‘Make the call,’ the stage 2 class chanted during the final part of our project as students rang a supplier to order and pay for a truckload of sand to refill the sand box.
Project Based Learning, Challenge Based Learning, Purpose Based learning; call it what you will. The key is that it challenges both teacher and student to get out of their comfort zone (read boring for all, teach to the middle, not differentiated, textbooks etc.) and develop understandings through collaborative, authentic and real world challenges.
As we move to greater inquiry driven, differentiated and student centred learning opportunities, PBL through inquiry is a key enabler for success.
This term I set a PBL task a little different to my normal key learning area inquiry units and had students investigate, research and complete the task of refilling the school sandbox. Operation Sandbox was born as one student enthusiastically termed it!
With an empty sandbox that Kinder would like to use but couldn’t I had the ideal real world project with a meaningful outcome for the students to work on. Of course I could have asked the school office to ring up, order the sand and have it delivered but that would remove any opportunity for the students to make a meaningful contribution and engage in what turned out to be rewarding and insightful learning experience for all.
The Youtube video showcases the project and I’ll outline the key stages and make some observations.
I had the class form their own teams of 3-5 and took them to the sandbox, an empty box of around two metres by two metres and 45cm deep (of course they did not know this at the time, that was the challenge!). I then made it clear that the learning intention over the next three weeks was that our class, 3/4B had to calculate and order the correct amount of sand and have it delivered.
I then stepped back and had the groups go to work, they talked, debated and set about deciding what they had to do and what equipment they might use. Some students had a concept of area and that it was based on two sides, others knew that the words volume and capacity were involved. Initially none knew the formula to find the required volume.
After the first session each group shared their initial thoughts – use metre rulers, use 30cm class rulers, tape measures, 1000s blocks and one and two litre water containers. It was a real mix of strategies and ideas, and just what I hope to see, a cross pollination of ideas with some ideas stronger and more complete than others. Yet none were weak and all had real merit, even if they were not all practical as we would find out!
Over the next two weeks we had practical sessions and theory sessions. The practical sessions involved measuring, stacking 1000s blocks, running frantically with litre jugs of water. There was excitement, frustration, reflection and ‘gotcha’ or ‘uh ha’ moments when things stuck and concepts and skills were mastered.
Students discovered that volume and capacity are different, that finding the area only gets you so far, that measuring and re-measuring were important for accuracy (this was maths after all!). They went online to find local sand suppliers, asked me for the school credit card and looked at calendars and timetables to see the best times for delivery.
In the last week, three of the five groups achieved a volume calculation for the correct amount of sand, these were the groups using rulers and tape measures. I gave some clarification on the formula of length, width and depth but only when the students had forward the base idea. The group using 1000s blocks achieved area, but stalled at making two layers or doubling their base layer. The water group were wonderful to work with and are well represented in the video; their misconceptions and insights as they worked on the project are a delight to see. They chose water as they saw sand as a liquid, flowing if you like. Their thinking was interesting and they maintained a sense of humour even when things did not pan out as they had predicted. In this sense, their resilience was heartening to see. PBL challenges resilience and mindset.
So yes, eventually we made the call and two students used the credit card to order the sand and have it delivered. Kindergarten were and are happy, though just last week I saw that the sand is already thinning and much is on the ground where the children have built little castles and the like. So soon the opportunity will repeat itself and another class will take its turn. I’m already on the lookout for rooms needing painting, floors needing covering, gardens needing soil and so on. And that’s without looking beyond the school fence to where strong community and local connections can be made and successes celebrated.
PBL requires teamwork, commitment, reflection, a sense of humour and real effort; all things that we need to nurture and encourage in our students. Importantly it can be fun and makes teaching all the more enjoyable for the teacher and learning all the more enjoyable for students when adequate time and support are provided.
For the last year I’ve had a class mindset poster on my year 3/4 room wall. One of my goals (along with the school in general) has been to develop and foster in our students a resilience and commitment to learning through having high expectations and a reflective and respectful culture within the class.
We can succeed but might fail on the way.
This learning has meaning for us.
We are respectful and reflective learners.
Sentence starters for conversations, an expectation of respect and reflection at the end of most lessons have contributed to an improved classroom culture and strong sense of togetherness.
I’ve recently had the chance (or time!) to consider the work of Carol Dweck and her work in developing growth mindsets. Her text Mindset is a must read and there is much supporting research and readily available material on the Internet. There is a TED talk here by Dweck.
Both students and teachers benefit from a growth mindset. Students gain develop a resilience (so often lacking I’ve found), a comfort with making mistakes as part of the learning process and an understanding that effort and application positively help their learning. Importantly teachers also need a growth mindset to get the best out of all of their students, in fact a teacher without a growth mindset is not a teacher I would want in a school! More information on the school context is here.
So where do we go with this? Well this term I’m placing a stronger focus on the growth mindset in the classroom for my students along with encouraging all staff to explore their mindset as they drive into school each day and grow or suppress their students’ confidence and learning.
What can we do?
Praise effort not intelligence or talent – this is a biggie for me and also for Dweck. How many students do we have who are ‘naturally academic’ yet won’t take risks for the fear of failure. Those kids that have meltdowns when presented with a non-linear challenge such as project based learning or hands-on design and make activities which are classics. The students decide that they can’t risk failure so do not take risks, they themselves become locked into a fixed mindset which might limit their potential. At the same time the student’s resilience can be weakened if challenges are difficult and the risk of failure in their eyes is too great.
As teachers and parents we need to provide constructive feedback praising effort and application and persistence. We need to provide entry points for success for all students. Importantly we should maintain high expectation and be honest and provide support. We should not lower standards- easy work is a false reality and great disservice to our students. Dweck says and I would agree that ‘many teachers hide their own lack of ability behind statements such as ‘they don’t get it or are they don’t have the ability, why waste my time.’
Some other things to remember before we jump down a student’s throat and judge them in the negative is that all kids misbehave – it’s part of being a kid. Do we only want to teach perfect (whatever they may be) students based on our own misconceptions? We must move to growth-oriented teaching.
As Dweck says it is important not to judge, don’t give up on the dumb ones, believe in improvement and challenge and nurture our students. To repeat, praise effort and not intelligence!
We need to tell the truth and give them the tools to make them stronger, more resilient and confident to achieve success, while fostering in our students the mindset of the life long learner, always seeking to be better.