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Educational Theory Supporting Project Based Learning (PBL) and Learning Communities

Few subjects in high school can do what journalism does: give students a real audience, give students a sense of independence, and give students a reason to learn. It provides the opportunity for students to work on a real life project as a team. However, journalism is also the only subject in the high school curriculum that gives administrators a regular headache every time the paper is published. It is usually the least favorite program of the administration. Why? Because often there are complaints about the paper: about the accuracy, the choice of news stories, the writing errors, and the opinions expressed by the students. The question often put to the principal is "Who is in charge?" or "Who is censoring this paper after all?" In addition, there are other problems. First, it is difficult to find journalism teachers because most teachers of English have no journalism training and are afraid to have their student's work published every few weeks for the community to criticize. Second, publishing a newspaper is an expensive proposition which makes the journalism class one of the most costly in the school.

So, the big question is, why should a high school want a journalism program? Can any benefits outweigh the inherent problems in the program? You can decide for yourself after you see the data. As we all know, education in American needs to be dramatically improved, not only in the inner cities, but in most areas of the country. Few programs manage to capture the attention of the students. Everyone is looking for ways to effectively integrate the curriculum and to get students engaged. Classrooms in the inner city are a disaster for the most part and the nation is facing an enormous teacher shortage. What can be done?

Number One: Get students involved and passionate about something and then they will want to learn.

Number Two: What could possibly get them involved? Power, sports, movies, food, freedom of expression, and computers are possible contenders. Is there anything in the curriculum that combines any of these interests? Try journalism.

  • Power of the press
  • Team effort—they feel unified
  • Opportunity to review movies, CDs, restaurants, products
  • Opportunity for freedom of speech
  • Use of computers to produce the paper

A journalism program that gives students freedom of expression is a school-sanctioned opportunity for students to be in control.

One proposed solution to the problems plaguing education has been Project Based Learning (know as PBL). Multiple conferences are held each year promoting PBL and showing how it effectively integrates the curriculum and captures student interest the way that no other programs do. The George Lucas Educational Foundation is one of the best known of these educational foundations. It is "a nonprofit organization that gathers and disseminates the most innovative models of K-12 teaching and learning in the digital age."

Seymour Papert

Many educators and educational organizations support PBL. One of these is Seymour Papert, a renowned expert on children and computing. He describes learning environments in which children collaborate on meaningful projects and powerful ideas. His work can be found at http://www.glef.org/papert.html

Project Based Learning is even happening at the college level and at the International Conference on Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education held in Baltimore, MD in June, the conference summary said:

In the past decade, faculty in community colleges, four-year colleges, and research universities have begun to move away from traditional didactic instruction to a more student-centered approach to learning. An increasing number of academic institutions throughout the world have recognized that Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to develop the ability to think critically, analyze problems, find and use appropriate learning resources. In fact, PBL is a pathway to better learning, helping students to learn how to learn.

More information about this conference can be found at http://www.udel.edu/pbl2002

At the same conference Barbara J. Duch, Susan E. Groh, Deborah E. Allen edited a paper on PBL at the college level that shows the power of this type of learning. Here is the link:

Professor Lee Shulman

Stanford Professor and Carnegie Foundation President Lee Shulman's New Taxonomy of learning starts with a simple listing of he parts which can be seen as descriptors of project based learning. Shulman addressed the AAHE meeting in Chicago in 2002 where he discussed his taxonomy. Here is the link for his talk:

"A Taxonomic Trek: From Student Learning to Faculty Scholarship"

Shulman's New Taxonomy

The unfolding began with a simple listing of the parts of the taxonomy:

  1. Engagement
  2. Understanding
  3. Performance
  4. Reflection
  5. Design and Judgment
  6. Commitment

The parts are connected as can be seen by the chart below:

Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

The key components of Harvard Professor Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences theory holds that "each individual possesses different forms of intelligence to greater or lesser degrees. Those intelligences are linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, naturalist, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal -- such as insight -- and interpersonal -- such as social skills." Gardner says, Unless individuals take a very active role in what it is that they are studying, unless they learn to ask questions, to do things hands on, the ideas just disappear."

