Indiana Jones and the Project Based Learning

Reflections and Connections after Climbing Trees

Some thoughts on PBL after a day of team building activities with my colleagues.

This is a 6-8 minute read.

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In my mind I was Indiana Jones (in The Last Crusade) standing on the ledge, waiting to take the step onto the invisible bridge – a deep breath, one step (looking at the steps!), a wobble and then onwards…

 

..or maybe I should have been the climber (in Everest) fighting the elements to cross a gaping crevasse by crawling across two aluminium ladders lashed together. And, as we shall see later, he required the efforts of his climbing team to save his skin.

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In reality I was faced with a disaster movie style bridge – no handholds, missing floor boards, distinctly wobbly and suspended ten metres in the air between two trees. My goal was to get to the middle where I would meet a team mate at which point we had to swap sides across a seemingly massive gap. Although it felt like I was challenging the Grim Reaper, or at least my health insurance limits, a plunge to my immediate death, or even mild injury, was not on the cards due to the extensive safety equipment and procedures.

This was the final task of a day of team building activities I undertook with my wonderful colleagues last week. The team running the training were explicit in the fact that we were engaged in experiential learning and that each activity followed a clear cycle of experience, reflection and connection with real-life. I thought it would be fruitful for me to follow this cycle by applying my experience and reflection of experiential learning and connect it to our practice of experiential learning – PBL.

 

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So here are some of my reflections and connections:

Reflect and Connect

I liked the clear link between reflection and connection. Our PBL reflection includes and encourages learners to make connections to real-life personal, educational and professional situations. However, this separation of reflection and connection unpacks and simplifies the process.

 

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Modelling Reflection & Connection

The activities we did were physical, immediate and different from our everyday life. It was not difficult to reflect on what we did, the skills we developed and needed and how these could be transferred to our personal and professional lives.

Our learners do not naturally appear to find it easy to reflect. When we ask them to reflect in PBL it is on the experiences they have had during the project. However, although we encourage them to experience new areas of learning our project is placed within an academic context – a context with which they are extremely familiar. In this context recognising the development or learning of knowledge, skills, attitudes or language may not be so easy.

Maybe we need to give them a context which provides a clear examples to model reflection and connection. At the start of the project we do team building activities, the marshmallow challenge is popular, but maybe we could take greater advantage of these to encourage and encourage reflection and connection. Although we may not be equipped for tree-top exploits we could spend time at the start of a project on some immediate, physical activities which will enable straightforward reflection.

 

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Planning & Safety

The day and activities were well planned and thought through before we arrived. This meant that once we arrived all that was required from the facilitators was that we understood our goals and we were safe in achieving them.

Our PBL context is similar. The overall project is staged through four phases, each with an overall goal. Once the learners have understood the aim of each phase, and any specific input has been given, it is then up to them, as teams, to achieve the aim. There is no physical danger involved in our PBL project. It is important that as teachers monitor each group’s progress and certainly provide guidance when necessary but do not interve unless there is a real problem.

 

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Who does the Work? How?

I personally learned and developed through the day and the tasks we undertook. I think the key reason is that as mentioned above we, as teams, did all the work to achieve our goals. We were allowed moments of confusion and discussion in the knowledge that these were creative and important moments. We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. In the end our achievement was our own.

This raises issues for how we treat our learners as they undertake PBL. The more we allow them to find their own solutions and do their own work the greater their sense of achievement will be. Also learners should be allowed to make mistakes without fear of punishment, or lower grades, as long as they achieve their overall aim. They and we should also remember that the creation of order from confusion can be an important and creative activity.

 

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Belief, Support & Challenge

All of the activities were underpinned by the facilitators’ often stated belief in our ability to complete the challenges. The challenges were not necessarily easy, in fact for us they were challenging challenges. Crucially, however, they were challenging, yet achievable, challenges.

There was a lot of discussion of comfort zones during the day and extending our own personal comfort zones. This was important an important point of recognition – what may not be a challenge to one person was to another. The facilitators recognised each achievement as equally valid, as it seems did we as teams.

Once again it is important that in PBL we set and frequently express our belief in our learners’ abilities to meet challenging targets with high quality work. Whilst we have standards and expectations we must recognise that these exist in relation to the learner’s current context. The challenge and expectation is related to personal work, development and growth. This is why the Quality of Work rubric refers to work of “a personally high standard”.

 

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Comfort Zones

Comfort Zones expand. In a morning activities blindfolded teams of fifteen or so were required to navigate en masse around the grounds. Our first task was to locate a helmet and return with it to a specified rock – which we all had to touch. (There is an awful lot to say about teamwork here but for the moment I will not.)

