PBL as Platform for Personalized Learning – Part Two

August 13, 2016

By Drew Schrader

Part Two – Work to be done

Tom Vander Ark includes a list of 5 Big Advances in his recent post on Personalized Project Based Learning. For PBL teachers, this list provides a useful jumping off point to consider the ways in which exciting work happening across the educational landscape can deepen their work in PBL. In many cases, new personalization tools help PBLers realize outcomes that have felt promising, but which have sometimes gone unfulfilled.

Diagnostic and Adaptive Tools:

Part of what makes PBL such an effective and appealing approach is that it assumes the learning process begins with a co-examination of what the student already knows and needs-to-know in a new area of inquiry. While much of this process can, and should, involve discussion, speculation, and reflection, we are also living in an increasingly data-rich world. The ever growing set of tools that provide diagnostic feedback about knowledge and skills adds potentially powerful formative tools to the PBL classroom.

The best assessments are used to inform instructional decision making, and the thoughtful use of diagnostic tools can give teachers a much clearer picture of the learning needs in their classroom. Thoughtful use implies the recognition that these tools provide insights to help us get to our broader curricular and student outcomes and avoids the trap of letting “closing the gaps in the diagnostic” accidentally replace our own aims. For example, a diagnostic that provides student reading lexile score can help teachers predict what level and kind of support various texts might require and can also point to critical reading strategies individual students are likely ready to work on next.  That information can greatly improve a teacher’s chance of getting more students to their curricular aims. The potential trap, however, is letting the diagnostic become the aim and making the unintended aim of the course “raising student lexile scores.” Doing this is good, of course, but it should be the byproduct of more critical learning goals.

Along with an increase in diagnostic tools has come an increase in adaptive learning products. These tools are designed to adjust to meet students more closely to their current working level on a given skill or concept. When personalization is treated as a methodology, adaptive tools raise concerns about circumscribing the range of pedagogy available to teachers and pushing out powerful shared learning experiences like structured discussion, debate, simulations and games. For PBL teachers, the goal is to create a context where students need-to-know and then apply their learning. Rather than circumscribing, adaptive tools can provide a wide array of new options to support individual student learning once the need has been established.  Again, thoughtful use here involves the strategic use of the adaptive tool to address a learning need rather than the substitution of the tool and a linear march through content for the learning goal.

If we are really serious about personalization within PBL, we should seek out diagnostics and adaptive tools that can be made meaningful to students and help guide their expanding role in the instructional decision making process.  From a diagnostic perspective, this means seeking out tools that emphasize growth so as to avoid reinforcing any kind of fixed mindset a student may have in a given subject and would also point to learning strategies so that the data informs next steps as well as providing a benchmark measure. Having students strategically use adaptive tools to fill their own learning gaps not only addresses a particular curricular goal in the project, it gives them a model they might return to in the future when they have a learning need to fill.

As a simple example, students in an 8th grade World Studies project looking at raising standards of living across the world might need to interpret data in the form of scatter plots and estimate a line of best fit to make an argument about where to invest resources. Kahn Academy has a set of lessons related to those skills that students could use as one of their options for building that particular skill. Teachers might also have textbook chapters, small group workshops, and other options. Students might use a diagnostic to expose overconfidence they might have in their ability to read and use scatter plots and then make guided choices around ways they might explore and practice those skills to apply them to the project.

PBL Tools

PBL teachers are often quite fluent in at least one platform that supports the organization of student-centered projects. For teachers in the New Tech Network, our LMS Echo has been a powerful tool to organize projects and create a consistent project process and feel across a school.

At New Tech, we are in the process of rolling out our newest iteration of the Echo platform. This version is built on a base of personal learning tools and is being adapted to also support our historical emphasis on deeper learning projects.  At a basic level, this involves a streamlined integration of adaptive tools like Gooru, making it easier to provide targeted support to individuals and groups of students as those needs emerge within a project. One of my favorite new features in the new platform allows students to self-assign a task. The prospect of creating personal learning plans for all 50 students in an integrated PBL course is overwhelming, but the possibility of having students assign themselves tasks to address key project NTKs and their own personal goals or preferences opens up all kinds of exciting opportunities. Approaches like self-assigned tasks personalize through student empowerment of process.

Mastery Tracking

Deeper, authentic learning continually pushes on the form and function of assessment, and growing interest in shifting to tracking mastery or competency holds tremendous potential to fully realize assessment for learning rather than mere assessment of learning. Numerous tools including NTN’s new version of Echo allow you to connect individual tasks to standards and track students’ work against those standards over the course of the year.  One possible use for this is in a PBL class is as a content “safety net.” For teachers grappling with real or perceived pressure to “cover all the standards,” important standards and tagging activities with them can help you and your students feel assured that you have touched everything you are supposed to while also providing you with some useful data to review at the end of the year. (Does the amount of contact students had with each standard match my own prioritization of those standards?).  The downside to this approach, however, is it reasserts a “coverage” perspective when it comes to curriculum design which can unintentionally push us back towards superficial coverage rather than simply owning the question of what is most worthy of attention.

A different approach would be to use mastery tracking features to track the power standards you develop for your own class as well asschool-wide learning outcomes. This would help you and your students better keep track of how they are progressing on the truly important concepts and skills that repeat and even spiral over the course of the year. If you were to ground your course in rich portfolio tasks anchored by quality disciplinary knowledge and thinking and deeper learning outcomes, you and your students could use mastery tracking as a way to grow and get clearer on their critical thinking skills over the course of the entire year.

Public Product

This is a no-brainer where PBL teachers can continually reap the benefits of staying current on new tools and trends. Continually seeking out new modes for content development and sharing help ensure students are continually engaged in creation rather than regurgitation and expose them to new audiences and forms of communication.  Consider all the different forms of media and content you consume as an engaged learner – blogs, online journals and publications, social media pages and posts, infographics, animations, screencasts, etc – and then consider when and where students might produce similar products as authentic applications of their learning and exploring.

Dynamic Scheduling

This last option stretches our thinking about authentic work and choices to personalize that process.  Schools are increasingly questioning the effectiveness of rigid class periods based around mass transfer of knowledge and considering ways to create more flexibility for student choice and decision making around their use of time.  PLT (Personal Learning Time) within the day alongside project work time could serve numerous purposes including allowing for personal passion projects, additional time to master challenging material, decompression or “download” time respecting the very real need for breaks in the day, as well as acknowledging for people’s different levels of energy during the day and allowing students to do their most difficult work when they are at their best.  NTN Schools likeThe Community School already have a portion of the day set aside for individual student projects and many of our schools are beginning to tinker with  moves towards more adaptive approaches to time that are more responsive to the demands and opportunities of PBL and the pursuit of student interests.

Clearly, the strong work happening under the banner of personalization has heaps to offer those of us in the PBL and deeper learning community and the above list is just the tip of the iceburg.

Are you doing something to personalize student learning in a PBL context we missed here – tweet it at me @edutwitt! We’d love to learn with you!

This blog originally appeared on Learning Habit.