I have been using PBL units in my Year 7 and 8 Humanities class during Terms 3 and 4. I have found them to be really effective. My Year 8 students enjoy it because it allows them to choose how they want to learn. As they’ve told me quite often “It’s good when the teachers don’t stand in front of the whiteboard talking to us for the entire lesson”. It allows them to ask for help when they need it. Some groups will require more teacher support and that’s ok. I like my PBL units because it allows my students to work at their ability- it’s not the same information delivered to them. They have different entry and exit points and I try to ensure that they cover the basic skills needed for that unit.
In the units I’ve implemented I’ve noticed the development of the following skills with my students:
- Collaboration: Students learn to work in groups to complete the tasks. In our projects we had a mixture of student chosen groups as well as mixed ability groups chosen by the teachers. This enabled our students to develop their ability to work with a variety of students who have different learning capabilities. I often saw advanced students helping our EAL students with completing tasks and learning how to share the work based on ability. Issues arose, but with the help of teachers, they learnt how to talk about it in their group in order to resolve the problem.
- Time Organisation: Most of our PBL projects were limited to 3 weeks in which students completed their work. Students had to complete a plan that would help them with time management. Often this plan was abandoned along the journey and the last week would see a flurry of activity as students rushed about completing their projects. The News Reports project on Sustainability saw students suddenly realise that they were running out of time as the filming took them a lot longer than they expected. They had spent more time researching their topics and had left just half a week to film their reports as well as to edit their videos. Feedback from students showed that they felt they needed to work on their time organisation skills a lot more, especially when working in groups.
- Learning how to create questions for research: In our PBL projects, students had to come up with a list of questions that would guide their learning. In order for them to ask a variety of questions, teachers ran a “toolbox” lesson on the different types of questions they can ask. Students started to develop questions that were beyond the basic “recall” style of questions. This enabled them to delve more deeply into their topic.
- Self-direction: One of the key skills that I have seen my students develop is their ability to self-direct themselves. Yes, whilst at times they tend to get distracted, I’ve noticed more and more that my Year 8s especially are focusing more on their work. Many have told me that they like being able to work by themselves and choose how they learn. They make the decisions on the content they want to learn in a PBL unit and enjoy exploring different aspects of the topic. With my EAL students and High Needs Learners, I provide them with more support. In a current unit on Rainforests, I sat down with a group of 6 EAL students and asked them what they wanted to learn about. They chose Australian rainforests and together we worked out a list of 10 questions for them to research about rainforests in their chosen state. They made the decisions and I helped them with writing out the questions. It is amazing to see the boys working more independently each lesson and staying focused on their work.
As a teacher, the PBL units have given me the opportunity to learn more about my students and the way they learn. By going round to different groups, it allows me to talk to them about their learning. They share what they are learning with me and we often get into discussions about the topic. My students like this way of learning- it teaches them to be independent learners and I find that they are more engaged in their learning than if I was standing in front of the class and teaching them. On days when they are struggling to focus on their work, it can be a challenge to redirect their attention but it is easier for them to get back on task when they are doing a PBL unit.
It allows my more independent learners to delve more deeply into their topic and I will often challenge them to extend themselves further and give them further areas to investigate. The dependent learners work at their own pace, seeking support more regularly whilst at the same time extending their capabilities without them realising it.
PBL units have allowed me to tailor the learning to suit my students’ needs and address the feedback that they give me. They are more vocal now about how they want to learn because they know that I will implement in the classroom whilst at the same time teaching them the required skills. It is interesting to note that they often tell me that it’s good that I don’t “teach” them – by that they mean that I don’t stand in front of them and talk for 75 minutes. I enjoy these units because it allows me to focus on individual student needs and to provide 1:1 support to them based on the task.