The really interesting thing for me was how much easier the return journey was than the outward trip. I think that one of the reasons is that we had stepped out initial comfort zones into a new normal. This involved walking around together holding a long rope and cooperating to achieve the goal. Not to say that it was a cakewalk but it was much easier I feel we would not now shirk from being tasked with a more demanding trek.

In the afternoon I was in the third pair to undertake the tree death plunge activity and I am sure that it was easier for me, having seen four colleagues successfully undertake the task – my comfort zone had shifted a little. Also now I have experienced cheating death in this way I would feel more confident to undertake more challenging versions of the task – with safety equipment please!

Once again it is important for us as teachers to have to allow our learners have the opportunity to extend their comfort zones, in a psychologically safe and encouraging environment. In the case of PBL this is within an academic, not arboreal, environment – in a nice piece of research by my colleagues, learners who completed our first PBL course report the confidence it has given them in their undergraduate studies.

It was certainly the case that the first time we, as teachers, delivered PBL it was a step outside our comfort zones. And as with the team building activities what used to lay outside our comfort zone is the new normal and within our comfort zones. The next step is to find another challenge to extend our comfort zones.

 

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Teamwork

All the activities relied on teamwork, in fact they could not have been conducted without the team. I could not have traversed the bridge of death had it not been for my team mates diligence in holding and manipulating my safety rope and shouting encouragement.

In PBL we like to emphasise the team based nature of the achievement and encourage each of the team members to recognise the key roles they can play in overall success. This should never be underestimated.

Teamwork also means doing your job as well as you can for your team mates no matter what your role. If the first person holding my rope had not been so diligent and alert to my needs high above I could not have achieved my aim. In the end my crossing of the bridge was a team achievement.

Our PBL component is assessed and each participant receives an individual grade rather than a group grade. This reflects the fact that no matter what roles you play in the achievement of your group your individual commitment and efforts to that role are key components of overall success and will be recognised.

Also, the success of our PBL project so far has been built on the teamwork of the teachers who have been involved in its delivery and support from our colleagues.

 

 

 

PBL Season 1 – What did they Learn?

This is a 5-6 minute read.

This post focuses on some of the learning that took place during the project.

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It is all very well and nice to have a component such as PBL as part of the curriculum. However, if the learners do not learn as a result then there is little point in putting time and effort into implementing and developing PBL.

So the question we need to ask is what did PBL bring to the learners? The following comments are based on data from many sources including feedback from learners in the more formal tutorial meetings and less formal chats, feedback from colleagues who also delivered PBL, observations of the learners as they completed the component…etc

This page focuses on learning English with following pages being devoted to the development of hard & soft skills and attitudes.

In order to keep this as brief as possible I will not mention all the linguistic and skill areas developed but will exemplify a few to give  a general idea of the learning that took place.

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English

As learners on an English language preparation course, developing their English in an academic context the first question to ask is “Did the learners improve their English?”

Well, I think the answer overall is yes. As with other parts of our content based syllabus, the daily use of English for a communicative purpose led to an improvement in their overall levels of English. I would suggest that PBL brought an increased need and motivation to communicate whether it be within the team; with the teacher or with the wider audiences of peers (for practice presentations); with members of the university as a whole during the conference presentations; or through the creation of blogs and websites to record their progress and reflections.

But let’s be more specific….

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Speaking and Listening

Many learners reported increased confidence in speaking in public and presentations as well as in private conversations.

The practice presentations delivered to their peers in other classes proved challenging and led to a great sense of achievement. This provided a nice foundation for the poster presentations during which the learners not only presented their information but responded to questions from their audience.

The learner’s perception of increased confidence is nice because it was the realistic and motivating need to communicate that provided the learners with the opportunity to use the language and skills they possessed, demonstrating to themselves and others the extent of their knowledge.

One learner, during her end of course feedback, also reported how the experience had given her confidence in delivering presentations in Turkish Language and Literature classes.

Several learners perceived connection between the development of the speaking and listening skills through PBL and increased confidence (and score) in their oral exams.

Whilst much of the work was conducted in groups, and the conversations may have been conducted in Turkish, we did ask for a part teams to record one conversation in English. During which they discussed their research sources, synthesising their information to identify the best ideas to answer their research question.

This was an interesting feature of the project as the learners almost universally took this element very seriously. They approached i t in a variety of ways – some recorded a spontaneous discussion whilst others prepared in detail before the recording. Whilst we can argue that those who prepared and even semi-scripted the conversation were not speaking naturally or spontaneously what was clear is that they had spent a considerable time and effort in thinking about what they wished to say, how to express it and how to structure the conversation – a lot of time thinking about using English.

