Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Project Based Learning, Some Research (Part 4)

For previous posts in this series click Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 — Image Source, User Jarmoluk, Pixabay.com

Project-based, inquiry-focused pedagogy is gaining steam because (ideally) it puts students at the center of their own learning. Project based learning (PBL) and similar pedagogies emphasize collaborative skills like communication and problem solving alongside individual critical thinking and creativity. If pedagogies like PBL really do change paradigms away from teacher-led instructionism to student-led constructivism then it is necessary to focus on student motivation, engagement, and perception. Can PBL make school less of a drag? Can PBL actually help (re)motivate a love of learning?

Michael Grant (2011) writes:
“If indeed project-based learning is rooted in constructivism and constructionism, if project-based learning is founded in the personal interests and motivations of the learner, and if the learning artifacts are representations of a learner’s knowledge, then it is paramount that we come to understand how learners negotiate projects and what they learn during project-based learning lessons” (p. 39). 
With that in mind, the latest post in my Project Based Learning Research series focuses on student motivation, engagement, and perception.

Image Source — User ebpilgram, Pixabay.com

Title:Challenge in a Mathematics Classroom: Students’ Motivation and Strategies in Project Based Learning” 
Authors: Debra K. Meyer, Julianne C. Turner, and Cynthia A. Spencer (1997) 
Methodology: The study uses mixed methods to investigate motivation and the effects of ‘challenge’ during a math project based learning unit. A series of quantitative surveys were distributed to fourteen fifth and sixth graders. These surveys helped identify students as challenge-avoiders or challenge-seekers. The authors then interviewed students to gather qualitative data before, during, and after the project to better understand each student vis-à-vis the identification. 
Key Findings: The authors highlight three findings. First, students are motivated by a variety of factors. Motivation, volition, and affect contribute to both goal setting and decision making. The goals, strategies, and motivations lead to different student outcomes. Second, challenging work, like project based learning, must be supported and contextualized with consideration to student motivation. The authors write, “…teachers need to be able to predict how students will respond so that they can build in safeguards to nurture and protect thinking.” (Meyer, Turner, and Spencer, 1997, p. 518). Finally, teachers and stakeholders need to focus on more than task or curriculum to support reform pedagogies like challenge based or project based learning. Well designed projects and curriculum can fail if learners have insufficient experience or support for new learning activities (Meyer, et al., 1997, p. 518). 
My Takeaways: Sometimes the obvious bears repeating. Project based and challenge based learning can be a new and uncomfortable experience for students. Students are often used to the ‘game’ of school. Whether one plays the traditional game successfully, or comes to loathe it, PBL is a whole new ball game. Meyer, et al. (1997) reiterate this point,“Typical classroom goals like accuracy, speed, and completion dates may conflict with the project based (math) goals of justification, thoughtfulness, and revision” (p. 517). It is imperative that teachers are proactive in supporting students in a new type of learning that is more authentic, but also calls for the learner to take risks.

Title:Learning, Beliefs, and Products: Students’ Perspectives with Project-Based Learning

Author: Michael M. Grant (2011)

Methodology: Research was conducted by following a case study method. Grant (2011) writes, “The initial unit of analysis was each participant individually, and then themes were developed by aggregating findings across all participants” (p.40).

Key Findings: Five main themes emerged from the results of the case studies. The five themes reflected the experience of the students studied. The themes were:
  • 1) internal influences 
  • 2) external influences 
  • 3) beliefs about projects 
  • 4) tools for technology rich environment 
  • 5) learning outcomes and products 
Grant (2011) writes in conclusion: 
“This research suggested participants considered the resources available to them, the amount of time it would take to complete the project, how difficult it would be to complete the project, how much effort was necessary to obtain a good grade, and whether the project met teacher expectations. While the participants met and exceeded the learning content expectations, none of their considerations directly related to the content” (p. 65). 
My Takeaways: The sample size is small (four students) and the population is from a small private day school. Therefore, all results should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, there are some great tidbits that need to be studied more. Students struggled with the length and level of depth the project required. While students noticed various motivational elements like self-direction, learner autonomy, and multiple learning styles were present, they ultimately looked to please the teacher and reproduce ‘safe’, repeated products. Students failed to see how learning transferred between school subjects and did not connect intrinsically with the project. Students enjoyed the project to traditional school, but also expressed that projects were less rigorous. This ‘lack of rigor’ could be attributed to the fact that project based learning is a fundamental shift to traditional notions of schooling.

Image Source, User Weinstock, Pixabay.com

Title:Teacher and Student Intrinsic Motivation in Project-based Learning

Authors: S. Lam, RW Cheng, and WYK Ma (2009)

Methodology: The authors sought, “to investigate how teacher intrinsic motivation was related to student intrinsic motivation in project-based learning” (Lam, Cheng, and Ma, 2009, p.5). A scale survey was administered to teachers and students to gather quantitative data and measure intrinsic motivation, cognitive support, instructional support, and affective support. The study was conducted in Hong Kong.

