14 September 2013

Unconference Epiphanies: Inspiring Success with PBL

At an unconference you can learn about anything you want to learn about as long as you're willing to facilitate and have enough kindred spirits in attendance. I attended my first Edcamp last week in South Carolina, and I had the pleasure and honor of co-facilitating a session on PBL and CBL (Challenge-Based Learning) with @Carriegaffney84. I got to share some of my experiences, but more importantly, I got a fresh transfusion of ideas and enthusiasm from my unconference colleagues.

I tracked some of our ideas on a session Google Doc, but my takeaway from the PBL/CBL session can mostly be summarized in three goals:
  1. Selecting topics
  2. Building confidence
  3. Exacting excellence

Selecting topics
Learning to ask the right questions is one of the most important lessons students can learn from a PBL experience. In that spirit, I kept track of questions that would help us as educators structure a successful PBL unit. Perhaps my favorite question of the session was "What are the kids pissed off about?" In other words, what matters enough to them that they demand something be done about it? This made me think of the seniors I have in advisory who were clamoring for uniforms during our focus group time last week. And by golly, you can bet we'll be researching uniforms at schools in other countries come Spanish 3 next semester!

I've spent a lot of time pondering driving questions and situations where students would actually need  Spanish. I've dug up audiences wherever I could to try to "drive" students to use the language in real-world situations. But the fact of the matter is that, usually, it don't mean a thing if the topic is not something they came to your class on fire about already.

Building confidence
I don't know why the affective filter hits second language classes harder than any other classes, harder even than math. But it does. Give the kids a real audience for a project in their native language, and they discover their inner grammar nazis and perfectionists. Give them a real audience that speaks more Spanish than they do, and their brains want to shut down.

So my unconference colleagues suggested setting up more practice sessions before the real deal. Practice with little kids. Practice with other kids online. Practice with kids from other classes who took Spanish before or grew up speaking it. And before each practice session, have them anticipate questions from their audience and answers they could give. After each practice session, too, reflect on what they needed to say but couldn't, and add to their "cheat sheets." Help them learn to anticipate like we have to do as their teachers and to circumlocute and solve problems with the tools they have at their disposal. And give them a chance to try it before the Big Day.

Exacting excellence
Don't just expect it. Don't just demand it. Draw excellence out of them. Set high standards and show them exactly what it takes to reach them. One of my unconference colleagues said she tells her students, “Don’t bore me: you’ve got 3 seconds to catch my attention.” Let them know that you will hold no truck with assignments completed just for a grade's sake: these are real goals that must fly in real world settings.

Also consider holding off on rubric discussions until almost the end of the unit (but with time to revise before the Big Day). That way students have to be the ones to figure out the "how" of the presentation, and you can--along with the students, if you're up to it--decide what must be included, no matter the means of presenting. This forces them to make real, meaningful decisions about their goals and their work.


If your topics are ones that not only tap into what makes your subject essential in the 21st century but also what makes students mad, you'll have a lot more buy-in than you would with just any old essential question. If you set up opportunities to practice and analyze information gaps before presenting to a real audience, students can feel confident in their ability to produce something worth presenting. And if you structure the assignment in such a way that students understand from the start that they are the problem solvers and they are responsible for the success of their presentations, then their objectives can shift worthwhile and attainable goals to worthwhile and attainable aspirations.

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