the tests and I sometimes worry about how they will do a little bit, but I do not teach in a climate that obsesses about them non-stop and makes them a key factor in every decision.
Other PBL teachers, how do you encourage teachers who want to shift to PBL but feel pressured by a test obsession culture?
Check out this short interview with Michio Kaku about how schools and standardized testing destroy the natural curiosity towards science that we are all born with. As the father of two blossoming scientists I care a lot about this.
“When we hit the danger years. The danger years of junior high school and high school. That’s when it’s (scientific curiosity) literally crushed out of us. ‘Every little flower of curiosity’ said Einstein, ‘is crushed by society itself’.”
Watch it all.
We need to reverse this trend! Let students DO science and not just rigged labs that the teacher knows the results. Let students apply scientific method to problems they care about and attempt solutions.
I want to share our first “project” in American Studies and the philosophy behind it. First of all, it will not really be a project at all. When the students and I started looking at the standards for this year we noticed that there was a ton of overlap with last year’s standards for Global Studies. In particular both classes include WWI, WWII, and the Cold War. The standards do have a bit more of a domestic focus but some of them are practically identical. These standards are also a big chunk (approximately 25%) of the “power” standards for this year.
I felt like my students did a very nice job with WWI and WWII last year and have a good understanding of these events. Their level on the Cold War was not quite as deep though. So we decided to start the year by reviewing WWI, WWII, and how WWII led to the origins to the Cold War. We will return to the rest of the Cold War later this year. We will spend only two weeks on this and end with a test. Of course the test will be like last year’s test: open internet and collaborative.
Why are we doing this? Quite simply I hate standardization but I am forced to teach the state standards. So to paraphrase a story told to me by a colleague about a conversation he had with Dennis Littky of Big Picture school. At their school students are encouraged to study their passions. My friend asked him how they deal with standards. Dennis told him, “You do what you have to do.” So they cram all of the standards in at the beginning with students knowing that they are working hard so that they will have space in the year to explore their passions later. So that is my motivation here.
We are going to knock out a big chunk of standards at the beginning in order to create space later in the year for students to dig deep into their individual (or group) passions related to being an American citizen. Since this is our second year together I already know what those interests are for most of the students. So this is why I have a vague idea of how this year will end but am extremely excited because I expect my students to decide to do some amazing work to make our world a better place.
National standards vs. local standards vs. no standards