Key Findings: The study found a positive relationship between intrinsic teacher motivation and student intrinsic motivation during project-based learning. Lam, et al. (2009) write, “Regardless of whether it is by the mechanism of instructional practices, modeling, or expectancy formation, teacher intrinsic motivation is associated positively with student intrinsic motivation” (p. 22).

My Takeaways: Read the following quote a few times, “These results support the argument that teacher and student intrinsic motivations are interconnected by multiple psychological processes” (Lam, et al., 2009, p. 18). Think about that. These findings are important in the context of classroom and school culture. Students feed off teachers, teachers feed off students. Seems obvious, but all educators need to be reminded of this. If a PBL based curriculum allows for more intrinsic motivation for both student and teacher, a tremendous synergy is possible.

Title:The Effects of a Collaborative Problem-based Learning Experience on Students’ Motivation in Engineering Capstone Courses

Authors: Brett D. Jones, Cory M. Epler, Parastou Mokri, Lauren H. Bryant, Marie C. Paretti (2013)

Methodology: The researchers posed this research question,“How do the elements of PBL-based capstone engineering courses relate to students’ motivation to engage in the courses?” (Jones, Epler, Mokri, Bryant, and Chen, 2013, p. 41) The study used a two-phase, mixed methods design to gather data. The first phase consisted of a questionnaire to collect quantitative data and the second phase consisted of qualitative interviews. The MUSIC Model of Academic Motivation (Jones, 2009) was used to frame student motivation. The MUSIC Model of Motivation identifies five key components to student motivation — eMpowerment, usefulness, success, interest, and care (from instructor).

Key Findings: PBL allows for a variety of motivating opportunities. The study categorizes three broad themes of motivating opportunities — Project Design, Group Experience, and Project Advisor (Jones, et al., 2013). The sheer quantity and range of motivation opportunities in PBL presents a double-sided coin. “The number and variety of motivating opportunities available in PBL courses can be a real asset to instructors in motivating students. When managed inappropriately, however, they can lead to students’ frustration and a lack of motivation” (Jones, et al., 2013, p. 63). By identifying instructions elements with motivation opportunities instructors can improve PBL practice.

My Takeaways: I was most struck with the impact of relationships and instructors on motivation. Jones, et al. (2013) writes, “Situational interest was primarily impacted through interactions with other students and their advisor. This finding demonstrates the importance of the relationships in PBL courses” (p. 58). Whether it is the relationship between group members, the relationship between teacher to student, or the relationship between advisors and group, it is essential to find a balance of autonomy, support, and communication. The relationships between participants and stake-holders play a large role in student motivation during PBL. Students expressed the need for greater instruction with communication skills to navigate, and make effective, the different relationships inherent in PBL.

Image Source, User Elizabethaferry, Pixabay.com

Title:The Effectiveness of Project-Based Learning on Pupils with Learning Difficulties Regarding Academic Performance, Group Work, and Motivation

Authors: Diamanto Filippatou and Stavroula Kaldi (2010)

Methodology: “The methodology applied in this study was a combination of a pre-experimental design (the one group pre-test-post-test design) and the case study research design” (Filippatou and Kaldi, 2010, p.19). The study looked at the impact of PBL on students with learning disabilities in regards to the following dependent variables:
  • 1) academic performance 
  • 2) self-efficacy in terms of environmental studies 
  • 3) task value 
  • 4) group work 
  • 5) teaching methods 
Key Findings: Overall, the researchers found a positive relationship between PBL and pupils with learning disabilities. Filippatou and Kaldi (2010) write:
“On average, after the implementation of the project on environmental studies, pupils with learning difficulties believed they could perform better in the environmental studies than they did before, they scored higher this subject area, they liked working in teams more than doing work on their own and they also found group work more effective in terms of their engagement in the learning process. Furthermore, as it was expected, they stated that they found experiential learning more beneficial than traditional teaching” (p. 23).
My Takeaways: The cooperative learning inherent in well-done PBL creates engagement and student centered learning for all students. The social benefits of PBL appear significant to students with learning disabilities. The study suggests that the opportunity to participate and contribute in groups motivates students with learning disabilities. “These pupils’ views about the benefits of group work on learning outcomes, peer interactions and acceptance in the group has significantly changed after their learning experiences with the project” (p. 24).

