I was very fortunate to view the movie, ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ last Monday. It looks at the state of education in the US, in particular what is happening at schools like High Tech High in San Diego. It also takes into consideration the changing nature of work in the 21st Century and what impact that is having on the value of a College degree.
High Tech High is one of a number of schools in the US that use a PBL or CBL approach to learning. As I was watching I started thinking about the obstacles that stop schools from going down the same road. Why have so few schools in Australia moved towards this type of learning? Marist Parramatta are one school that has taken the leap of faith and embraced this style of learning. This has been primarily due to the drive and vision of Br Pat Howlett.
Br Pat’s journey has been one of constantly looking for better ways to do things. In his days as Principal at Marcellin College, Br Pat was always thinking about the future. His building program involved creating a ‘learning centre’ that was really a centre of innovation well before anyone had termed that phrase.
It is pointless creating innovative learning spaces and then not investing the same amount of money ensuring teachers know how to use them. Br Pat realised this was an essential component of the process, and through his brilliant entrepreneurial skills, he was able to raise enough money to send a team of teachers to the US.
There are very few leaders who could do what Br Pat did. To take a very traditional systemic school and transform it into a 21st Century vision for learning requires someone of great strength to overcome the many barriers staff, parents and systems place before you.
So what are the obstacles and where do they come from?
There are way too many to list but some I have heard most often are:
- ‘We tried this in the 80’s and it didn’t work.’ Usually this comes from older staff who quite rightly are pessimistic when it comes to changes in pedagogy. They have usually seen a lot of ideas come and go, and as we have always come back to a traditional model of teaching, they feel this is the safest and most successful model of teaching. It is a tried and proven method for most students so why change? Resistance to change is one of the biggest obstacles.
- Parents want the best possible education for their children. They are very suspicious of anything that does not resemble the type of education they had. As there is very little longitudinal data about the value of a PBL approach, it is hard for anyone to say that PBL is a better approach to learning than more traditional proven methods.
- Students are sometimes the most conservative when it comes to school. They expect to have content delivered to them by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom. Having to make decisions on their learning, working in groups, presenting to an audience are all aspects of the PBL approach that students find quite confronting. Some can find this very stressful and believe this type of approach is not ‘teaching’. They would much prefer to be ‘sponges’ because it requires little effort and thought.
- Systems can on one hand be actively encouraging a more ‘student-centred’ approach in their schools while working against this process by over-burdening schools with endless compliance documentation.
So where to from here? How can a systemic school incorporate a PBL approach successfully? Well that is something for a future post!
The final component of our Sunsprint journey is the presentation of each student’s learning journey. Over the past term all students involved in the Sunsprint Challenge have been gathering information piecing together their journey from the very start of the year until the UNSW Sunsprint Challenge last September.
This is quite a long process sorting through all the photos and videos taken throughout the construction phase. A few weeks ago all students submitted a draft presentation for viewing and feedback and are now in the process of submitting their final presentations for viewing.
This week sees the culmination of over six months of preparation as our three teams get ready to compete in the University of New South Wales Sunsprint Challenge. The Challenge involves the construction of model solar cars that race around a track powered by nothing but the sun.
UNSW Sunsprint Challenge
Our Year 9 team has been really pushing the boundaries in terms of design and construction. After winning the 2013 Sunsprint and competing in the National titles in Melbourne the team decided they would go try to get ahead of the game and build their car out of carbon fibre. They did not realise what this entailed!
After a few phone calls trying to source their material of choice they made contact with Ian Pollard. Ian asked why they were looking for carbon fibre and offered to help them learn about the process involved. He also offered the use of his facilities to enable them to bring their vision to reality.
Here is part of the process involved:
We often hear the term ‘authentic learning’ splashed around in education. This project is a great example of this type of learning. Students involved in something they are interested in, learning from experts in the field. They then take that knowledge and apply it to a purposeful activity.
One of the team members remarked that it did not matter whether they win this year’s Challenge as they had already gained so much from the experience. They spoke about how they used Trigonometry to calculate the size of the angle needed to create the most efficient bracket to hold the wheels. They also spoke about how they had used the data from testing to lessen the mass of each wheel to ensure the car was a light as possible.
As I left the factory I reflected on where these students were only two years ago. They were in Year 7 then and were getting their car ready for their first attempt at the Sunsprint. Their car was a very basic design made of Perspex and cardboard! How far they have come in such a short time.
If only we could build more of these experiences into a school curriculum!
Our Year 9 Sunsprint team have spent countless hours learning how to use carbon fibre in the construction of their car for this year’s Challenge.
They have fortunately been able to link up with an expert in the field outside the College. This mentoring process has allowed the team to not only access facilities but also be exposed to a wealth of knowledge from a specialist in the field.
This project is a great example of the possibilities that can occur when you allow students to participate in authentic learning experiences.
Here is a little of what the team has been up to this week.
2013 UNSW Sunsprint Champions Unveil Their Car for 2014.
It is always rewarding to see a project through to its completion. This project however is continually surprising us with the directions it takes our students. Last year we were blown away by our Year 8 team when they took out the UNSW Sunsprint Challenge. Traditionally it had been older students who succeeded based on the level of skill and understanding needed.
Changes in the ability to source components have meant that younger students are now able to compete with the older students. Design and a little bit of good fortune now play a bigger role in deciding the winner. With that in mind our champion team have decided to push the boundaries a little.
Most cars at the 2013 National Championships in Melbourne were made from balsa. Indeed the winning car was identical to our car and it was only a little bit of bad luck that cost us a higher placing. This year the boys have decided that carbon fibre is the material of choice!
It is amazing that only two years ago this group of boys were struggling to build a car from plywood and now they have designed their car using CAD software, printed parts on a 3D printer, made rubber moulds for the carbon fibre and built what looks like an amazing piece of technology.
The most common response I get from the boys is, ‘I have learnt so much’. Cannot say I hear that around our classrooms very often. I wish I did!
All this started from a small project embedded inside an initiative using a project-based approach to learning. This year we have three teams competing and hopefully developing a love of learning. It has been a wonderful journey for all involved.
Our three teams participating in this year’s UNSW Sunsprint Challenge are all underway and construction is progressing well. Our Year 7 rookies are quite happy to share their progress online while our older teams are less inclined to share any design secrets until we get closer to the event.
The Challenge provides great opportunities for collaboration and creative thinking and is a wonderful way to engage students in all manner of learning experiences that take in most kla’s. Our Year 7 team participates as part of their involvement in the PBL periods which occur once a cycle. A cycle being two periods over a fortnight.
Further updates will be posted as the project nears completion. The UNSW Challenge takes place in late August 2014.
I came across this link while exploring Nearpod. This is an example of giving students access to authentic learning experiences which give purpose and meaning to what happens inside our classrooms. The concept is brilliant and certainly something we could look at when reviewing our project based learning work happening in our Year 7 classes.