“In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.
The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.”
“So when teachers say to me, “Oh, you don’t understand high-stakes testing—I just can’t do that right now,” I say, “Oh, yes you can.” It’s not about ignoring the testing, the core curriculum, or the standards. It’s about allowing them to pick an entry point they’re really excited about…. When I was leading a small school in Georgia where we used this teaching approach, our students had to perform well on the state accountability tests if we wanted to remain open. So we would devote three weeks or so before the test to look at what we were learning through more of a multiple-choice, facts-based kind of lens. Our kids did great on the tests and then we got back to the kind of teaching and learning we all loved.”
Many middle grades teams are intrigued with problem-based, project-based or challenge learning because they believe students will have to think more deeply and thus will develop critical and creative thinking skills more fully. They also suspect that students are internalizing the content knowledge and skills, but they are afraid to transform their units into this type of engaging and rigorous curriculum and instructional approach for fear standardized test scores might go down. These days in too many states lower test scores mean bad evaluations for teachers and possible dismissal. So despite both widespread anecdotal evidence and long term research results, many schools are unwilling to address student disengagement, poor attendance, and lack-luster achievement through the revision of their curriculum and instructional methods that invite active student participation and original thinking.
Should your team be willing to explore PBL but are unsure how to proceed, you will find many resources online to guide your work. In an earlier post I mentioned videos and the How-To Guide on Edutopia. Another really good approach is the Critical Skills Classroom Program from Antioch University-New England. There is a training involved with this program, but you can read an overview of the methodology on their website and access a bank of challenges created by classroom teachers–loads of great ideas here with supporting documentation including assessment tools.
I participated in a training many years ago and still rely on many of the strategies I learned. What I especially found helpful was their three tier approach to introducing PBL to the classroom. There are three different tiers of challenges; each becomes more complex and more authentic. A teacher would probably get his/her feet wet with PBL by beginning with an academic challenge. Here’s a brief overview:
1. Academic challenges
- students have a problem to solve
- problem comes from the unit under study
- the purpose is for students to more fully understand the concepts involved
- there is a public product
- an example: create a website that explains the water cycle so that 2nd or 3rd graders can understand it
2. Scenario challenges
- students have a problem to solve which replicates an authentic issue from the field of study
- students assume roles that exist(ed) in real life–past, present, or future
- students stay in the role as they research and problem solve
- purpose: students delve deeply into content and learn how it connects to authentic issues
- students present their solution to an audience, often including folks from beyond the classroom
- an example: You are President Lincoln’s Cabinet and you need to make recommendations to him about slavery in the conquered areas of the Confederacy
3. Real-life challenges
- students are given a real problem that needs a solution
- students will need to go beyond the classroom
- students hope to have an impact on their community
- purpose: while working on a relevant and authentic issue, students learn through active inquiry
- students have to present their solution/ideas to an authentic audience–school board, town council, local Congress person, etc.
- an example: the young people in the community would really like a skate park–the challenge is to draw up a proposal (costs, design, etc.) and present it to the town selectmen
There are schools all over the country using PBL. They may not label their curriculum as such, but it is. I did a workshop at the Detroit Service Learning Academy and learned about one of their projects. Many of their students suffer from asthma and the harsh institutional cleaning products used at the school exacerbated their health issues. Students worked with local scientists to develop new products that would not make breathing problems worse. Think about the reading, math, and science skills and content the students had to master in order to solve this problem!
Other online resources to check out:
One last thought–what if PBL was used with school faculties to solve school issues?