Gardner favors project based assessment. Throughout the country, educators are using performance assessments to measure what students know and can do. These real-world evaluations include:

  • Standards-based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills;
  • Clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work;
  • Opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.

Grant Wiggins, one of the country's foremost experts on assessment, says, throughout the country, educators are using performance assessments to measure what students know and can do. These real-world evaluations include:

  • Standards-based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills;
  • Clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work;
  • Opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.

Description of a Theme-Based, Integrated Curriculum based on Gardner's Theory.

Teachers do not give grades because they feel that getting a grade, even an A, limits students in their performance and sends the wrong message about motivation, which they want to come from within the child. The progress report details a student's performance in each of the multiple intelligences on three dimensions -- progress, participation, and performance -- and includes self-assessment. Progress is indicated by N (needs help), S (steady progress), or R (rapid progress). For participation, students receive a triangle (intrinsically motivated), a square (extrinsically motivated), an X (disruptive), or a circle (passive). "That is the absolute worst thing to happen on your progress report -- to be given a circle" explains Bolaños. "It means that you are not participating at all. And that's very bad. That's worse than an F to get a circle

While teachers carefully plan what their students need to know in accordance with Indiana state standards and Key Learning's own competencies, the best way they have found for students to acquire information and critical thinking skills is through projects. Teachers, in consultation with students, spend a fair amount of time in the spring coming up with possibilities for themes for the next school year. Parents, community members, and other interested parties can provide input. The faculty makes the final decision, and themes are selected for fall and spring. In the 2001-2002 school year, themes included "Our World at Play" and "Movements" for K-8 students, and "Shared Use of Symbols" and "Shared Life Cycle" for high school students.

Key Learning Community opened its elementary school in 1987, its middle school in 1993, and its high school in 1999. In 2000, the three schools moved into a single building. Started by veteran teachers who were exploring creativity in children, Key Learning's program is based on the theory of multiple intelligences, which holds that each individual possesses different forms of intelligence to greater or lesser degrees. Those intelligences are linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, naturalist, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal -- such as insight -- and interpersonal -- such as social skills. This theory was pioneered by Harvard University professor Howard Gardner.

The "guiding principle in education," says Key Learning Principal Pat Bolaños, had been that "you take an IQ test and you know whether or not you're smart or dumb or someplace in between." Those on the high end of the test got enrichment courses; those on the low end got remediation. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences "blew that out of the water," she says. The theory concluded that "people are not smart or dumb or someplace in between ... [but] you could be very strong and capable in one area of intelligence and very weak in one or two of the others," something she says she saw in her own children. Many of her colleagues agreed. "We said, 'Let's say that all of these areas of intelligence are equally important for all children and we will design a school that honors that starting principle.'"

Etienne Wenger

In Communities of Practice: Learning Meaning, and Identify by Etienne Wenger, the thesis is "communities of practice" or "learning communities" enhance the learning process. Wenger has four basis critical assumptions about learning: 1.We are social beings. Far from being trivially true, this fact is a central aspect of learning. 2. Knowledge is a matter of competence with respect to value enterprises—such as singing in tune, discovering scientific facts, fixing machines, writing poetry, or being convivial 3. Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises, that is, of active engagement in the world. 4.Meaning---our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful---is ultimately what learning is to produce.

He also says that a social theory of learning integrates the following components:

Meaning: a way of talking about our changing ability—individually and collectively---to experience our life and the world as meaningful.
Practice: a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement
Community: a way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognizable as competence
Identity: a way of talking about how learning changes who are are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities.

Alan November

Alan November wrote Empowering Learners With Technology in which he says:

The real revolution in learning is not about adding technology on top of the current structure of school. Instead, the real revolution is about a transformational shift of control from the school system to the learner.

Chapter one, "Teaching and Learning the Structure of Information", stresses the need for students to know how to evaluate information, to think critically about the information they find on the Internet. Chapter two, "Empowering Learning By Expanding Relationships," looks at the need for collaboration in education between students, teachers and parents, both locally and around the world. Chapter three, "Emerging Roles with in the Knowledge Community," examines how the role of teacher changes when students are empowered.
In Chapter four, "Accessing Primary Sources to Enhance Critical Thinking," November highlights the resources available through sites such as the National Archives and includes examples of assignments that can be used to enhance students' critical thinking skills. Finally, in Chapter five, "Building Knowledge without Boundaries: Online Learning," November discusses the growing trend toward online learning, using the examples of three pioneering online school programs.

