My Learning Diary On PBL By Anna Laghigna
Hi! My name is Anna Laghigna.
I am a secondary teacher of English as a Foreign Language. My students are 14-19 year-olds and specialise on Humanities and Psychology.
I am based in Udine, a small town to the north-east of Venice (Italy) but I also partly live in Austria, on the Carinthian mountains, where I spend most of my weekends and holidays with family and friends. I love hiking, golfing and... skiing of course!
- Understand what PBL is and isn't
- Reflect on our own teaching practice and how this corresponds to a PBL approach
- Identify different components of effective PBL and which of these will be the most challenging in our context
- Develop a first idea for implementing a PBL approach in our context and formulate a driving question.
For people like me who teach a foreign language, our primary objective is to help pupils reach communicative autonomy. This demands time and dedication! Nonetheless, I try not to forget that Languages are first of all keys to freedom and communication, so that learning scenarios which expose students to native speakers in a variety of contexts are essential to learning a language.
Moreover, through language teaching we can develop other important 21st century skills.
I have been experimenting new ways of creative teaching and learning that focus on developing students’ language skills through creativity, critical thinking and collaboration among peers. I think my current approach could be occasionally complemented with PBL, though not on a regular basis. I believe that a Blended method is more appropriate considering my current teaching context.
I try to teach with an integrated and transversal approach and blend many teaching strategies according to my students' exigencies. I have frequently used Inquiry-based Learning and webquests, as well as Flipped Classroom, which encourage active learning. My top priority is to design activities that are engaging and motivating for my students. I want them to be active and creative. I think Learning by Doing and Groupwork are the best ways to learn.
I like to integrate technology in the classroom. However, adding some digital support to our lessons is not enough to make our students become owners of their own learning process. It also takes creativity! My main field of interest is Digital Storytelling.
I try to encourage students to discover and investigate contents independently, before providing standardised answers for all. As a guide and facilitator, I try not to give ready answers but hints to their questions and encourage peer-learning in groups.
I try to create diversity in class and design various types of activities, at times also teacher-led: for example when Grammar insight is needed or when we read a poem or parts of a novel together.
My students love to hear stories and poems being read aloud and discussed with me as a guide. The deeply felt emotions that a poem or a monologue in a tragedy can trigger in teenagers when read and analysed in plenum with the help of an adult cannot be replaced by any project or groupwork.
Please do not get me wrong: I love doing projects but I also believe that we should ourselves apply critical thinking to our way of teaching. Modern trends in education are obviously important and we need to innovate, but on the other hand we should not completely abandon the old ways.
Our kids are at times too heavily absorbed in visual forms of communication and games. For many of them school can be the only place where they are invited to dig below the surface. Apart from being functioning adults in their future work sphere, I believe they should be also free, independent human beings. They need also cultural and emotional growth.
1.4 The five key components of good PBL
Source: Edutopia Video and Eduproject to PBL
- Real-world connection. It entails having an authentic problem that drives the curriculum. The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer. The students must find their own ways to tackle the problem and explore the big question they are assigned. They will need deep thinking on it and to formulate further questions. It is important for students to be able to connect what they are learning on to the real world, as this better motivates and engages them.
- Core to learning. PBL can provide academic reading at very complex level in progress, instead of at the end of a traditional unit. Properly implemented PBL should be the core and content of their learning in class. Contents are thus incorporated in the project, not simply taught ahead of the project.
- Structured collaboration. Students are allowed to work together but they are provided with a very accurately scaffolded structure. They must be aware that in their collaborative work, everyone in each group will be given a different role, such as team leader, thinkers, creative designers, final decider, etc.
- Student driven. PBL implies a radical shift, so that a PBL unit should be led by the students, rather than the teacher. The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives. The teacher becomes more of a facilitator and the students take up more responsibility. Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information. They become directly involved in the learning process, make decisions also about what they will need to learn, and will therefore retain more of their learning. The teacher needs to ask good questions and give hints instead of simply ready-made answers. No rote learning!
- Multifaceted assessment. Assessment should be integrated throughout the entire PBL unit. Formative assessment should be carried out not only at the end of a unit or period. It should be done in a number of different ways, also through small checks to see that students are growing along — or self-assessment and peer reviews, so that students become part of the assessment process and are invited to reflect on the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.
Another essential feature of PBL is that students will have to present their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.
I came across this challeging Webquest designed by some Professors from Wake Forest University which aims at teaching Highschool teachers the basics of PBL. Wow! A lesson within a lesson... Brilliant!