Several learners chose to interview experts at the university as primary sources to help answer their research question. Again, a challenging experience and one that when completed provided a great deal of confidence when speaking in English.

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Reading

The project required each learner to identify, summarise 3 or 4 articles on their specific topics and synthesize this information with that of their team members. There are many reading skills here that were developed that I won’t even get into, in order to keep this as brief as possible.

Many learners identified an improvement in their ability to skim and scan the texts in order to identify the information relevant to their topics. These are skills they are familiar with, and one reason they were able to identify it during reflection, but PBL gave them an opportunity to use and develop these skills in realistic and purposeful situation with longer, ungraded texts.

Interestingly, several learners reported that they chose specific articles after reading abstracts or skimming several texts before choosing the most appropriate ones to address their question. Another useful and important academic skill developed through linguistic skills.

The process of summarising the texts also required careful reading of specific passages and note-taking and paraphrasing, another genuine purpose with motivating outcome.

Additionally, the project was complex with many components and stages. The learners needed to read and follow the documentation on the PBL website to complete the project. By the end of the 14 weeks the website had over 10.000 web page visits which indicated that it was used fairly extensively.

 

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Writing

The culmination of the project was the communication of the answer to the research question with the poster. The process of arriving at this stage required a variety of writing skills from note-taking to academic reverencing.

Another skill which was developed, yet not explicitly recognised by the learners, came in the synthesising of information from the texts they had read and identifying the best ideas and information to answer their research question. This process of identifying main ideas supported with explanations and examples was appropriate to the selection of information for the presentation but also mirrors the planning stages of an academic essay.

We did not ask the learners to produce and essay or report based on their research (this could be a possible future development but would need to be presented as a meaningful outcome such as a conference proceedings) yet their work paralleled this process and the also the process they undertake as part of their Long Writing Assignment in which they answer a question based on information taken from a variety of texts.

This was the part of the project that we asked the teams to record. Listening to the recordings was fantastic – not just because it was nice to hear the learners speaking in English for an

A Project Based Approach to Professional Teacher Development

In April 2015 I gave a presentation at the IATEFL in Manchester. I am very happy that my summary of the presentation has been published in the conference proceedings. I have included the report in this post.

This is a 4-6 minute read.

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Introduction

The primary focus of professional teacher development is, naturally, on becoming a better teacher. Mann suggests that “self-direction is as important in teacher development as it is in language learning” and that self-direction implies a “conscious orchestration of individual capacity, environment and available resources” (2005: 104). If this is the case, then we should also be paying equal attention to enhancing the skills, competencies and attitudes that enable us to seek, identify, undertake and evaluate the appropriate professional development opportunities facilitate self-directed practice.

 

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Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an educational approach firmly based in experiential and enquiry based learning. The key feature that differentiates PBL from project work is the reflection that takes place upon completion of the main project. This reflection has a double focus, the first being on the subject knowledge gained from the enquiry and the second on hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes developed or learned in order to obtain the knowledge (Markham 2012).

 

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Project Based Learning and Professional Teacher Development

This project based approach to professional development draws on this twin focus. In the context of professional teacher development the subject knowledge learned equates to the knowledge or skills obtained, through the professional development activity, to become a more effective teacher. The second focus enables reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes developed through undertaking the developmental activity. These are the attributes which contribute to becoming a more effective and self-directed practitioner of professional development.

The approach is applicable to teachers at all levels of experience who wish to continue developing as teachers. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that although the focus is on building the capacity for self-direction this does not imply a solitary activity (Ryan 2013), and certainly the stages of setting the driving question and reflection may be most effectively undertaken with a constructive and trusted colleague.

 

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A Project Based Professional Teacher Development Cycle

The choice of focus for a teacher’s professional development may arise from a variety of contexts and motivations. Once an area is identified it can be placed within a project based cycle. This cycle contains three broad stages: the framing of developmental area as a driving question; the choice, undertaking of and reflection on the developmental activity; and finally reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed as a practitioner of professional development. I shall look at these areas, particularly stages one and three which focus on aspects specific to this approach, in more depth.

 

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Stage One

The driving question provides a focuses for the developmental activity and future reflection as “academic or professional reflection, as opposed to purely personal reflection, generally involves a conscious and stated purpose” (Ryan 2013: 4). Driving questions that ask “How..?” encourage the dual focus of growth as a teacher and also as a self-directed professional developer. Whereas, questions that ask “What…?” focus purely on becoming a better teacher.

