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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making Room for Children's Ideas Through PBL

Jack Dieckmann

Associate Director of Curriculum, (SCALE) & Director of Research at Youcubed at Stanford
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A recent experience at home reminded me that the unfolding of learning can emerge when tasks are in service of a bigger goal that children really care about. That evening, my six-year-old son Benjamin asked me, "Can you help me build a hospital for my dolls and stuffed animals?" I seized the opportunity to turn this into a project-based learning family moment. I was thankful that he did not ask me to buy him a ready-made hospital set, nor was he asking for tablet time.

An Evening With Benjamin

"What kinds of things are in a hospital?" I asked. Ben started listing his ideas: doctors, nurses, beds, and machines. He finally settled on a wheelchair as the most interesting thing he wanted to build. I'm not an engineer but I knew we first needed to know what parts and shapes make up a wheelchair. I did an online search for images of wheelchairs, adding clip art to my search terms because I wanted him to see the basic outline of shapes. Ben studied the samples quietly and noted, "A wheelchair is like a chair, but did you see that it has two big wheels in the back, and two small wheels in the front?"

After selecting the initial design, we now needed to build it. Rather than making a suggestion, I asked, "Do you have any ideas on what we should use to build the chair?" Experienced at crafting, Ben ran to the recycling bin, fished out a big cereal box, and cut out the two largest surfaces as the raw material. But he was unsure of what shape he should cut first. I suggested that we start with the chair shape. Immediately, he grabbed a doll to show me exactly how wide the wheelchair needed to be.

Next, we needed wheels. Freehand, he drew large circles and smaller circles for the wheels, but he noted the circles were “kind of crooked.” He switched to using rolls of scotch tape and painter’s tape as better models for wheels. "But how would we connect the wheels?" I asked in earnest. He found pipe cleaners to use as axles. After 30 minutes, we had a working prototype and Ben declared, "It's the perfect size and shape! Let's go show Mom!"

But when Ben sat his doll on the wheelchair for the first time, the chair buckled. It was not sturdy enough. He took a breath and suggested, "Tomorrow, we need to make it stronger." I told Ben how proud I was of his effort and creativity, and that we would keep at it tomorrow. But it was now time for a bit of school reading, followed by a bath. He and I both felt accomplished. Here is what the first attempt looked like:

A doll-sized, cardboard wheel chair is on a wooden table. The parts are connected by purple duct tape and pink pipe cleaners.

Learning Through Play

Ben and I were not doing traditional school. He was not imitating me as I built my version of a wheelchair. He was initiating, deciding, creating, figuring out, and evaluating. Recall that in studying the online images, he abstracted the essential features of wheelchairs. And he was very mindful of design specifications in deciding how wide to make the seat. But this was joint work. He had key help from me, mainly in the form of patience, encouragement, and hints when needed.

Of all the attributes of PBL, to me, the most important is that children have a big say in the direction of their work. Ben's driving goal to make a hospital for his dolls allowed him to be diligent in the subtask of making a wheelchair. I was very glad that he was not crushed when the initial test of the wheelchair failed to hold his doll. To me, this showed his profound orientation toward learning, one of continuous revision and improvement, of not expecting perfection the first time out. This was a growth mindset moment for him.

I have worked in and with schools for 25 years, so I know that school is not organized in the way that family time can be organized. This recounting is not meant as a blueprint for classrooms. Instead, it's an experience serving as a powerful reminder that children have enough creative momentum to propel their learning, if we can tap into it more and more.

Imagination and Exploration

What did Ben learn through play and exploration? He learned about engineering design, scaling, and iterating, as well as imagining, selecting materials, and deciding on next steps toward a larger, complex goal. Opportunities to develop these skills are rare in the ways that schools are normally run, but very common in classrooms that use project-based learning. PBL in schools is necessarily more planned around content standards, and therefore has more constraints. For many of us who embrace PBL, we continue to wrestle with this design challenge: How can we make room for children's ideas within and alongside the rigorous content that schools are required to teach? One possible way would be to draw more on children's imagination (like Ben's hospital idea) and storytelling as motivating contexts for learning. In older students, this might take the form of simulations, which is the basis of most gaming.

I invite you to share experiences of how you've made room for children’s ideas in learning, either in or out of school. The more stories that we can gather, the more inspiration we can draw upon as we both design for learning and allow learning opportunities to emerge.

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Cindy Johanson's picture
Cindy Johanson
Executive Director, Edutopia

Thanks for sharing this great example, Jack. My son is a teenager and we had a similar success when he wanted a treehouse. He designed it and built it with coaching from his dad. It has been wonderful to see other kids come by to help as they don't have these kind of hands-on experiences often at their homes. Another example was when my son wanted a desk and a surfboard rack -- instead of buying it, we encouraged him to research, design and then build. Lots of learning -- lots of trial and error -- and final products that are very cool.

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Janis Weasel Bear's picture

This is an inspiring and encouraging read. I use PBL in my classroom as much as I can. Most days, I feel like I'm not doing it very effectively. I worry that my students aren't engaging deeply enough in understanding curricular concepts and applied outcomes.
Funny enough, I actually had a conversation with my class just today about the value of "play" in learning.
And tonight, I was skimming comments students made as they reflected and evaluated their process on their dream home floor plan designs. One of the questions that I asked was, "What part of this project frustrated you? Did you ever want to give up?" Most students responded that it was the Math part of their work; measuring and calculating area and perimeter.
But then, I also asked: "What part of your work are you most proud of?"
And again...the resounding response? Their "Math".
Reading this and reviewing student evaluations gives me courage to continue.
I'm a sanguine and in many ways, an Otter; the answer for me is always rooted in play.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I think this is the biggest challenge that schools face today: how do we provide opportunities for students to own their learning, to explore their ideas, to tap into their imaginations and creativity, to put traditional academic skills to practical use? As you say, traditional school isn't organized in ways that make this easy -- and 32 middle school students make for a crowded exploratory, PBL classroom. But I believe it is where we need to go!

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