Many middle grades teams include one or more integrated units throughout the year. Teachers often report that students work harder, have fewer behavioral issues, and really enjoy tackling intellectually challenging tasks. Other teams are intrigued by this approach to unit design but are reluctant to experiment, despite the excellent outcomes. Sometimes they are not sure how to get started or fear test scores will suffer.
There are a variety of ways to think about integrated units—single topic, themes, and problem based. I think that problem based learning (sometimes called challenge based learning or project based learning) (PBL) is a tremendously effective way of teaching. Now, purists may bristle and say project based and problem based learning are not identical. I don’t worry too much about labels as long as students are involved in researching open-ended questions and creative problem solving. It’s more important to spend time planning units that will engage students in critical and creative thinking as they work toward meeting standards than debating what type of unit is being developed!
The really good news is that there is research that supports the validity of project based learning. Bob Lenz’s blog on Edutopia this past fall summarized the latest research and the Edutopia website also reviews research from the past 20 years.
OK…so there is evidence to show that project or problem based learning is effective and that students do just fine on standardized tests. But what is it really? How is it different from a traditional interdisciplinary unit? I mentioned the Frayer Model as a strategy for teaching vocabulary in an earlier post, so I think I’ll use it here.
*** Because I list something as a non-example does not mean that I am condemning the unit, it just means it’s not a PBL type of unit.
Here’s a link to a short video that demonstrates how the pieces of PBL or Challenge Learning fit together: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOii_YyJQGA
Edutopia also has great resources to help teams learn how to plan a PBL learning experiences. Sometimes we have to take responsibility for our professional development and Edutopia’s module on PBL is a really good place to start learning about the PBL components. There are also a multitude of videos that show the process and end results. Two of my favorites are linked below.
Here is a video from Bath Middle School (Bath, Maine) that shows the product of a PBL unit that explored Malaga Island. (http://www.bms.rsu1.org/red/malagawebsite/) Like King Middle School in the kinetic art video, Bath uses the Expeditionary Learning approach that incorporates project-based principles.
Teachers need to reclaim teaching from the scripted curriculum and the narrowed focus of test prep. However, we need to be articulate in how we will ensure that students meet standards as well as develop the skills that have been labeled 21st century attributes of a successful citizen—collaborative, flexible, critical and creative problem solver. PBL is a vehicle that provides students with opportunities to master content standards and hone learning and organizational skills while developing their problem solving strategies. Planning PBL units as a team provides multiple perspectives and ideas, support and feedback as the unit evolves, and professional dialogue that helps us become more effective teachers.
Check out these resources and give me some feedback. Also I hope you will share any PBL resources you find useful and any units you have developed. Thanks!