By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries with keyword: PBL
Posts 1 - 3 of 3

Monday, August 31, 2015

Check for use

It is common practice to check for understanding after a student has been exposed to new material. And despite the complaints that too much time is spent in classrooms preparing for high stakes tests, frequent testing is one of the most effective ways to improve student performance.

I am in favor of another kind of check: check for use. Does the student understand how to apply what she has learned? Is she aware of where it should be applied and where it should not? I am enthusiastic about project-based-learning because it starts with the notion of putting new learning to use. Projects put new knowledge and skills into context and they are strong motivators for the student to fill in gaps and improve skills.

When I was a junior in college my major was engineering physics. I was drawn to it by the "engineering" but after more than three years it was quite clear that the emphasis was on the "physics". I complained to my faculty advisor that after all that time I still didn't even know how a trasistor worked. (What I meant was, how to make a useful transistor circuit.) He, a physics professor, replied that transistors are really complex so I shouldn't expect to know how they work in so few years of schooling. (He was right from a quantum mechanics point of view.)

Transistors are complex at the quantum mechanical level which makes them work but that complexity is unnecessary to understand if you are just building an amplifier or digital switch. You can build these by connecting the battery plus to this wire, minus to that wire, and put a resistor there and there. You have made something useful.

Use is one of the great advantages of learning online today. In most cases it seems that learning starts with use. I want to replace my car's a/c fan or make orange chicken or improve the effectiveness of advertizing...the first thing I'll do is look for how-tos online. My online learning is guaranteed to be related to use.

A course usually starts from the other end: here is a body of knowledge that will be imparted to the student through the course. There are learning objectives. But to be really effective, there should be use objectives as well. And just as checks for understanding should be made frequently through the course, so should checks for use, both to ensure that the student knows what to do with what he has learned and to motivate learning by emphasizing its value.

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Keywords: check for use, PBL


Thursday, March 10, 2011

In praise of projects

I love doing projects. I always have. It is what attracted me first to engineering, then to software, then to research and then to entrepreneurship. It's all projects and I love it. That is also part of what I find so attractive about project-based learning (PBL). I would have loved to do project after project in school. Sure, I understand that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for projects. Maybe not everyone would revel in a PBL school like I imagine I would have. But some would. I think that those who are attracted to projects are people who just can't wait to start something. Let's not dither making a business case or overanalyzing. Start a project. Make a prototype. Make something real, even if it is simple. That way you have something tangible to work with to take your next step. And that's where the best ideas and insights come from: fiddling around with a thing, not just an idea of a thing.

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Keywords: PBL, projects


Friday, February 25, 2011

New Tech High Schools and PBL

On the EdConnections blog, Dan posted an interesting article about Magnet schools and New Tech High Schools possibly losing some funding to put their student/teacher ratio to the same level as other schools in the district. I am impressed with the New Tech model.

The New Tech schools primarily emphasize two things: project-based learning and 21st Century skills. In addition, the "tech" part of New Tech advocates that each student have a notebook computer and there are other requirements such as school size being limited to 500 students.

Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Orienting all courses around PBL changes the way students learn and the way instruction is organized. Class lectures are out, students collaborating to solve problems are in and the daily role of teachers becomes one of providing mini-lectures when needed to small groups of students within the classroom. Of course, the larger role for teachers is to create the projects, often in collaboration across disciplines, that meet learning standards yet don't specifically teach to them.

It's inspiring to view a functioning PBL classroom. There is a lot of activity, students collaborating with one another in small groups and best of all, the degree of student engagement seems very high.

How well do students learn in PBL environments? One of the most frustrating aspects of this promising movement is that one can find little evidence of its efficacy. When observing a good PBL classroom in action one thinks, this must be great for learning. Yet the evidence isn't there. It's isn't that there is evidence that shows it isn't effective, there just isn't any strong evidence one way or the other! It's very frustrating considering what to outward appearances is a better approach to teaching.

An excellent source for learning more about PBL is Edutopia.

21st Century Skills
The 21st Century Skills movement is an effort to encourage skill development that cuts across traditional courses and learning standards. They are skills like collaboration, problem solving, work ethic, information literacy, critical thinking and so on. These skills have always been important, not just in the 21st century. The point of the program is that since they are important skills, they should be measured. Under the theory that what gets measured gets improved, it should help students improve these important skills.

What's unusual about grading these skills is that it's advocated that they be graded across all courses. For example, the student's work ethic grade would be calculated from inputs from English class, math class, social studies and so on.

The collaboration skill would be graded differently. It would depend primarily on input from the other students that one works with in teams. This is analogous to what in business are called 360 degree performance reviews: assessments not only by the teacher or manager but by one's colleagues as well.

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Keywords: PBL, 21st Century Skills

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