Project-Based Learning (PBL)

When Students Do The Teaching

October 16, 2012

Not every teacher gets to hear these words: the process of making "this video gave me a better understanding of how teachers teacher, so when I am faced with a math problem that I don't understand I can break it down and teach it to myself." This quote came from a ninth-grade student at the culmination of the Upside Down Academy project.

When asked what they learned about themselves as students one student replied "I learn things better by hearing them, so I related that to my other classes, like in English, for the vocabulary test I said the definitions over and over again until I could remember them."

In 2011, Envision was asked to participate in Khan Academy's pilot project. As part of the pilot we worked closely with their team to develop curriculum that integrated Khan Academy into Envision's project-based environment. To this end Envision partnered with Jared Cosulich of Puzzle School to design, prototype, and implement a new web platform that we call Upside Down Academy and to incorporate this new tool into our ninth grade mathematics class at two of our schools.

What is Upside Down Academy?

We wanted to increase student engagement and foster an authentic sense of urgency around their education. By turning the school paradigm upside we aimed to create opportunities for students to explore teaching and learning in a new and remixed way. Central to our vision was for students to publicly share their own understanding, thus fostering authentic dialogue about what they learned. This entire venture was made possible by a generous donation of Chromebooks from Google that enabled us to provide access to Khan Academy and Upside Down Academy in every class, as well as other web-based tools. The process that the students went through began and ended with reflection.

Pre-Project Reflection

In Digital Literacy class, students took several learning style inventories and analyzed the results to identify their strengths and challenges as learners. They also completed short reflections about the teaching strategies that they observed in their classes with a focus on those they felt supported their learning. Meanwhile, the math teacher intentionally utilized a variety of video-tutorials in her instruction and discussed the pedagogical differences between different approaches. Some students identified that they preferred the use of different colors to denote different stages in an equations solution, as is the case with Khan Academy. While others preferred seeing the person teaching the concepts, still others preferred video simulations that were void of narrative.


Students identified an Algebraic concept they wanted to teach, storyboarded their video-tutorial, filmed their lesson, and uploaded the lesson and supporting narrative to Upside Down Academy. There was then time for peer and teacher feedback, some of which was reflected in a second video lesson. In addition, some students chose to use a web-based whiteboard tool called "educreations." In this example, the student teaches us about zoom factors using this technology.

By being accountable to the larger school community and the general public over the Internet many students began to realize that these video tutorials were not simply an assignment for their classes but that they also had real utility to their viewers. The resulting attention to detail and pedagogical considerations solidified the objectives of the project in the minds of the students' as their work became a part of the larger body of teaching and learning resources.

You can watch this follow up video, where I interview the student who made the above video. She discusses the project and the students' perspective on her learning.

The increased and fluent use of technology within educational practice, both for teaching and learning, is indisputably a positive venture. Upside Down Academy fosters a community of learners by utilizing social media-like qualities of profiling and public commenting which for this project centered on mathematical understanding. The students reported learning a lot from watching the videos of their peers and appreciated their work. (Check out this lesson and feedback from peers.)

Post-Project Reflection

The students finished the project by reflecting on themselves as learners and their understanding of what it means to teach. One student reported "since I'm a visual learner, I've learned that I like to learn things by seeing pictures and seeing the teacher do the lesson on the board." Another wrote, " I learned that I'm an auditory learner, and learn best when I hear what is being taught." This knowledge of self supported students in positioning themselves for success by setting goals.

It is not very often that teacher's work becomes visible to students in the way this project allowed. When asked what they learned about teaching, students replied; " I learned that the way teachers teach depends on the understanding of their students and the types of learners their students are" and " I learned that teachers start backwards. They go from what they want the students to get out of the lesson at the end and work backwards to the example problems."

Finally, one student learned that "if it took us days to just teach one thing, imagine what a teacher has to do. They have to create a lesson plan everyday and I give props for that." (Check out Mia's math lesson.)

How are you using digital devices in your classrooms and schools? Have you ever turned your class upside down? If so, what did you and your students learn?

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  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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