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Rethinking How Students Learn: Bob Pearlman on PBL

Bus driver…move…THAT…(school) bus!!!

And reveal the new learning environment of the 21st Century. Is it time for an Extreme Makeover: School Edition? I think so. And so does Bob Pearlman, nationally renowned educational reform consultant.

An example of “connected learning” (see my previous post), this topic is relevant on several levels for me right now. You see, Pearlman is going to speak at Heritage Hall in April regarding project-based learning (I absolutely can’t wait!). I am currently in the midst of dreaming and blueprinting a redesign of our Upper School computer lab. To top it all off, our E21 Team is thrilled about our upcoming road trip to see one of the premier examples of 21st century learning environment (21CLE) in our region – New Tech High at Coppell, Texas.

We all know that students learn best when they are engaged and allowed to do most of the learning on their own. Research has proven such about this generation of students. So what is the best way to accomplish this phenomenon? The successful formula seems to be:  PBL based pedagogy + 21CL environment + performance assessment = meaningful, connected learning.

Pearlman cites a Buck Institute of Education definition of PBL:

PBL is 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.

Sounds intense, doesn’t it? It is. According to Pearlman, PBL activities at New Tech schools usually last 1-3 weeks long. Examples include presenting a plan to Congress solving the oil crisis and inventing a sport that astronauts can play on the moon so they can get exercise. Students usually receive a rubric up front, so they know what amount of work will be required to achieve basic, proficient, or advanced scores.

Here’s an idea I absolutely love…when students finish a PBL unit of study, they present to an external audience. That could mean community experts, parents, Board members, other teachers, peers outside of their own class, or more. And students self-evaluate throughout the project and write a summative reflection on what they learned and how the project can be improved. And, in the spirit of 21CL, why not share with a global audience…online?!? This could be done with a partner classroom, or simply through a blog or Wiki open to the world.

So what about changes to the physical environment? 21CLE’s are large open spaces with mobile furniture. Every student has access to a computer. Tables or desks can be easily moved together for collaboration or “break-out” sessions structured around student “need to knows.” Many 21CLE’s use glass walls or windows to make learning transparent to all students and visiting adults.

The best 21st century schools provide every student with a computer, which increasingly means a laptop in a wireless environment. [Bob Pearlman]

But it’s not just about the technology. It’s the pedagogy behind technology that makes for successful learning in a 21CLE. Students use the laptop to conduct Internet research, Skype with experts, work collaboratively outside of school to construct products of learning (i.e. videos, podcasts, websites), and utilize technology to present their findings. In other words, according to Pearlman, “Students utilize all these [digital] tools to be investigators and producers of knowledge.”

At New Tech High in Coppell the school has adopted new language to refer to students and teachers. They have become “learners” and “facilitators,” respectively. Pearlman goes on to describe the physical landscape of NTH@C, both in the classroom and in hallways & common areas. Because our E21 team will be visiting NTH@C in early April, I will save discussion on these revelations for a future blog post. For now, check out these links to five schools ID’d by Pearlman as “the best of the new learning environments:”

Columbus Signature Academy (Columbus, Indiana)
New Tech High @ Coppell (Coppell, Texas)
The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (Providence, Rhode Island)
High Tech High (San Diego, California)
New Line Learning Academy (Kent, England)

The bottom line: These findings, yet again, suggest that our E21 mission is true. We are on the eve of implementing at a 1:1 laptop program – not based on simply dropping in technology, but based on years of our own research about 1:1 and 21CL. Our program is founded on technology rooted in tried and true pedagogy. By moving forward, we further enable our students to go beyond passive consumption of information and actively CREATE their own knowledge and experience true lifelong learning.

And that is what it’s all about, friends.

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Laptop assignment

Recently, I had several students submitting entries to a haiku contest. They had to be submitted online, and you had to be 13 years old to enter the contest. All of my students completed the assignment for credit, and the students that were eligible needed to complete the process. We used the laptops. For the students that were not able to enter the contest, we had them log onto http://dynamo.dictionary.com/  This website provided an interactive vocabulary lesson that had several levels. The students were very involved in the site and actually did well on the college level words- much to their delight. It was very interesting to see what students knew about the laptops, and the last 10 minutes of class we took questions about our 1:1 program. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and the students said that they enjoyed the vocabulary drill.

Digital Citizenship Fluency

All the 21st Century fluencies are learned within the context of the Digital Citizen, using the guiding principles of leadership, ethics, accountability, fiscal responsibility, environmental awareness, global citizenship and personal responsibility (http://www.fluency21.com/fluencies.cfm).

The first week of school I used a paper magazine produced by the FTC to discuss with the students how to “Live Life Online.” This was a great resource because it includes several articles and short quizzes for the kids on crucial issues that they face almost on a daily basis such as sexting, cyberbullying, online etiquette, and how to analyze advertisements from companies. It also provided several real life dilemmas to the students that I used as bell ringers and also some as closing activities for the end of the hour.

This was truly beneficial because I found out that most of the students were not aware of the legal consequences that accompanied actions of sexting or simply forwarding a message they received by email or text. They were also not aware that typing things in all caps on text, email, or social networking sites is considered to be “online yelling” and they need to make sure they monitor their tone of voice.

These lessons helped me lead into the use of our class edmodo.com page because I first had the students and parents sign a responsible use policy before they were aloud to create a profile on the website.

I approach the global aspect of this fluency by using the CNN Student News in my class at least once a week. This news cast is written on a middle school level but allows the students to have insight on the issues of our country as well as issues that are affecting other nations of the world.

This fluency is critical to Heritage Hall due to the 1:1 movement beginning to take place. Our students will be “connected” on a daily basis while at school and must have the knowledge and skills to effectively navigate and contribute to the online world.

Going beyond the use of technology Heritage Hall is already approaching some aspects of this fluency by adopting a new set of core values; courage, responsibility, kindness, and intellectual purpose.

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