16 February 2008

Bringing the Outside In: Recap

Wendy left a comment on my Bringing the Outside In post from earlier in the week, and I thought it might be simpler to address her questions here. She said:

This sounds awesome. Is there a way you can share the results of the "counseling" meeting with your readers?

During their investigation of their task/problem, were their situations when students' explorations did not lead them in the proper direction? I'm interested in hearing about other teachers' experiences with PBL and granting students the time to experience an initial "failure" or lack of success in order to rethink and direct their own learning rather than being guided or prompted to the solution by the teacher in order to speed up the process.

Also, how has this PBL changed since you first implemented it in the classroom?

Thanks for sharing this experience!

I've been a big fan of Problem-Based Learning for more than a decade. For those who might not have heard of this type of curriculum development, the idea is that at the beginning of a unit of study, you present the students with a problem. The problem should put them into the role of a stakeholder (so they have power to make decisions), have a "hook" to pique their interest, heavily rely upon an issue from the real world outside of the classroom, and be a bit messy in that there is no single right or wrong answer. If you write a good problem, kids will ask a ton of questions---which then drives the learning from there on out. A problem can last for a class period or for days or weeks. Sometimes, I've included bits of follow-up information along the way---twists and turns to poke and prod the thinking of students.

For the problem I've used with students the last two weeks, it is the same as it was ten years ago. I'm not willing to mess with a good thing. :) I will say that kids do not ask exactly the same set of questions each year. Some years, I've had kids who insisted that they needed more medical history on the prospective parents (and I obliged by creating some). Other years---like this one---few kids got hung up on that notion and for those that did, I just said that "Sometimes in life, we don't have all of the information we want before making a decision. We have to do the best we can with what we have." For other PBL units, I have tweaked them over time. It's amazing how the addition or deletion of even a single word can spark more areas of investigation for students.

The "counseling" appointment on Thursday was delightful. I wish I could fully describe the look on kids' faces when I introduce "Mrs. Bentsen" who has arrived for her counseling appointment. There's a range of emotions from disbelief to "Oh s***, what am I going to say?!" But the fact is, they totally buy in. They want to show off. A few questions to prompt their thinking and start the conversation is usually all that is needed. One kid in my first period class looked at me about halfway through the discussion and said, "You are good. You are SO good." LOL Afterwards, they told me (as have previous students) that it is much easier to write the letter than to actually have to talk to someone. I like having the visitor at the end, though, because I want them to reflect on the consequences (and power) that their words can have.

I always debrief the unit with kids. I ask them how this type of learning was different, what they liked better, and what didn't work so well. Typical comments include the ideas that they like having an audience other than me, that the direct application for learning was of interest, but some frustration about not having every piece they thought they wanted in order to reach a decision. There are always a few kids who prefer assignments with definite right/wrong answers---the grey areas associated with PBL are not comfortable for them.

I shared this unit with a colleague of mine last year. He hadn't tried something like this in the classroom, but trusted me and gave things a go. I got a lot of phone calls along the way---it's hard for a teacher to let go in the way that they need to with these units. It's a delicate balance in terms of how much information you provide vs. what they need to seek out. I certainly never expect kids to learn and understand everything by themselves. I still lecture and demonstrate some things. We have lots of classroom discussion to help increase understanding. The teacher just isn't the font of information, per usual. Anyway, I coached him along last year and he was totally blown away with the results. He's about to be off and running with this same unit this year. It makes me happy to have passed along this nugget to someone else---and another generation of biology kids.

Update: I don't have an electronic version on my coaching plan anymore (several computers and schools later...some things have been lost to the sands of time and ether), but here is a copy of the problem to kick things off. I have the scoring guide at school and will post it here next week.


Toritopia said...

I was wondering if you would be willing to share your lesson plan for this lesson with me. This is something that I would love to integrate into my classroom.

Wendy said...

It was interesting to read how you coached a colleague through the implementation of a PBL. I am in a similar situation providing job embedded PD to help elementary teachers move towards more project and problem-based learning in science and math. This is my first year in this role and I love being able to focus on MST . However, I'm still working on developing more formative and summative assessment measures that fit with this type of instruction. There's always something!

Thanks again for your continued dedication to our profession and your willingness to make your teaching and learning transparent.

The Science Goddess said...


I just updated the post to include a copy of the problem and will update next week with the scoring guide. My original coaching plan has been lost to the ether...and by now, I no longer need it, but here is a general recap:

Day One: Introduce problem and gather student questions.

Day Two: Have students "divide and conquer" by picking 2 or 3 questions each, doing the research, and reporting back to the class. In the olden days, they would write the information on chart paper; now, I would use a wiki (if it were allowed through the filter) and did just type information into a Word document they could see via boxlight---then made copies for everyone.

Days 3 - ?: Go ahead and teach some skills that kids want: Punnett Squares, Karyotypes, Pedigrees. Each day, talk a bit about the problem and/or use a problem log with questions to prompt their thinking. What is Huntington's? What is the actual problem you are solving? What is your decision at this point and why?

Toritopia said...

Thank you so much! This will be a really great new technique to teaching this information.

The Science Goddess said...

I'm always glad to share. Goodness knows how many things in my file cabinet have come from other teachers!