Project-based learning – Preparing our students

Most educators, when they hear project-based learning think of a lot of things that fall under the umbrella. This could be a presentation, something physical, or any number of other things. Many are worthwhile, and all will teach kids something – even if it’s the value of making mistakes and failed projects.

Today, I’m thinking about an entirely different form of project-based learning. Right now, I’m faced with a very large project and the ramifications of it. Our board recently approved funding to purchase devices in a 1:1 ratio. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year looking at what works, what doesn’t, and what considerations go into a 1:1 initiative. I’m planning as quickly and as thoroughly as I can with the support of our senior leadership. This is the biggest project I’ve run, personally, and it’s not the only one on my plate. I’m certainly still very much involved in project-based learning, although on a much bigger scale than I had assumed. I thought I’d be an expert at it before undertaking something this large – I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

My point is this: what are we doing to prepare our kids for projects of this size and scope? I don’t expect any of our students to be managing multi-million dollar projects still in high school, by any means. But are the projects that we are asking them to do preparing them for larger projects that they may be managing in the future? Do we require kids to develop a project plan and discuss it with other stakeholders? How do they get buy-in for their projects? How do they measure progress, or communicate it to those stakeholders?

My son is taking one college class right now, and the assignments are all essays. Each one of those essays has been written on its due-date and turned in just before the deadline. He does good work, but are we missing opportunities to teach those skills if the only deliverable is the final product?

For many (certainly not all) recent graduates, the definition of financial success often means reaching a six-figure salary. This can come from many different fields of study, or through skilled trades and vocational training. Whatever avenue our students use to pursue their career goals, there are many common skills that will help them achieve that success that we should be encouraging.

Here’s my list:

  1. Communicate with other human beings: It doesn’t matter what career field you choose, if someone wants to be successful in the workplace, they have to be able to communicate with one another. This is far more than just knowing what to say and when to say it. Are our students learning how to tell people no and do so tactfully? Do they know how to tell the boss there might be a better way to do something without losing their jobs?
  2. Collaborate with team members: Are our students really ready to collaborate with others? Do they understand what that means or, like so many college group projects, are they just along for the ride?
  3. Time management: This is one skill I worry about our kids not having. I certainly see my own children struggle with it.
  4. Accountability: Do our kids really understand what it means to be accountable for something? In school, many of them recognize that they are responsible for their grade – or at least they used to. How many times do we hear “the teacher doesn’t like me” or “that teacher was really boring” when trying to come up with a reason for a low grade?

Looking at that list, I don’t see anything that isn’t absolutely required to run a large project successfully. As I said earlier, this project is teaching me many of those same skills, helping me to refine them, this far into my professional career.

It really doesn’t matter if you want to be an IT director, an architect, a plumber, an electrician, or own your own business doing any number of things. Without the skills learned working collaboratively (and alone, at times) on projects, our students are at a significant disadvantage.

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EdTech – Focusing on teacher learning

The problem:

When we think about EdTech (educational technology) we tend to focus on student learning. That’s good, and normal, and important. One of the best ways to impact student learning, particularly by using technology, is by spending time on teacher learning as well. All the reasons for this can be generally stated by recognizing that time is a precious resource for teachers. There’s never enough time – teachers are already pulled in many different directions. I know a lot of teachers, personally and professionally, and they often spend their off-hours grading papers, planning lessons, and balancing additional duties (sometimes with a stipend, often without).

When we add technology resources to the classroom, I think the natural inclination of most people is to assume that teachers will just use it. I consider myself lucky enough to work in a district that provides resources for teachers to learn how to use the technology in their classrooms – not all districts work effectively this way. Too often we get caught up in the device, the app, or the solution that is the next big thing. Chromebooks vs. iPads vs. Android vs. whatever else is out there becomes the argument. The problem with the argument is that it totally and completely neglects to define the intended outcome.

Technology does not equal learning outcomes. Too many of us that are decision makers on the technology side get caught up in the battle for device supremacy. Too many on the curriculum side get caught up in the size of an app store. The focus needs to be on teachers, what works for delivering their lessons, and will work within the environment.

How do we get teachers to buy in?

One recommendation recently made to me was to redefine return on investment (ROI), as “return on individual” (thanks Eric Patnoudes, @NoApp4Pedagogy). This is something that many teachers will understand better than a return on the investment. In other words, for the investment of their time, how does it benefit their individual students? Another key component is that teachers are being taught by other teachers and not by vendors, “tech evangelists”, or IT staff.

Generally speaking, teachers do want to make a positive difference in students’ lives and their academic success. Some believe that they can do that without technology, or at least the tools we are currently implementing in classrooms. They may very well be right – a lot of teachers add to student learning through ways other than moving their lessons online or showing videos. Increasingly however, students are more comfortable using technology and are more engaged and interested when the tools are implemented correctly.

For the teachers that are open to implementing technology-enabled lessons, they often simply need help learning how to do so. I’m finding that our teacher learning sessions are not altogether that different from student learning in classrooms. Through survey results from our technology conference workshops this week, I’m able to better understand how teachers are learning, what their difficulties are, and how we are meeting (or failing to meet!) their needs. Teachers are responding with comments that range from “Great, no improvement needed!” to “need longer sessions” or “need to move at a slower pace for the beginners.” I think in many of our classrooms, schools, and districts across the country, you’d see many of the same results.

I hope to share these results with the teachers. It was enlightening to me to see just how similar that is to some of the struggles and difficulties experienced by students in similar situations. More importantly, I was impressed that some of those attending this week were the teachers most resistant to change in general and technology initiatives in particular.

Early Results

Our district is only two days into a four day conference. From the sessions I saw today, there are a lot of great things happening in these sessions. Teachers are engaged, many are excited, almost all have been able to identify specific ideas or technologies that they want to work into their classroom management or lesson plans. They get the chance to see actual examples of lesson plans that use the technology tools provided by the district. I think this removes a lot of the confusion or resistance around the ideas compared to when they are proposed by IT staff.

I can talk all day long about how to copy a file into Google Drive, but teachers need to see how it helps to eliminate the stacks of papers on their desk when they’re grading. They need to hear about the results when students get to collaborate, rather than simply imagining a group of students around one poor kid doing all of the work.

Perhaps most importantly, they get to see how these tools can facilitate instruction and help to better use their time. When this happens, technology becomes less mysterious or intimidating and can be seen as a tool.

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