Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Launch your PBL unit with a bang!

The first session of your project is one of the most important, as this is what hooks your learners and gets them excited about exploring that juicy driving question. But how can you make it a day to remember?

The Year 7 students wait outside the school hall. They’re all clutching flight boarding passes and the corridor is alive with the buzz of excited conversation as they wonder what’s going to happen.

Suddenly, the door opens! The murmuring stops as a Year 10 student steps into the corridor, and the younger pupils wait expectantly for their instructions.

“Your flight to Fiji is now ready to board,” the Year 10 student says with a professional smile. “Please follow me.”

The Year 7 kids follow eagerly, filing into the hall. They see that the chairs in the hall have all been set up in rows of six, with an aisle cutting down the middle – it’s a plane!

Thoroughly thrilled now, the young students take their assigned seats, as directed by the Year 10 flight attendants. They sit for a few minutes, shuffling through the magazines and safety leaflets they found on their seats, before one of the air hostesses plays a real flight safety video and the pilot (a member of staff, dressed the part of course!) announces they’re ready to take off.

The students cheer as he informs them they are now air-borne and on their way to exotic Fiji!

That is, until disaster strikes. The plane suddenly loses one of its engines, and then another. The pilot keeps the passengers informed as yet another engine fails, and the children listen with anxious (but still rather excited) expressions.

“I’m taking us down on the ocean,” the pilot announces grimly.

With great skill (oddly, this pilot has crashed a plane into the ocean a few times before…) the pilot brings the plane down on the sea. 

It’s a perfect landing, and the flight crew begin evacuating their young passengers.

“There’s an island nearby!” the pilot calls as Year 7s leap into the ‘ocean’. “You’ll have to swim. Watch out for the sharks."

And thus begins Matthew Moss High School’s project-based learning unit ‘The Island’. Now stranded on a desert island, the Year 7s will have to work out how they’re going to survive and then begin to explore how their islander community might evolve.

The kids are completely engaged in the story, the very convincing plane crash setting the precedent for a dynamic and absorbing project.

And that’s the trick to successfully launching a project-based learning unit – an exciting, memorable entry event.

What is an entry event?

Your entry event is exactly what it sounds like – the first session of your unit and your students’ introduction to the project.

According to the Buck Institute for Education, an entry event has two basic purposes: 

  • to spark student interest and curiosity
  • to begin the inquiry process by leading students to ask questions.

The whole point of the entry event is to introduce the driving question and establish a ‘need to know’. The students should be hooked – they should want to get on with exploring the driving question right away!

An entry event also has to stimulating and unforgettable. Suzie Boss suggests novelty, so your students aren’t quite sure what to expect.

So what kind of events make for a good PBL introduction? 

Drama and simulations

Kids as scientists on a spaceship
Understandably, many teachers opt for the dramatic when it comes to introducing their project – and why not? It’s a chance to have some fun and get involved in a bit of make-believe. It also makes for a memorable launch to the project – which of the Year 7s at Matthew Moss High School are going to forget the day their teacher crashed a plane into the ocean?

Simulations like this work well because they involve the kids in the action. They also give students a role to play in the project. In the case of the plane crash for example, the kids were survivors, stranded on a desert island, and they stuck with and developed that role throughout the rest of the unit. 

Other projects use the entry event to set students up in the role of an ‘expert’. Depending on the curriculum content you’re covering, your kids may be archaeologists working on a dig, rescuers at the scene of a disaster, scientists in a laboratory, astronauts in a space station, or rebel fighters in a civil war. 

This type of project is made for a dramatic introduction. Start yours by gathering your students together for an in-role team meeting or briefing. Remember to let them know who they are. Use presentations, photographs, video clips and sound to get them into role and then to introduce them to their challenge. The more dramatic, the better!

Alternatively, see if you can get a visitor to come into school and play what Suzie Boss terms ‘a stranger from another century’. In her Edutopia blog post, Boss tells of a school who launched their project based on the Epic of Gilgamesh with ‘footage of swords clashing and bare feet running on a grassy battlefield. There were whoops and cries from cheering warriors, but no narrative to explain what was happening.’