The term 'question' can arouse confusion. The driving question can have several different forms, including:
- Solving a problem or task,
- Educating others,
- Creating a product,
- Convincing others,
- A broad theme,
- Forming an opinion,
- Philosophical issues,
- Thinking divergently,
- Real-world or fictional scenarios.
A few starters to create an effective driving question
- What makes a good ___ ?
- What are the ingredients for a successful ___?
- What is the best way to ___?
- Is there a relationship between ___ and ___?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of ___?
- What will happen if ____?
- How are ____ and ____ different?
- How many different ____ are there?
- Did ___ influence ____?
- Is _____ really important?
- In what ways did ____ influence _____?
- What would ___ be without ___?
Well, it must be a commonly shared preoccupation of teachers in PBL to create a challenging driving question, if these guys have created a special tool for it. Useful, isn't it?
Checklist to help you refine your question.
- The question is appealing to students.
- The question taps into students’ interests and passions.
- The question does not sound like a test question.
- The question leads to more questions.
- There is more than one answer to the question.
- The topic is personal or local.
- Students can relate to the question in their daily lives.
- The question is concise. Students will have choices for end products.
- There is an authentic audience for the project.
- The question requires serious investigation.
- Students will learn important skills and content.
- The question has no easy answer.
- The project will somehow make a difference in the world.
Developing effective collaboration for PBL
- Understand how different types of collaboration can be used in the context of PBL
- Develop a series of strategies and activities to promote effective collaboration between students
- Develop a series of strategies and activities to promote effective collaboration with actors outside of the classroom
Collaboration is not at all easy... So true!
It requires practice and should be taught and learnt also at school. I see it as essential for establishing a functional society based on equality and welfare, in which people exchange knowledge and talents in order to build something of greater value and quality — something that one single individual would never be able to achieve alone given the same amount of time.
This is my personal collage of images to define collaboration:
Key words to students' authentic collaboration:
- Shared responsibility for their work,
- Substantive decisions made by students together.
"These features help students learn the important collaboration skills of negotiation, conflict resolution, agreement on what must be done, distribution of tasks, listening to the ideas of others, and integration of ideas into a coherent whole. The strongest learning activities are designed so that student work is interdependent, requiring all students to contribute in order for the team to succeed".
Students work together when the activity requires them to work in pairs or groups to:
- discuss an issue
- solve a problem
- create a product
Acquisition is an important step in language learning. My students still need to acquire knowledge about the basics of English as a Foreign Language and lots of practice and reflection to become fluent and independent speakers. They need to do also some teacher-led activities or listening and writing activities to develop independent skills and become fluent in the foreign language. This cannot be done within the framework of a project.
What's more, when they work in groups, they tend to use their mother tongue more than English, which sounds more natural to them. If the focus is primarily on collaboration, it can be difficult to get them to work using a foreign language unless they were really collaborating with foreign peers, like on an eTwinning or Erasmus Plus project.
I often get students to work in groups for a variety of tasks, such as Grammar/Vocabulary practice and translation tasks. They keep on telling me that they definitely prefer doing such activities in groups, because they can help each other and don't get stuck as it often happens at home.
As a result, I have almost given up assigning homework on Grammar textbooks! Let's be honest... we are aware that students constantly exchange homework on What'sApp, aren't we?
When we read excerpts from a novel, a poem or a theatre play I ask them to work on the interpretation of it in groups. They must come up with a negotiated interpretation and report it to the class in the form of a digital presentation, a video, a poster or others.
That's the best of it! They love it!
They also like working together and help each other! Those who are more competent interact with the weaker ones in a way that the latter do not resent. Sense of failure because of mistakes decreases and also top students admit that they can learn more. Socialization is absolute priority for students of that age and groupwork is an excellent "borekiller"!
So we are doing much of the work in class and they watch videos or create digital objects for homework — to the double advantage that it's something they cannot totally plagiarize and love to do!
Junior Achievement Entrepreneurship Projects
This year the Italian Ministry of Education has for the first time introduced real-world work experience (Alternanza Scuola Lavoro) for students attending 11th grade as integrated in the curriculum. It is compulsory and must be done to a total of 200 hours in three years.
As a result, all our 11th-year classes participated in Junior Achievement Enterpreneurship projects. They had to set up their own start-up businesses and see to them from all points of view.
Thanks to the local Chamber of Commerce and the University of Udine, we were able to invite professionals who could provide students with tips and guidance about the many chores relating to their field of operation.