A template for a focussed driving question may look like this:

  • “How can I/we ______ (develop, improve…etc + personal aim) to / for / in ______ (developmental purpose)?”

A question involving a developmental aim may look like this:

  • “How can I improve my ability to involve learners more in decision making in my lessons?”

 

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Stage Two

The teacher identifies a suitable developmental vehicle, undertakes the development activity and reflects on the skills and knowledge developed as a teacher in relation to their specific developmental need. The choice of development vehicle may come from a range of professional development cycles that focus on becoming a better teacher (Mann 2005).

 

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Stage Three

The final stage focuses, through reflection, on the recognition of skills, competencies and attitudes that have been learned or developed in stage two. Reflection is “a prerequisite of development” and “can happen individually or collaboratively” (Mann 2004: 108). Through reflection and recognition these attributes can be consciously added to the toolkit of the self-directed practitioner when undertaking future developmental activities.

This reflection may be facilitated through responding to two prompts:

  1. What hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes did I develop or learn as practitioner of professional teacher development?
  2. How can I use these skills, competencies and attitudes to enhance my future self-directed professional development?

 

 

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Conclusion

This rationale for, and the description of, the project based professional teacher development cycle is necessarily brief. Yet, I hope it provides a potentially useful tool for practitioners at all stages of their careers, empowering teachers by placing them at the heart of their developmental process.

 

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References

Mann, S. 2005. ‘State-of-the-Art Article: The language teacher’s development’. Language Teaching 38: 103-118.

Markham, T. 2012. Project based learning: Design and coaching guide—expert tools for innovation and inquiry. California: Heart IQ Press.

Ryan, M. 2013. ‘The pedagogical balancing act: Teaching reflection in higher education’ Teaching in Higher Education. 18/2: 144-155.

 

 

Sabancı University Book. Learner Development.

 

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I am extremely proud to be involved in the latest book in the Sabancı University, School of Languages publication

Learner Development. A Practical Guide to English Language Learner Development in an Academic Context: Practices and Processes.

Amongst a host of wonderful chapters are two I have co-written:

  • Developing Language and Skills. Written with my colleague Sharon Çeltek.
  • Promoting Learner Development Through Project Based Learning. Written with my colleague Cameron Dean.

February a Month on the Page!

Just like the arrival of the proverbial London bus, not one but two books landed on my desk this month. Both of them containing my contributions, each with a PBL focus.

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The first to arrive was the Sabancı University School of Languages book:

Learner Development. A Practical Guide to English Language Learner Development in an Academic Context: Practices and Processes.

 

Amongst a host of wonderful chapters are:

  • Developing Language and Skills. Written with my colleague Sharon Çeltek.
  • Promoting Learner Development Through Project Based Learning. Written with my colleague Cameron Dean.

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Soon after the IATEfL Manchester 2015 Conference Selections also arrived. This contains my entry:

  • A Project Based Approach to Professional Development.

 

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PBL Season One – The Course Structure

This is a 3 to 4 minute read.

Introduction Poster. Spring 2015. V1

I have written quite a bit about our PBL experience without actually giving much information about the content and organisation of the course. In this post I will provide a brief overview of the cycle which took place over 14 weeks with one class day (Thursday for four 50 minute lessons) per week dedicated to the project.

The project consisted of four distinct phases with clear outcome. Each phase culminated in individual reflection, team reflection and tutorial meeting with the teacher. I will briefly describe the phases below. You can find more information at the SL PBL website which we used to scaffold the project.

*You will notice that there is overlap in the timing of the phases. This allowed teams to start the new phase whilst the team tutorials for the previous phase were taking place. This learner calendar should make it clearer.

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Phase 1 (Weeks 1 to 3)*

This phase consisted of:

– Team formation & team building

– Agreement, amending and signing of team contracts

– Introduction of the overriding Driving Question

– Teams identify areas of individual interest to create refined, team specific Driving Questions

– Identification of research sources to answer the DQ – 3 or 4 per team member. The sources could be written, audio/visual or interviews with experts.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher

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Phase 2 (Weeks 3 to 6)*

This stage consisted of:

– Individually reading, listening to or interviewing research sources and making notes specific to the Driving Question.

