Archive for March, 2009

Learning for Understanding

Our readings this week in Project Based Learning (PBL) justified its implementation by first clarifying the true mission of education. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write in “Putting Understanding First” that:

The mission of high school is not to cover content, but rather to help learners become thoughtful about, and productive with, content. It’s not to help students get good at school, but rather to prepare them for the world beyond school—to enable them to apply what they have learned to issues and problems they will face in the future. The entire high school curriculum—course syllabi, instruction, and especially assessment—must reflect this central mission, which we call learning for understanding. (2008)

This is not just a worthy mission for high school but all educational institutions. PBL puts understanding first by recognizing key elements about the nature of learning.

According to Universal Design for Learning (UDL), brain research shows that learning is the interaction of three brain networks: the affective, recognition, and strategic networks. PBL scores high marks for stimulating all three of these, especially the affective network.  It is heartening to realize that educators are finally catching on to the fact that learning starts with engagement. No matter how effective a learner’s recognition and strategic networks are, if the learner is not engaged, no learning takes place.

Learning is the formation of new neural networks. Learners have to care enough to build these networks when they receive information that does not fit in their existing neural networks. In “The Courage to Be Constructivist” Martin Brooks and Jacqueline Brooks recognize the importance of the affective network. They discuss how important it is to understand learner motivation, challenge learner’s suppositions, and invite and honour learner opinions. The brain is a problem solving machine and engaged learners love to solve meaningful problems.

Once engaged, learners’ recognition and strategic networks interact with the affective network. Brooks and Brooks appreciate that the route through the neural networks is different for each learner; “each student still constructs his or her own unique meaning through his or her own cognitive processes.” By presenting a driving PBL question learners are engaged and will practice the skills so necessary to success in a Flat World—critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and reflection. PBL uses reflection for purposeful assessment for learning rather than purposeless assessment of learning.

With PBL learners do not have to “power down” when they come in the classroom. With the proper integration of technology, the needs of different learners can be met. At Edutopia’s “Why is PBL Important” they state

…students must use all modalities in the process of researching and solving a problem, then communicating the solutions. When children are interested in what they are doing and are able to use their areas of strength, they achieve at a higher level.

This “higher level” is what all passionate teachers want. PBL offers us a way to mentor, coach, and guide each of our learners as they reach their true potential and ideally take steps in a journey of life-long learning.

Rose, D.H., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal Design for Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2008). Put understanding first. Educational Leadership, 65(8).
Brooks, M. & Brooks J. (1999). The courage to be constructivist. Educational Leadership, 57(3).
Edutopia. Why is PBL important? Retrieved on March 16, 2009 from

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Lamenting Division of Learning into Subjects

I have long lamented the artificial division of learning into subjects. We need to liberate learning from the time-task constraints of the Industrial Age. Too often the bell interrupts learning, or worse, wastes learning time as we await the next bell. Project Based Learning (PBL) not only integrates subjects but has tremendous potential to create critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

As part of my Wilkes University Project Based Learning Course, I watched the three exemplars of project based learning listed below. There were common circumstances and design principles. Each was based on a meaningful and complex question that engaged and required the learner to collaborate with others in critical thinking and authentic problem solving. The question was based in a subject curriculum yet the search and the expression of the solution integrated many subjects. The teachers of the PBLs designed them so well that they were able step off the stage and become guides in student-centric learning. Too often learners become disengaged and discard any assessment of learning at the end of a unit. In PBL, learners were engaged and employed feedback for true learning.

At the Distributed Learning Symposium 2009 in Calgary, I had the privilege of attending an exemplar PBL presented by teacher Amy Park entitled “Engaging ‘Screenagers’ in Academic Rigour”. Park’s shared with us her PBL process for a Grade 8 social studies outcome expressed as a short film to be submitted to an actual film festival. What impressed me about Park’s PBL was her use of learner produced rubrics. This year they created a scale of four from “powerful” to “pathetic”. Parks assured us no teen would ever want to be evaluated as pathetic so the category in and of itself was motivational. By studying examples of “voice”, learners and teacher brainstormed and developed their own rubrics. This meant when Parks was providing feedback, there was a collective understanding of each component within the rubric. This was Parks second year of entries into the film festival and like the Architect and Monarch PBLs, I imagine there is an undocumented benefit to repeating a PBL for a number of years. Although there are very transient learners there are learners who do spend years in a school. To be aware of the interest and excitement in learning generated by a PBL in an upcoming class would be inspiring. It is possible that learners set higher benchmarks each year. On the other hand, a one-time only PBL would also have its benefits as learners would see themselves as unique.

Park’s PBL can be found at

Three PBL exemplars:

  1. “More Fun Than a Barrel of . . . Worms?!” at
  2. “Geometry Students Angle into Architecture Through Project Learning” – at
  3. “March of the Monarchs: Students Follow the Butterflies’ Migration” at

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