It was very demanding and time-consuming for our students to set up their micro businesses, also because they had to come to school in the afternoon once a week, but for sure they learnt a lot.
This is the link to my PBL Learning Design: The Pursuit of Happiness
IT'S NOT THAT I'M SO SMART, IT'S JUST THAT I STAY WITH PROBLEMS LONGER — Albert Einstein
- Understanding the importance of scaffolding the PBL process so that students increasingly develop independence and ownership over the tasks
- Understanding the importance of a positive environment and mindset for building student confidence and resilience
- Developing a range of activities, strategies and tools that facilitate an entrepreneurial mindset and entrepreneurial skills
Resilience? Ehm... Let me think. I can't remember one situation that could best explain what it means to me. There are many. My whole life probably...
While I am writing these notes, there is one image that sticks in my mind: it is my father telling me that I am stubborn but not enough resilient! He does not live anymore unfortunately. I remember him often saying that I was sort of a copy of his own mother: "Same passion for learning, same curiosity, same determination" — "Yes, but not enough resilience yet" — he would add.
"What does resilience mean, dad?" - I asked him one day. "It's difficult to explain. It's when someone puts so much love and passion in what he does, that he can even accept setbacks as part of the game but will never give up dreaming! You might stop for a while and re-imagine your horizon, then step in the game again and work hard until you make it! No matter how many times you fail, stand up and try again! Don't let the others put you down so easily!
Your grandma used to take a long journey every morning on a donkey to go to school, come sun or rain! Those were hard times but she made it! She wanted to study and she managed to do it. So she could teach us by her example that things can change in life and we might even end up being deprived of anything BUT what we have learnt!"
How to facilitate learning in a student-driven environment
- Scaffold every single activity, but only to the limited amount needed to make students be independent in their learning
- Provide feedback to students instead of ready answers
- Give students voice and choice along the process
- Introduce a topic in a way that it creates curiosity
- Provide opportunities for the students to work together in order to find their own answers to the questions that are posed or generate more questions
- Make time for reflection and revision about the things that have been learnt
- Engage students in discussions about their thinking or their partners'
- Define learning targets for every day - either student- or teacher-driven
- Have students track their own progress with the aim of making them aware that they are actually learning and improving
How to develop resilience in our students?
Through a combination of setting out the right environment, building positive relationships, and offering space for independent decisions.
- Give students the opportunity to study first what they like and then what they don't like
- Ensure that they can make their own contribution to the activities
- Encourage them to search and construct their knowledge
- Trust students and expect high-level performance from them
- Show them that you care and encourage them to know each other better
- Support cooperative learning projects
- Do not focus on failure but on progress - Praise in public but criticise in private!
- Encourage students to support each other, collaborate and behave with mutual respect and courtesy.
- Teach by example - enjoy spending time with your students
- Help them to become self-confident and develop a growth-mindset.
- They should learn to believe in themselves, because they are valuable, worthwhile and capable. Build up their self-esteem by showing them that every challenge is an opportunity to grow and improve.
- Practice failure so that they become aware that making mistakes is natural. Everyone does! Those who have become successful, simply have never given up trying and setting goals in a constructive way until they have found their own way to succeed.
- Encourage them to accept failure and setbacks. They must learn to be kind to themselves if they fail, think about other types of strategies, ask for advice and persevere.
I try to teach by example that loving support, respect, compassion and mutual courtesy can improve the quality of our lives with very little effort. We have had some cyberbullying issues in class this year, as in the years before! I have noticed that students often do not know each other enough: there is little opportunity for socializing in our schools and competition among them can trigger very annoying situations. By getting them to work in groups and asking the better ones to help the others while working together on a common project, has contributed to improving their way of interacting with one another — up to the point that the bully had to give it in: not enough followers! - at least during my classes.
This is why I have introduced more and more peer reviews: students can give mutual support and feedback, and I sometimes participate to the same activity anonymously. I would be interested in learning more about other forms of discreet guidance without coercion.
I have also tried to design more strengths-focussed activities. Digital Storytelling and group presentations are among my students' favs! I try to give them the floor whenever I can, because this helps them improve their oracy and fluency in the foreign language, builds up self-esteem and it is generally very well received by the others. Moreover, I try to offer my students as many opportunities for participation and contribution as a way to express themselves and their creativity, also in tests. They run their own blogs and have recently contributed articles and reports about their activity in class on our school website. This in order to empower them and let them reflect on the progress they have accomplished.
