Building PBL Into Lower School Enrichments

Cynthia Bolin, Lower School Counselor

Project Based Learning (PBL) is alive and well here at the Lower Campus and a great place to see an example of it is the enrichments. Enrichments are six-week-long courses that provide learning experiences outside the regular curriculum. This curriculum allows students to sample from a variety of topics, skills, and experiences they might not otherwise discover. I will take you through my process, using the elements of PBL, as I develop the curriculum for the next enrichment I will teach.

First some background is needed. Several weeks ago, I visited the Peabody Essex Museum and there was this incredible piece by artist Pedro Reyes called “Disarm Mechanized II, 2012-2014.” It is made up of several Dr. Seussian-like musical instruments made up entirely of the broken down parts of weapons, played via compressed air. The music it created was enchanting and I must have stood there for 15 minutes entranced by it. Then it hit me – wouldn’t the kids have fun doing something like this! Of course, we won’t use decommissioned armaments, but what if we used found objects and recyclables to make musical instruments? This was the question that I used as I thought about how I could make this work.

There are seven essential elements in PBL. The first is having a challenging problem or question that is the heart of the project. In this case, the specific problem to investigate and solve, or Driving Question (DQ), would be: “How can we make musical instruments using found and recycled objects?” The problem/question should be challenging without being intimidating. A question I have to ask myself is, “Can the students finish this project in the six hours that they will have to finish it?” As the facilitator, I have to make certain that this is possible.

The second element is “sustained inquiry,” which is a more active, in-depth process than just “looking something up” in a book or online.  The idea is that the DQ should require students to generate questions, find resources to help answer them, and then ask deeper questions. Projects often incorporate different information sources, mixing the traditional idea of “research” – reading a book or searching a website – with more real-world, field-based interviews with experts, service providers and users. For example to answer the DQ posed for this enrichment, the students might have to figure out what type of instruments there are, what materials they are usually made of, etc. The students also might need to inquire how they can best create an end product to share with others. They might ask Lucy, the Lower School Music Teacher, how to write a musical piece to play,  or ask a parent who know about video recording how to shoot a music video.

The third element in PBL is “authenticity.” In education, the concept has to do with how “real-world” the learning or task is. The belief is that authenticity increases student motivation and learning. One question I asked myself as I plan this specific enrichment is, “Will this project involve solving a problem faced by people in the world outside of school?” Or in other words, is the context authentic? Reyes’ piece made something beautiful out of something quite ugly; the kids would be make a similar statement. They would be showing others how something beautiful like music can be made by upcycling garbage. The second question I ask is, “Does this project utilize authentic processes, tasks and tools?” The kids might have to score a sheet of music, or learn how to use video editing equipment, so the answer is, “Yes.”  Most importantly, does this project provide personal authenticity – does it speak to students’ own concerns, interests, cultures, identities, and issues in their lives? As facilitator, it will important for me to help guide them to make the project meaningful for them.

The fourth element is “student voice and choice.” I want to enable a sense of ownership in the students. They will have input and (some) control over many aspects of the project by the questions that they generate, the resources they will use to find answers to their questions, the tasks and roles they will take on as team members, and the final product they will create.

Reflection is the fifth element. John Dewey, the American psychologist and educational reformer wrote, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Throughout this project, the students and I will reflect on what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and why they’re learning. This reflection will occur informally as part of an ongoing dialogue. In addition, the students will be asked to reflect during a public presentation of their final piece that will be shared with the Sparhawk community. 

This built-in weekly reflection will lead to the sixth element, “critique and revision.” Each week the students will look at where they are and what else needs to be completed to finish the project in the allotted time. This will require that they make decisions about process and revise their ideas as needed.

And finally, the seventh element, “public product” will entail a finished piece that can be shared with others in the community. It might be a performance during a community meeting or the production of a music video that is shared. The students themselves will determine what form the final product takes.

This is just an example of how a teacher might use PBL as a framework for curriculum planning.  If you were to look, you would see many such examples in the classrooms on the Sparhawk School Lower Campus.