The Universality of PBL: From California to Australia

June 5, 2017

by Maddison Cleveringa, Teacher Parramatta Marist

As part of my trip to the New Tech Network offices in March this year I was also afforded the opportunity to visit the place where the New Tech model of Project-based Learning (PBL) was first launched- New Technology High School.

Krista Clark, Director of Communications at New Tech, took me for a tour around the school campus and allowed me to see how this little school functions and succeeds through PBL. I was initially surprised with the small size of the student population, with a mere 350-400 pupils attending, in comparison to Parramatta Marist High School (PMH) with over 1300 boys at any one time. This sparked a really interesting conversation with Krista about the universality of PBL and how the model is transferable across a range of different types of schools, students and learning environments. Even though classes at New Technology High are significantly smaller than our 60 student junior classes at PMH it still works- not to mention the fact that our schools are on opposite sides of the planet! Krista also told me about many other schools that have found PBL to be an effective learning model for their students including schools of various faiths, a military high school, behavioural schools, public and private schools etc.

I’m hoping to visit more innovative schools around the world on my travels this year including several I have researched in London including School21 and the UCL Academy.

As I walked around the classrooms, communal learning spaces, outdoor student run gardens and cafeteria it was excellent to see many of the same PBL protocols and practices as I have tried to deliver to my own students in Sydney. On the whiteboards and posters I saw familiar lists of things like ‘Knows and Need to Knows’ and ‘Driving Questions’, which are both PBL protocols/terms intended for students to keep track of their own learning and recognise where they are up to within a project.

It was interesting that the students I spoke with seemed confident and able to articulate the purpose and depth of their learning and they were comfortable speaking with a previously unknown adult. I have noticed that most of my students also have this confidence about them, which is atypical for many teenagers. Krista and I spoke about how PBL inherently encourages public speaking skills and a certain level of bravery/confidence in students. This is because presentation or public exhibitions are often a core element of summative tasks and students are required to communicate their understanding to large groups of students, teachers and parents. Similarly, the fact that a lot of curriculum content is delivered to students who are working in groups means that the typical self doubt and shyness sometimes associated with voicing your knowledge and opinions to peers as a teenager is either ignored or becomes redundant. As a teacher my priority is to make my classroom a safe and welcoming space where my students feel comfortable to express themselves. I try to work closely with students who struggle with their oracy skills and confidence- particularly those who may have other special learning needs.

I believe that oracy is an increasingly important skill for young people to have in the 21st century. The ability to physically articulate your knowledge and views to others is something that needs to be further addressed in our Australian curriculum to ensure that students leave high school with skills needed to succeed in the ever-changing workforce. For example, public speaking skills help students stand out from the crowd- in job interviews, the workforce etc.

The learning spaces I observed at New Technology High were designed for student/teacher collaboration- an important aspect of PBL. Similarly to Parramatta Marist, the physical layout, building materials and furniture had all been carefully and intentionally chosen to complement the learning process. Many walls were made of glass and acted as large whiteboard, also providing a sense of transparency and openness in each of the classrooms. Much of the furniture was moveable and able to be configured to suit the type of lesson being facilitated by the teacher much like the newest building at Marist seen below.

Krista also introduced me to several teachers and Riley Johnson, the Principal of New Technology High. I am very thankful for the opportunity to see how PBL works in a different learning environment to the one I’ve been teaching at for the past few years. I think that the fact that the New Tech network welcomes and encourages teachers from all across the United States and the world to come into their schools to observe PBL firsthand is something to be commended and should be more common. Much like travel itself, when teachers are given the opportunity to visit different learning spaces and observe our colleagues it gives us a different perspective and may influence or inspire our own teaching practices. Like I have said before, education/teaching is no longer a stagnant, linear profession. We, as teachers, always have the opportunity to develop and change our practice: to be innovative, imaginative and inspirational for our students.

This blog originally appeared on Miss Cleveringa. 

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