As the video ended, the stranger from the past (a local classics professor in full costume) entered the classroom and challenged the students to find out ‘why his army had been vanquished by superior forces.’

If you can’t get someone local to come in and play a historic or fictional character, try a search online. There are plenty of companies, charities and actors who will be happy to Skype you and your class for a small fee. Imagine! Your students could have a chat with a real live Viking! (You know what we mean...)

When it comes to dramatic entry events, the only limit is your imagination. Rope in a few teachers and older students to play any extra characters you need (GCSE drama students are always a good bet) and see what you can come up with. 

Interesting objects

Another way to introduce a PBL unit is through the use of interesting objects. Appeal to your students’ curiosity and imagination by arranging for a surprise invitation or parcel to be delivered to the class, asking for help with a particular problem, or orchestrate an exciting discovery on school grounds such as a time capsule, an ancient map or a box of secret letters.

Children at a primary school in West Lothian arrived one morning to find a paper trail of animal tracks leading into the classroom. At the end of them, a toy fox and its cub were sitting in the centre of the floor with a letter next to them. The letter explained how the foxes’ home – the enchanted woodland – had been destroyed and so they no longer had anywhere to live. It asked the children if they could help the foxes create a new home.

Other potential project hooks to appeal to the senses and engage students in their driving question include:
  • a display of historical artefacts
  • a provocative reading or poem
  • ‘mysterious’ or unusual photographs
  • film clips
  • sound bites
  • a song
  • a piece of art
  • shocking statistics.

Field trips and guest speakers

School outings and guest speakers - whether speaking in school, via Skype, or out on a field trip - are another exciting way to introduce a project. We’ve touched on this briefly, but guest speakers don’t always have to be in-role as a character from history or a work of fiction. Visitors from charities, museums, zoos, aquariums, local businesses, even local celebrities, can all provide thought-provoking talks to launch a project.

For example, The Innovation Unit’s guide to PBL tells of a teacher who began a project on peaceful protest by inviting in a local musician who performed for the students and then answered their questions about why, and how, he wrote protest songs.

Combining field trips with guest speakers, one school in Stockport took their students on a visit to a local archaeological site, where the students were introduced to a legendary story about a Celtic tribal leader. Developing this story as an epic battle movie became the students’ project.

In another project at Matthew Moss High School, the children were carted off to the local history centre to meet real historians and genealogists. Their task during this unit would be to research their family history and create a beautiful family tree, and experts from the history centre would be on hand throughout the project to assist.

Examining a model response

The Innovation Unit also suggests showing your students a model of the type of product they will be creating as the project’s entry event. There’s no reason you can’t do this as well as a flashy hook, but a careful, full-class examination of a model will show students exactly what you expect from them and what they should aim for.

The model can be something you created yourself, exemplary work from the previous year group’s project (though this is only possible if you’ve done the project before), or work by a professional.
Image: Matthew Moss High School

The biggest advantage of using a model as an entry event is that it provides the perfect introduction to ‘critiquing’ – an important part of PBL (see our first blog post in this series, The 8 essential elements of project-based learning). 

Work with your class to critique the model. Help your class to understand what critiquing means by breaking it down into questions:
  • What is its purpose?
  • How well does it meet that purpose? 

Get them to consider the work they will be undertaking. Look at the model and consider: 
  • What looks most difficult to do? 
  • What looks easiest to do? 
  • What aspects are most important?
  • What are least important?

The model you show will give students something to base their standards on, and spark discussion as to what the students’ own models will need to have, do or be. The ensuing discussion and your kids’ decision on what a ‘good’ final product will look like will be something for you to base your assessment criteria on.

Image: Matthew Moss High School

No matter what you choose to do, your PBL unit should begin with a bang. The kids should be engaged, excited and raring to go. After all, all that planning will be for nothing if your students are not invested in the project.

Of course, a good entry event doesn’t guarantee a successful project. It’s an important factor in getting the kids on board, but it’s where you go from here that will determine how much they get out of it.

A major element of PBL is the multiple drafting and critiquing process. Our next blog post will consider what this means in practice and how you can help your students develop the skills they need to be successful in this area. Watch this space!

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