Looking closely at the data, pupils with learning disabilities were behaviorally and socially engaged, but not necessarily cognitively engaged. The authors suggest targeted teacher support is helpful to access text and other content sources, as well as the benefits of cooperative learning. Finally, the study shows the potential for PBL with all types of students. Bonus: Edelson, Gordon, and Pea (1999) find that motivation and engagement are difficult to maintain for long, extended projects and activities.

Bonus: Edelson, Gordon, and Pea (1999) find that motivation and engagement are difficult to maintain for long, extended projects and activities.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Gears of My Childhood

Image Source: User Geralt, Pixabay.com

Seymour Paper was fascinated by automobiles and gears from a very young age. Some of his earliest memories revolved around the rotation and movement of these circular objects. He found pleasure and passion in these devices.

Papert believed that working with differing devices did wonders for his future mathematical development. He saw gears as multiplication tables and was comfortable with equations. The gears became a very important part of his intellectual development in two ways. First, they served as a model for future knowledge. All young people need models for future knowledge. Second, it stimulated his love of learning.

Image Source: User Geralt, Pixabay.com

The following two paragraphs of Papert’s (1980) work explain how essential it is for kids to discover their “gear sets”:
A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form. My thesis could be summarized as: What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes.This book is the result of my own attempts over the past decade to turn computers into instruments flexible enough so that many children can each create for themselves something like what the gears were for me. (p. 1) 

What were ‘the gears’ of my childhood?

My grandmother says I used to walk around the house with my glove, ball, and hat begging people to play with me. When one grown-up turned me down, I was not discouraged. I simply moved on to the next. Eventually, I would find someone to play. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to nag big humans for long. I had a little brother just 14 months my younger. As long as I can remember, all we needed was a ball and we could come up with some athletic competition. We had quite the imagination and had a blast playing in our front yard. This was, and still is, one of my biggest passions, baseball.

Playing baseball motivated me to learn to read. I woke up early in the morning and scanned the sports section of the newspaper hoping my favorite team, the San Francisco Giants. had won the previous night. I studied the statistics and quickly understood what a .300 batting average meant. Baseball was my framework for everything.

That's me!

It also lead to my general disinterest in school. I wanted to be outside playing, and they made me sit in a seat. When important games were played during the day, I wanted to listen. I will always remember sneaking a transistor radio into 4th grade and laying on it during class so I could hear an important Giants game. The older nun didn’t have a clue.

I gobbled up every Sports Illustrated and Baseball America issue I could get my hands on until I was told I couldn’t bring it in for free reading. From then on I staged a protest. If I was unable to read what I wanted, I would not read. This was a general frame of mind for much of my schooling. If people told me what to do, I did not want to do it.

What were ‘the gears’ of your childhood?

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Sister Just Graduated from High School. So I Interviewed Her.

Image Source, User Violey, Pixabay.com 

As both a teacher and Chief Learning Officer at CrowdSchool, I really try to understand the school experience of students. We live in a world obsessed with education reform, education technology, and student data. Everybody has a plan to revolutionize education. With all the noise, it is not surprising that the voice of the student is rarely heard. Education is something done to them, seemingly without their reflection, opinion, or input. How would school be different if we actually listened to them?

My little sister graduated from high school a few weeks ago. I wanted to hear her thoughts about high school. I wanted to simply listen and learn from her experience. So I interviewed her.

First, a bit of context. My little sister, Tara, is pretty much a rockstar. Tara was a four year varsity athlete, a class salutatorian, and was accepted with honors to multiple universities. Tara received the highest leadership award at her high school. She is energetic, hilarious, kind, and well-liked. She has a relentless work ethic, spending hours and hours on homework and assignments. She pulled many all nighters in high school. Me, I maybe had one or two…in college. I simply do not know a single person who worked harder than her in high school. Her drive is inspiring.

My parents and my sister on her graduation day.

This relentless pursuit also worried me. Was it healthy? Was it sustainable?Was she over scheduled? How stressed was she? It is a story I have heard often. Students push and push and push only to burnout, to lose all motivation and desire. Learning is one of the farthest things from these students’ minds. Instead, they are called to achieve and perform. Constantly. At what point does one break? What are we expecting of our kids today?

So I asked her all about it. Below you will find her answers. I do not add my analysis. I do not pontificate. Yes, I have very passionate views on education. I do not include them here (even though I had a desire to add my opinion). I just want her words to speak to the experience of one high schooler.

Here are the words of my sister, a graduating senior from a private Catholic school in Fresno, CA.

My sister, Tara, pictured on the right

What was your favorite part about high school? 

  • “Academically, I really liked block schedules because homework and classes were spread out. Extracurricular stuff like dances and sports were fun and things I looked forward to.” 

What was your least favorite part about high school? 

  • “All the all-nighters. Teachers are inconsiderate when thinking about tests and homework. When you try to tell them, they all say they signed up on the test board first.” 