– Group meeting to synthesize the information collated towards answering the Driving Question. At least 10 minutes of this discussion was to be recorded with the discussion being held in English.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher

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Phase 3 (Weeks 6 to 12)*

This phase consisted of:

– Outlining information required to answer the Driving Question

– Planning and creating a poster to answer the Driving Question

– Planning and rehearsing a presentation to accompany the poster

– Delivering a dress rehearsal poster presentation to learners on the intermediate level course in SL

– Revising poster and presentation following the presentation

– Delivering the final poster presentation at the SL conference.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher

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Phase 4 (Weeks 12 to 14)*

I consider this to be the most important phase. This phase consisted of:

– Providing team advice for future PBL participants / learners

– Providing team suggestions to improve the next PBL course

– Individual reflection on the whole project

– Team reflection on the whole project

-Team (or individual) tutorials with the teacher

 
Related Posts

PBL Season One – What they said….

Season One – PBL in the School of Languages Context

 

Season One – PBL in the School of Languages Context

This is a 5-6 minute read.

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The context

I teach in the School of Languages at Sabancı University where we prepare learners for their English language medium undergraduate studies. We teach English in an academic context through content based instruction.

As mentioned elsewhere this was a complex project which lasted for 14 weeks of an overall 16 week semester. One day a week (4 class lessons) was dedicated to PBL with learners also expected to complete additional work outside these class hours.

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Our purpose in implementing PBL

The PBL strand enabled us to kill several birds with one stone (although no animals were hurt during the project).

Our primary purpose was to provide another, personalised and interesting, context in which to improve the learners English language skills and knowledge as well as building their confidence as productive and meaningful users.

The project also promoted the learning, development and recognition of hard and soft skills (also know as 21st Century skills), competencies, critical thinking and attitudes that foster self-directed and life-long learning.

Additionally, we set a Driving Question (more below) that focused learners on gaining knowledge that they, and those they shared the knowledge with, could use in their university studies and professional careers.

Finally the project had to be motivating for our learners. In fact, this was a crucial element – we had to engage learners, over an extended period of time, in a form of learning they were unused to (our learners come to us after 12 years of exam based education.) If they were not motivated to learn in this way then the whole project would be pointless and the stated aims unachievable.

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Our Driving Question

Driving Questions (DQs) provide the focus for the project. A good PBL DQ provides a challenging, relevant, real-world scenario. In our context, preparing learners to use English in an academic context, we set our project as an academic research project with a driving question

How can we develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?”

We spent time in class helping our learners to identify specific areas to study that may provide answers for the question. Areas the learners identified and chose for team study included: sports psychology, stress management, chess, travel, living away from home, social clubs….etc.

These led to team specific DQs such as

How can learning about stress management develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?

Teams then worked to research and gain knowledge to answer the question. They ultimately presented their research as a poster presentation at the School of Languages Conference.

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Reflection

Reflection is a key element of PBL, without reflection it remains project work. The DQ focuses reflection in two directions. Firstly on the subject/content knowledge learned – in the case above this would be about stress management and its application to their university studies and their professional careers.

The DQ also focuses reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed through the project. Once learners had identified areas in which they had learned of developed they were also encouraged to consider how they could be used proactively in the future.

Additionally, as the development of English language skills and knowledge was the primary aim of the PBL strand we also asked learners to reflect on language development and their confidence in using English productively.

As reflection is such a key component of PBL we scaffolded* it carefully providing questions to guide individual and team reflection. Teachers also prompted and encouraged deeper reflection in the team tutorials.

We asked each group to make their work and reflections available on a digital platform that was available to their teacher and group members. Here are some examples that have been posted on our PBL website with the permission of the learners.

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The public product

The final product of PBL should be a shared, recognised and celebrated publicly with as wide, relevant and interested audience as possible. The learners are aware of this from the start of the project and thus it becomes an important driver of the project, through which the production of high-quality work is encouraged.

Our public product took the form of a School of Languages Conference during which each team displayed and presented their posters for attendees at the conference. The conference was held over two days in a prominent position, during lunch time to enable all members of the university community to attend.

The posters also now form a permanent part of the display on in the SL building.

As a rehearsal and to identify areas to change for the conference teams also gave presentations to their peers in other classes. It was very interesting to hear during their end of project reflections how much they also valued giving these presentations both in terms of practicing for the conference and as providers of knowledge.

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*Teamwork

One of the areas that many of the learners identified during their reflection was the value of teamwork, how much they had enjoyed working as a member of a team and the ways they had learned from their teammates.

I think this was also an element that the teachers who delivered PBL shared. The project was initially planned and designed by a small team. However, once it we started to deliver the strand all the PBL teachers took ownership and the shared ideas and experiences to make for a richer experience for learners and teachers.

A nice example is the way that as the course progressed teachers prepared and shared new and creative ways to encourage and capture learner’s reflections – more of which in a later post.

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Please remember, you can visit the blog created to scaffold the course for learners and teachers here.

Related Posts

PBL Season One – What they said….

The Structure of our course