First, we kill our students creativity. Next, we ask them to be creative and wonder why they have such a hard time.
We always aspire for our students to move away from fact regurgitation and move toward higher level thinking and deeper understanding. When we ask students to brainstorm and generate ideas, provide solutions to problems, or to think and reason critically, we are really asking them to be creative. The sad truth is that by standardizing education we often kill creativity. The hope lies in the fact that creativity is an acquired skill that can be improved.
If we make a conscious decision to change things up in our classrooms, to change the way we educate our students, we can increase their creativity. With increased creativity they can innovate and be more successful.
The human brain is composed of gray matter and white matter. Gray matter stores knowledge and is used when we think. White matter is tissue through which the brain transfers and connects information. Scientific studies show that extraordinarily creative individuals have more white matter than others. This is good, because it proves creativity is something we can get better at....
The Power and Pitfalls of PBL’s
Alright, lets just get this part out of the way first: I realize there are drastic differences between project based learning and problem based learning experiences, but for the purpose of this post I am going to hybridize the two concepts because the content of what you are about to read is relevant for both project based, as well as problem based learning experiences.
PBL’s are a great learning tool. They can increase engagement, help connect students to larger concepts, and enable teachers to show cross-cutting or cross-curricular concepts in a way that students can really buy-in to. I use PBL’s all the time, but I see others stumble, fall, and curse the name when they are implemented improperly.
The problems with PBL’s (haha…get it?)
Let me preface this by saying that there is no definitive “right” way to implement problem based learning, but I would strongly argue that there are plenty of wrong ways to do it. Often, when teachers start implementing PBL’s they think that they are going to provide an awesome “artifact” or engaging “hook” and in 2 – 3 magical weeks the students will have produced these amazing products of learning. The problem is that they don’t plan the day-to-day and just assume that the PBL will run itself.
It is in the facilitation of problem based learning that the majority of learning occurs. If you expect students to “connect all the dots” alone and without your guidance (and without well thought out planning) you’re most likely in for a struggle. The end result will most likely be a chaotic few weeks and products that are less than stellar with little concrete evidence of learning or growth.
Things you can do to make your next PBL Great
When you design and implement problem based learning, think about how you will structure the learning experience. Think about providing daily check-ins and exit discussions to monitor progress. You can also break the project into tasks and organize it into a self-paced system to allow students the freedom to work but with the accountability of formative check-ins or assessments....
When my kids get excited about school it’s a wonderful moment. This is especially true as they are teenagers who attended a Project Based Learning School. Those moments occured “only” (yes I’m being absolute) when the topics and outcome are connected to the world beyond school.
I share in my book, "So All Can Learn: A Practical Guide for Differentiation" that during my son’s freshmen year at Ardis New Tech High School, a Geometry-Art project focused on students creating soup bowls to be auctioned off at an event known at Empty Bowls. Local potters also craft bowls that are donated, like the students’ work, to the auction. The proceeds support the food pantries in the local area. The students learned art and Geometry concepts throughout the PBL unit. At the evening event, parents and community were invited to see the artwork and participate in a silent auction for the bowls of the local artists. Parents got first dibs on buying their child’s bowl.
The power of that experience remains today because students had a voice in their community. They understood the connections of curriculum and context with the world outside academia. As a parent, I see the growth this experience had for my child and value every opportunity that the school provides in this area. As a PBL consultant, I would like to see such experiences happen more often than the pretend scenarios that tune out students, including my own. Scenarios can be intriguing at first, but lose momentum when students realize that the work will go no where and to no one once it’s done. The results, like most traditional assignments, are submitted to the teacher for a grade—and goes no further.
Having an authentic audience and purpose has so much upside. Students engage into the work, sustained by the energy that the results are purposeful and awaited by an audience beyond the school. It snaps them out of the Checklist Mentality that I discuss in an Edutopia article. They connect the curriculum with real purpose, and not—as students perceive—just academic hoop jumping....
It is amazing what happens when kids start using their creativity and making something related to their learning. I had a bit of an epiphany today as I was responding to some questions a former student was asking as part of her Intro to Education class that requires 15 hours of teacher observation. The questions were basic questions, but they were triggering reflection while I was standing in my classroom watching my kids work.
Just so happened this reflective moment was happening during "that" class ... you know the class that just seems to be a bit more "active" than the other classes and maybe struggle a little bit more ... don't judge ... we have all had "that" class. Strange thing though; today, "That", class was not behaving like "that" class. Most of them were working ... like on task ... and seemingly enjoying what they were doing. What was different about today? They were working on their STEAM unit projects.
Over the years I have seen many examples where the kids who would be classified by testing data as "low" create some of the most phenomenal projects. This is one of the advantages of implementing Project Based Learning (PBL) as it gives the students an opportunity to express their newly acquired knowledge in a different, more creative fashion. This project is related to the novel Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (@ScottWesterfeld) and the kids had to create something in a Steampunk fashion that was inspired by the novel and somehow improves society or makes life easier for the individual.
The making process gives them an opportunity to do the learning. Many of the students were drawn to wanting to make hats as that was an example I used to illustrate how simple making steampunk products could be, but many were missing the primary objective of how their creation could improve their life or society as a whole. We used a clip from Meet the Robinsons where it shows the hat doing work for humans as well as some images of Inspector Gadget with his hat full of surprises and all of a sudden the lights went on all over the classroom and the kids went back to work.
A class that normally struggles to remain quiet and focused for longer than a few minutes were working independently on their projects. Kids were using the sewing machine, hot glue guns, painting, but more importantly they were designing. That design process happens regardless of academic level. Each kids has ideas rolling around their head. They just need the opportunity to put them into practice. Below are some images of the kids working.
|Demetrius is constructing a model time portal in the shape of an octagon. Interesting fact, he has not yet officially learned about the angles of an octagon until now. That and he got to use a power tool when none of the other students did.|
You never know what will happen when you let the kids create ... PBL gets all the kids thinking, learning and doing. PBL is one of those activities that really does not care what the testing data says about the kid. Given the right support and opportunity all the kids will engage and soar!