What was the most important thing you learned in high school? 

  • “Even though I got senioritis really bad, I was happy to learn all the hard work pays off. Even if you get stressed and think you can’t go on, achieving the goal pays off, the work was worth it.” 

What qualities do the best teachers share? 

  • “They have to be able to relate to students without being too strict or too easy going. They need to be interesting and change things ups. They need to be able to keep control of kids and run a classroom, but they have to be relatable. They need to be approachable without being a pushover.” 

What qualities do the worst teachers share? 

  • “They have a really boring voice and are monotoned. They can’t find new ways to teach a lesson. If they are too strict, kids don’t want to be there. They need to have a personality that allows students to ease up.” 

What is one thing teachers need to know about kids? 

  • “I wish teachers knew that we (students) want to know why we are in school and doing the work. It needs to be more than ‘you just need to do that’.” 

Why do kids need school? 

  • “They need it to be successful for their future, for the things they want even if some kids think that we are there because our parents make us.” 

How is social media used at school? 

  • “As a teenager we use social media for enjoyment. We need something to entertain us. We are bored. We started to use it more at school and for assignments. We also use social media to escape from reality and as a way to express yourself.” 

What would make a great school? 

  • “Block schedules. Opportunities to learn from both books and technology. You need to use them both. Do things to keep school interesting. Lots of AP credits and courses. Small classes and high teacher interaction.”

 How stressed were you? 

  • “We were all really stressed, like everyone was extremely stressed. We were so stressed to the point we didn’t want to do anything. It took away all energy or excitement for school.” 

          (Follow up question) So why more AP classes? 

  • “Not taking more, but offering more variety of AP classes. More things like AP Art. I meant variety. Students want to challenge themselves in things that appeal to them. There needs to be a variety for different types of students. You can’t just have the AP’s for the top 10% of students. Students want to know they can take classes to succeed.” 

Were classmates competitive or supportive? 

  • “Definitely supportive of each other. Everybody wanted to help each other.” 

What are your goals for the future now that you are done with high school? 

  • “Eventually find a career that makes me happy, makes other happy, and that supports me. I am gong to major in Business.” 

What is your advice to other high schoolers? 

  • “Challenge yourself a little. Try to do more than just ‘get through’. Taking the easy way is not the best way. Slacking will not help you in the future. If you don’t try hard, then you might not get into a good college. Even if it is so hard, don’t give up. Share your experience and talents with others.” 

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Why I Write a Personalized Note to My Graduating Students

Spoiler alert: I don’t do it for the students. 

Image Credit, User Pezibear, Pixabay.com

In most parts of the United States, middle school ends after grade eight. Eighth graders love the fact they get to graduate. They are often scared to death of leaving middle school, but they are obsessed with the idea of their graduation. I know this well because I am a middle school teacher.

For each of my six plus years in the classroom, I have had at least one class of eighth graders. I have a little tradition going where I jot a personalized, hand-written note to each of my eighth grade students. I deliver it to them on their big graduation day.

These notes are nothing more than a paragraph or two. If it wasn’t for my wife, I would write the note on an index card and stuff it in a business envelope. Luckily, she insists I use nice, colorful cards. When I compose a note, I try to hit four main points. I try to:

  • Congratulate them 
  • Explain how I learned from them 
  • Relive a brief story about them 
  • Give them a bit of personal advice 

These notes take a bit of time, but I don’t mind. I really enjoy writing them. I also love the look on a student’s face when they open up the card to find a hand-written note. As I finished up my writing this year, I realized why I write the notes each year.

I don’t write the notes for my students, I write the notes for myself.

I write the notes to reflect and think about the past school year. I write the notes because it forces me to slow down and think about each and every student. I hate to admit this type of reflection rarely happens. There is just so much going on. I rarely just sit down and think, really think, about my students as individuals. But when I stare at the blank note, I must actively review my relationship with each singular student. What did they teach me? How did they grow? Where are they going? Do I really know this student? Where did they mess up? Where did I mess up? Where did they succeed? Where did I succeed? What can I learn from them?

If I want to write a personalized note, I really have to mediate on the child whose name graces the envelope. I can’t gloss over the often forgotten quiet kid. I can’t rush over the kids who try my patience. Each student gets a chance. Popular? You get a note. Bully? You get a note. Genius? You get a note. Differently abled? You get a note. I reflect on each student. I learn that each student leaves something behind, each student makes me better.

As I contemplate each student, I smile. I realize how fortunate I am to work with young people each day. The awesome privilege of being a teacher is blatantly evident. What a great job I have!

Students give me awkward hugs and say thank you when they read their note. Parents rush over and shake my hand. They both ask for pictures. Little do they know, I wrote those notes for me just as much as for them.