Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Learning Forum Puts PBL Teachers on World Stage

January 3, 2013
Photo credit: Suzie Boss
Rick Joseph and Pauline Roberts, winning colleagues from Team U.S. at the Partners in Learning event, worked with students to "green" their local business community.

When teachers embark on project-based learning with their students, there's no predicting exactly where projects will go. Good projects are open-ended by design, leading to sometimes unexpected results. For 500 of the world's most accomplished PBL teachers, the project path recently took them all the way to Prague in the Czech Republic for a global celebration of what's working in education.

Partners in Learning Global Forum, sponsored by Microsoft, brought together more than 500 teachers, school leaders, and education officials from 80 countries for three days of project showcases, professional development, and cross-cultural networking. Teacher finalists were previously selected at national events, which had attracted some 250,000 entries worldwide. It all added up to an experience that felt like the World Cup of Education, complete with a gala banquet at Prague Castle. Learn more about the winning entries here.

Tech as Catalyst

Although the projects on display offered exceptional examples of PBL, the goal of the Partners in Learning initiative "is for such projects to be not stand-outs but the norm," Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft, told the crowd at the opening session. He encouraged educators to use technology "as a catalyst for more personalized learning," rather than simply digitizing traditional teaching practices.

What does this transformation look like around the world? In Ghana, students are tackling the issue of child labor through digital publishing projects. In the Philippines, student videographers are working to halt the destruction of mangrove forests that provide important habitat. In Colombia, students from a remote village are designing digital games to create more motivating learning experiences for indigenous people. In collaborative projects connecting classrooms in Japan and Louisiana, students are tackling sensitive issues like school bullying and racial discrimination.

Although local contexts vary, Salcito added, education works best when it manages "to lift youth expectations. That's what I fundamentally believe we have to do."

Here's a closer look at a few award-winning projects from around the globe.

Students as Change Agents

At Kolossi Primary School in Cyprus, Maria Loizou Raouna's students have convinced community members to adopt new habits when it comes to recycling. Their inquiry project was originally designed to last just a few weeks, "but it's still going strong a year later," Raouna told me. After her 8- and 9-year-olds used technology tools for data gathering and analysis about what happens to their community's discards, they became convinced that their local government needed to take corrective action to make recycling more practical. Student lobbying led officials to roll out new, blue recycling bins. Not satisfied to stop there, students are now collaborating with peers in Alaska, Colorado, and Colombia to compare and improve recycling habits internationally. They also have met with the legendary Cousteau divers to find out how they can support efforts to reduce pollution in the Mediterranean.

Green Business in Birmingham

Pauline Roberts and Rick Joseph, who team teach grades 5-6 at Birmingham Covington School near Detroit, Michigan, took what they call a "sciracy" approach to promote scientific literacy. Their students investigated environmental sustainability and then launched a campaign to teach businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. Students applied what they learned to develop educational brochures. Then, dressed in bright green "eco-clown" wigs, they cold-called local businesses and challenged them to adopt sustainability measures. "Students had to be able to articulate their message," Roberts said, which meant applying communication skills along with scientific insights. Students also designed a web-based honor roll that rates local businesses on their green practices, prompting them to out-green each other.

Throughout the project, which took first-place in the collaboration category, teachers encouraged students to take the lead on their own learning. Students chose their project teams, for instance, based on personal interests. Some students were more interested in the performing arts while others wanted to focus on sustainability practices in sports or the tourism industry. Each team had to organize its own mini-field trips to conduct business surveys and gather data about a specific industry. Students also had to master team skills like coming to consensus. "They had to get to a place where everyone on the team could say, 'I can live with that,'" Roberts explained. She and her teaching partner encouraged skills like active listening to foster effective collaboration and involved students in designing rubrics for project assessment. "At each step of the project, we would ask students, where do you want to go next?"

Roberts says integrating technology into projects was challenging when she first started teaching this way. "I remember the day I had to admit, 'I don't know. Does anyone else know how to do this?' That was a pivotal moment for me," she reflected. A teacher for 23 years, she says she has been "a truly engaged teacher for six years." That's when her school embarked on grassroots professional development to encourage 21st century learning.

For teaching partner Rick Joseph, projects like Doing Business in Birmingham "are a good reminder that learning needs to mean something. That's been a reawakening for me," he said. "Our students are learning a process for problem solving that they can use in any context, in school and in life."

Shakespeare in Lesotho

At Leqele High School in Lesotho, teacher Lucille Kabelo Mahlatsi set out to tackle the persistent challenge of students failing to understand literature. The works of Shakespeare can be challenging for African students who are frustrated by the complex language and unfamiliar cultural references, she said. In a project called Literature at Our Fingertips, she challenged students to rewrite Julius Caesar in their own words. They formed a Facebook group and invited student teachers from a nearby university to join their in-depth discussions. Then, when they were ready with a new script, they filmed their version and published it on YouTube to help other students comprehend the play.

Once students became more familiar with Shakespeare's timeless characters, they started looking for similar archetypes in their own political landscape. Mahlatsi said her students wanted to find out, "Who is the Julius Caesar of Lesotho? Who is our Brutus? They understand now that these themes and characters are universal." She has managed to succeed with project-based learning despite technical challenges. "We have 150 students in one class, with one teacher and no technology. But somehow," she said, "we manage." Already, her students are planning to produce their own version of Macbeth.

Continue the Conversation

As part of the Global Forum, Microsoft announced its continued support in Partners in Learning with a $250 million, five-year investment in the global initiative.

That means many more teachers will have the chance to share their students' projects with a global audience and connect with colleagues from around the world. As U.S. teacher Pauline Roberts explained in a post-forum reflection, collaborating with fellow teachers "can only enrich my journey as an innovative educator and ultimately have a positive impact on my students." She and fellow teacher Rick Joseph didn't wait until their return to Michigan to tell their students all about Prague. They Skyped with their class from the forum and gave students a tour of project displays from around the world.

Where will PBL take you in 2013? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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