“The first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum.” – Dr. Seymour Papert
My heart did a little flip when I read this statement in Seymor Papert’s Project Based Learning, an article 15 years old and yet many of the ideas are still so true and relevant, and sadly have largely yet to come to fruition.
Papert clarifies the above statement by wanting to do away with students learning a particular thing on a particular date, often for no particular reason. Instead he insists learning should happen in context, with real problems and with immediate application.
Over the years my students of all ages have always done some sort of environmental unit or focus on a problem: litter; energy consumption; e-waste. These “problem topics” naturally lead to students wanting to find a solution, or to find out more about the problem.
Last year my Early Years students (4 & 5 year olds) looked closely at how our devices and electrical items are built by taking them apart. They noticed all the waste and electrical pieces that came with a broken item.
Now these children couldn’t solve this problem–but we upcycled by making all sorts of structures and robots out of the pieces and later visited a local recycling centre. We learned more about what materials can be recycled, and we were happy to note batteries could be recycled.
We also learned more about the metals and minerals in our cell phones with the help of our 5th grade buddies who were studying similar problems for their Exhibition Project. We worked together as a class learning about these problems, articulating them in different ways and documenting our learning together with the App, Adobe Spark.
PBL in Early Years: Look Closer… at our Devices
I think about how our cross grade learning supports Paperts bold suggestion of doing away with grade/age segregation altogether:
“We’ve given up the age segregation which is just as, I think, wrong and harmful as any other kind of segregation….Kids working in communities of common interest on rich projects that will connect with powerful ideas.
The Buck Institute for Education (BIE) Introduction to PBL “defines standards-focused PBL as a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning knowledge and skills through an extended inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks… students are pulled through the curriculum by a Driving Question or authentic problem that creates a need to know the material. “
My school’s PYP curriculum with its Central Ideas and Lines of Inquiry can potentially complement this definition, but at times I have struggled with feeling like I have successfully implemented PBL in my classroom. It’s the assessment piece and still having to report on a set of Learner Outcomes that I feel can hinder teachers from feeling free (enough) to explore PBL. Papert goes on to discuss portfolios as an improved form of assessment:
“ So, as I see it, the trend towards portfolio-based, so-called authentic assessment is very good, but it’s very limited unless it goes with throwing out the content of what we’re testing.”
My school’s portfolios are a move in the right direction. First of all, we have portfolios as a form of assessment (in addition to traditional report cards, and formal and standardised tests, etc.) with basic agreements about what goes in them to maintain some consistency. We are currently in the process of moving away from paper based portfolios to digital portfolios. Teachers are spread out on the continuum of acceptance & readiness, oddly enough, it is our Early Childhood Educators leading the way.
This is perhaps not so odd, when one considers we had been looking for a platform that would support our focus on Documentation of Learning that was individualised, & often child directed, and with a focus on concepts and skills over specific “Learner Outcomes.” The assessments are on-going, formative and include elements of a project based or problem solving approach. Early Years teachers quickly embraced the platform Seesaw, which allowed them to document all of the above.
Many teachers in the primary school, whose teaching may be described as more traditional (all students working on same task) are working out how to best use the platform. Many are taking photographs of pencil and paper assessments and uploading them to our digital portfolio system where there are right/wrong answers. Some are beginning to show pictures of kids actually doing, solving, creating, inventing, making meaning, etc. But many are reluctant to get too creative with posts as they want to know the portfolio system inside and out before introducing elements to the the kids. They are not (yet) open to the idea that they could be learning right alongside the kids and figuring it out as they go.
Which brings me to Papert’s idea of the importance of teachers learning alongside the students:
“What we need is kinds of activity in the classroom where the teacher is learning at the same time as the kids and with the kids. Unless you do that, you’ll never get out of the bind of what the teachers can do is limited by what they were taught to do when they went to school…. We don’t allow the kids to have the experience of learning with the teacher because that’s incompatible with the concept of the curriculum where what is being taught is what’s already known.”
How true the above statement is: How often have I avoided introducing a topic or tool to students when I wasn’t fully comfortable with it yet myself. This is only natural, but with the pace at which things change and technology develops, this practice and mindset needs to shift. Teachers need to be seen as co-learners and co-constructors of knowledge, not simply bearers, because we can’t possibly know it all, and the curriculum can’t possibly keep pace with today’s changing world and reflect the interests and abilities of its students.
I can only hope that 15 years from now someone will read this post, find it true and relevant, and note how much things have changed.