Diving into Project-based Learning: Our Inquiry

PBL project-based learningAs we sprang into our project-based learning, the students and I began our inquiry looking for answers to our “need to knows.” I wanted to keep up with what they were discovering, and I wanted them to evaluate and share their resources with each other as they went along. I decided to use the teacher console on Diigo to create groups for each of my classes. I used handouts and tips from Bill Ferriter’s Digitally Speaking Wiki to get everything set up and explain to the student how I wanted them to find, annotate, and share resources and information. (I highly recommend Bill’s resources. They saved me a ton of time.)

The students had used Diigo for research on a project during a previous school year so I thought with Bill’s handouts and the boys’ previous experience we were in good shape to begin. I soon learned differently.  We have a 1:1 laptop classroom and the boys have a natural tendency to head straight to Google any time they have a question, but it was obvious after the first day that they weren’t finding the quality resources they needed. Additionally, some boys still didn’t know (or forgot) how to share with a group while others didn’t know how to write a quality annotation. I had assumed too much. They needed what Mike Kaechele calls a “teacher workshop” on searching for information and on how to use Diigo. They needed me to model what they should do.

We spent a little time talking about how search engines work and why Google’s search algorithm wasn’t the best option for this project. I also introduced them to SweetSearchDMOZiSeek, and the Library of Congress site. Then, we talked about how we should assess the trustworthiness of the site and try to recognize biases in content providers. Then, we talked about the need to summarize a page’s content and how Diigo makes it easy to highlight, capture, and share that information. Not all the students listened and learned from the workshop, but several did.

As I stated before, I wish I had done a better job developing a better list of “need to knows” because some of the boys had a tough time determining what to look for. At times they seemed to lack focus and some were easily led down rabbit trails thanks to web links. I also had difficulty getting some boys to spend time researching. Some of them just got so excited about the product that they jumped in, and I had to coerce them to stop, back up, and do the research first.

Of all the classes, the one studying chronic unemployment seemed to struggle the most with finding quality information. Fortunately, I have a friend who leads a non-profit organization that works with the chronically unemployed. (My years in development still come in handy.) I called my friend Ron Wade at HopeWorks, and he agreed to come speak to my class and help them learn more about the issue.

I was really grateful Ron was willing to help my class. One of my biggest struggles throughout our entire project-based learning unit was feeling like I didn’t know enough about the topics we were studying to truly be helpful to the guys. Having been a traditional English teacher for so long, I am comfortable being the content expert in the classroom. With project-based learning that isn’t necessarily the case anymore. I find that unsettling.

Another internal conflict I had with our research and inquiry was with deciding when we had researched and learned enough to move on toward developing the products. I wanted the research to be ongoing and fit the needs of the individual projects, but I also wanted to make sure the boys had enough general knowledge and skill with the topic to speak intelligently about it. How could I know we were ready? I wasn’t sure I had enough knowledge about these issues to speak intelligently about them. (I’m still not sure.) How does one decide that? Fortunately, I know now I’m not the only teacher who finds this difficult to figure out. Eventually, I decided arbitrarily it was time to move on. We could always circle back as needed.

This is the seventh in a series of posts on my “Dive Into Project-based Learning.” If you find this post interesting, consider reading about my professional goalmy research and resourcesthe genesis of the ideaour project brainstormsthe rubric design, and our need to know. I’d appreciate any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have. Feedback is both desired and helpful.

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