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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Sometimes You Just Have to Drop Back and Punt

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rogersmith/
     This week we came back to school and we were in mid-project.  When my co-teacher and I met on the return teacher work day we discussed the fact that we were not really happy with how the project had gone and we determined that we might just have to wrap it up and move on.


     We, literally, almost came down to an arm wrestle over whether to stop the project, when to stop the project, and how to stop the project.  We finally had our hand forced as we realized that the end of our six weeks marking period was going to happen within the next 7 class days.


     How did this disaster happen?  Simple actually: not being specific about what we wanted our students to accomplish and not understanding the time required to obtain certain skills.  And, without having to mention the subject, this could have happened in any project-based class in any school in the world.


     When you try to put too much into a project you run into the possibility of students losing interest in what was supposed to be the major end product.  That is what happened to us.  We had CAD (computer aided design) techniques that needed to be learned and we had a requirement for a specialized 3D printer that needed an upgrade.  Meanwhile the driving question was " How can students use their artistic talents in an engineering course to create a lasting symbol of peace and love?"  And their end product was a tile mosaic with each student creating a tile for the mosaic.  


     The concept sounded beautiful.  Then there came the set backs.  First the realization that we might not be able to make the tiles when they got to that point because our 3D printer wouldn't be ready.  Next the realization that the CAD techniques we were wanting our students to learn take time and we hadn't really planned the right number of days for this.  A day here, a day there, a Thanksgiving break, and the craziness that occurs near the December holiday break and suddenly it was January 3 and we hadn't completed the project.


     So what do you do?  Well, here's what we did.  On the first day groups created a presentation on where they had gotten to before Christmas.  This served a threefold purpose: we could discuss the fact that we weren't happy and wanted to terminate the project, students could remember why we were even doing the project in the first place, and they could practice their presentation skills (giving us a chance at an oral communication grade).  


     The second day we continued with groups drawing sketches of what the final product would have looked like and what CAD skills they would have had to use to create their design.  This gave us a chance to give a writing grade and a technology skills grade.   Finally we wrapped things up with a discussion of how things went in the project and what could be improved.  And, we took time to discuss the final product and it's potential for impact on the school and community.


     Here we have two teachers who have taught in a PBL classroom for a combined 8 years and their project flopped.  It happens.  And when it happens you need to get the students involved.  Have them help you understand what went wrong.  Then continue a discussion of what the final product means in relation to the work they have completed.  And then move on to the next project.  Incorporate skills that you were unable to get to with the previous project into the new project.  Use spiraling and scaffolding to connect the skills and before long you may be the only one who remembers this disaster.  Welcome to PBL.