3.4 Developing an entrepreneurial mindset
According to the European Framework for key competences for lifelong learning, entrepreneurship is: "... the ability to turn ideas into action. It involves creativity, innovation and risk-taking, as well as the ability to plan and to manage projects in order to achieve objectives."
Entrepreneurship education aims at enabling young people to develop the skills they will need for life and work. These skills are teachable and should be integrated into every school syllabus.
Entrepreneurship education is about a range of skills and capabilities, among which:
- planning and organising,
- effective communication,
- negotiating and influencing, taking responsibility,
- taking initiative,
- financial capability,
- how to be successful in running a small project,
- learning through pupil/student centered and task-based activities, cooperation and involvement from local community/business.
For the first time, this year we carried out entrepreneurship projects with JA Junior Achievement and eleven classes in our school. I tutored my 11th-grade students in starting up their own JA company. Their idea was to develop a special pillow to make their school chairs a bit more comfortable. Our first brainstorming was probably the hardest: very chaotic as they could not find sense in what they were doing. They changed their mind so many times! And had to draft and redraft their project hundreds of times!
On the other hand, negotiating tasks and roles in their business, designing their product and creating a website to advertise it was easy and fun. Students had to work really hard to keep all documents updated, write minutes of all their meetings, talk to experts and accept their advice, and above all raise funds. All in all, it was a positive experience: the students had the opportunity to work together and learn new skills.
Assessing For or assessing of learning? This is the question?
- Understanding the difference between formative and summative assessment
- Understanding how assessment can be embedded into PBL activities
- Understanding what a rubric is and why it can help us assess PBL
- Develop a finalised and rigorous PBL implementation Learning Design
Marking and assessment of learning is what I really don't like about teaching. Not only is it boring, time-consuming and demanding of me as a teacher, but it is the moment when my students are somehow doubleproofing the authenticity of my teaching approach to them. I hate when they compare their performance just on the basis of the mark they get!
Many colleagues of mine believe that if not tested, students won't study. It is true, but on the other hand we should not then complain if students study only for the goal of getting a decent grade! It's called Behaviourism, isn't it? School grades used as bananas! The point is that only top marks generally work beautifully as a powerful leverage for school success.
When I think of the huge amount of time and energy that we devote in class for summative testing because of a school system based on pass-or-fail results, well... Especially by the end of a school term, students are crammed up with things to study for written and especially oral tests in all subjects - sometimes it's three or four chapters of their history, literature or philosophy textbook just for one test. It's all rote learning that stresses them out and which they are not very likely to retain in the long run. What's more it is no fun and deprives kids of their natural curiosity and joy for learning. No wonder 60% of Italian high-school students declare they hate school! No wonder we have a high rate of drop-outs in our country!
In Italian schools the academic year is split into two schoolterms: for each there must be at least three written and two oral assessments. Each school establishes guidelines regulating the number of oral and/or written tests. Teachers are free to decide when and how to test students but they must give them at least two formal marks in oral and two/three in written. Content and formats of oral assessments can be decided by teachers: individually, online, during pair or groupwork activities, but written tests must be only on paper and accessible to parents upon request. We can also decide when to test provided we respect set deadlines for recording marks on school online register. For summative assessment, besides the student's performance I usually take into account several criteria, such as participation, collaboration among peers, individual on-going process of learning. This year we also administered common exit tests to all same grade students to check minimal standards of linguistic competence.
I understand formative assessment as a special assignment which my students can carry out not for grading purposes but for building up their skills and to challenge themselves into tasks that can be self-evaluated and peer-reviewed. Measuring understanding and their level of progress can be done along the way through self-reflection.
I have been trying to integrate more and more formative types of assessment into my teaching practice. Instead of simple quizzes or quick-check questions, which we also do possibly online, I'd like them to work on more creative assignments which I sometimes use also for grading. We made an agreement in class that I would take into consideration and extra grade multimedia projects of extraordinary quality that they can prepare individually or in small groups. They have enthusiastically accepted my proposal as an extra kick to do well! I doubt whether this is entirely fair, but what I care the most is having them use their creativity to express their full potential and practise the language. Marking and assessing usually cause anxiety to students and fear as a rule impedes creativity and learning.
These two slides are part of a presentation I made for a workshop with my colleagues at school (VA= authentic assessment; VT= Traditional assessment)
Ongoing peer-reviews during presentations: students use their smartphones to evaluate individual or group presenters. Google-sheets are then forwarded via Edmodo. Evaluations remain anonymous.
I loved this video contributed by Arjana Blazic: it shows how kids can learn about the advantages of collaboration, critical thinking and cooperative learning.