Learning about climate change through PBL

I selected the term ‘learning’ in this blog post because Project Based Learning to be done well involves a complex web of different pedagogies.  Some would argue that PBL is more about ‘performance’ over ‘learning’.  This misconception comes from a misunderstanding of what PBL involves and rather ignorantly is more associated with Project Oriented Learning as explained in the video below.

In reality, the best approaches to PBL are about process as much as performance and uses rigorous forms of assessment.  The outcomes from successful PBL lead not only to beautiful work that is beyond imaginable in a traditional setting, but also a broader range of skills, attributes and deeper interdisciplinary knowledge & understanding of particular concepts and issues.  The long term retention of knowledge and skills as well as the strength of character and other attributes can be far more affective using project based approaches.

For this post I will outline a recent project carried out by year 7 Geography students.  Of course, the topic and outcomes could be further enhanced from the expertise of other disciplines using an interdisciplinary approach. For example through links to Science and Engineering curriculums.  The outcome of the project for students was simplistic in design – to create a poster outlining the causes, impact and solutions to climate change for a ‘poster fair competition’.  However, the underlying processes and design led to successful project based outcomes over project oriented outcomes.

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The above poster by one group illustrates the quality of work that was produced by students collaboratively in their learning set of 6.  But the learning throughout the 6 week project outlined to me the depth and rigour of the unit demonstrated through a celebration of learning evening to ‘educate’ parents about climate change.  For students to be able to produce such work and explain difficult concepts to parents involved various methods to enable students to do so.  In a traditional classroom, the one size fits all nature may have taught students about the Greenhouse Effect and a finite range of impacts and solutions to climate change.  The PBL classroom: collaborative, enquiry driven and serendipitous, allows students to delve deeper into the issues and investigate what interests them beyond the role of the teacher.  To have students explaining the complexities of coral bleaching and the damaged symbiotic relationship of the polyp and photosythentic algae relationships. Or the relationship between hurricane strength and sea temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. This could only occur primarily through choice and student agency.

Within the unit we delivered ‘masterclasses’, teacher led sessions that explained how the Greenhouse Effect works and how to read complex graphs and other differentiated masterclasses to explain more complex phenomenon.  Students wrote essays on the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change to demonstrate individual knowledge and understanding.  Students even have knowledge and understanding tests that are ‘interleaved’ with questions from previous units.  However, the the biggest drivers to successful outcomes are the enquiry driven nature, scaffolded by checklists, the competition element and the working towards a final exhibition for visitors. The choreography of our space to hold exciting discussions around climate change also enhanced learning.

Hierarchy of audience

Motivation comes from the exhibition and authentic outcomes of the project.  As a reflection we still have to think about those students and parents who did not attend, but largely the work (and learning) was of much higher quality than what would be produced without authentic outcomes.  To a certain extent the students were of service to the world. One parents approached me to say that they will be cutting down on the amount of beef they would eat as a family as a result of an explanation of methane production by one group.  As this year group moves through the school, we need to design more complex projects with the aim of ‘being of service to the world’.  After all, school is not just about learning facts and acquiring knowledge, but about leaving with the ability to apply that knowledge and understanding to enhance the communities in which students will be participating.

Assessment and checklists


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