Educational Renaissance Planners was founded by Alan November to promote the effective use of information and communication technologies that support and enhance learning for children and communities. ER Planners includes a team of researchers, writers, and educational leaders who bring a variety of work and educational experiences, skills, and knowledge together

William Glasser

In Choice Theory, renowned author William Glasser M.D., says in his chapter about "Schooling, Education, and Quality Schools" that the "main reason so many students are doing badly and even good student are not doing their best is that our schools, firmly supported by school boards, politicians, and parents, all of whom followed external control psychology, adhere rigidly to the idea that what is taught in school is right and that students who won't learn it should be punished.

He continues saying that forcing students to acquire knowledge or memorize facts that have no value to them results in low grades and failure. "Forcing people to learn has never been successful, yet we continue to do it because we think it is right." (237)

Glasser says, "Education is not acquiring knowledge; it is best defined as using knowledge."
His book on The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion is

Shirley Brice Heath and Milbrey McLaughlin
"Identity & Inner-City Youth: Beyond Ethnicity and Gender"
April 26, 1995

In many inner-city areas, schools and other institutions have failed to prepare students to become effective members of society. The grassroots efforts that have sprung up to help those students offer lessons that could help save many of our most vulnerable children, say the winners of the 1995 award.

Stanford University professors Shirley Brice Heath and Milbrey McLaughlin conducted five years of intensive fieldwork in some of America's most distressed inner-city neighborhoods. They presented their findings in "Identity & Inner-City Youth: Beyond Ethnicity and Gender," which was printed in 1993 by Teachers College Press.

They studied 60 organizations, ranging from theater groups to gangs, that engage about 24,000 children.

The researchers found that, while many teachers advocate emphasizing ethnicity, gender or self-esteem, the successful organizations instead promote a feeling of community, or family.

Successful institutions serve several purposes in addition to their focus, are proactive in recruiting and working with students, provide shields against the negative aspects of neighborhood life and draw on and respond to the particular talents and needs of their community.

Effective institutions also view youth as a resource and as a collection of individuals of value to society rather than as a problem to be corrected.

"Their book is about education, but it is not about schools," said UCLA professor Ronald Gallimore, winner of the 1993 Grawemeyer Award in Education for his work in reshaping curriculum to fit the needs of the community. The book is important, he s aid, because it "invites all of us to look beyond schools and educational research for new ideas and directions for education."

Heath is a professor in the departments of English and Linguistics. McLaughlin is a professor of education and public policy at Stanford University.

The full version of this paper can be found at http://www.prainbow.com/cld/cldp.html

Constructivist Learning Design
by George W. Gagnon, Jr. and Michelle Collay

This paper represents a collaborative effort of two teacher educators to articulate a constructivist approach to "designing for learning" rather than planning for teaching. See our Constructivist Learning Design Notes for a simplified version. Ongoing collaborative research with teachers is presented in our Constructivist Learning Design Study. We believe this focus on learning is needed if teachers are to implement a constructive approach to thinking about day-to-day learning by the students. Conventional lesson planning focuses on what the teacher will do. If learning is teacher directed, then the focus of the lesson plan is on what the teacher does. When designing a learning experience for students, teachers focus on what students will do. Our language encourages teachers to focus on thinking about how to organize what learners will do rather than plan their teaching behaviors.

Teachers and teacher educators make different meanings of constructivist learning theory. At a recent retreat with facilitators of learning communities for teachers who were studying in a Masters of Education program, we were talking about our common reading of The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Brooks & Brooks, 1993). We asked the ten facilitators to answer this question, "What is constructivism?" The results were interesting because all of their definitions were quite different and reflected their own understanding of the term and the text. This was a clear demonstration that what we read does not produce a single meaning but that understanding is constructed by the readers who bring prior knowledge and experience to the text and make their own meaning as they interact with the author's words. The following interpretation of constructivist learning reflects our understanding of and beliefs about constructivism.

© 2002 - Esther Wojcicki - Email: thewoj@hotmail.com