Chris Wakefield‘s classroom at High Tech High Media Arts was a hive of activity on my visit on Tuesday. Chris’s passion for his subject and bringing in other interests such as Art was clear to see. The students were preparing for their exhibition night later in the week and I got to see the wonderful work they were doing. The photograph for me captures what a pbl classroom is about, high energy, engagement, collaboration, problem solving and applying their learning to an authentic outcome. The class reminded me of a typical class in the UK with a mix of characters and there was a real buzz in the classroom. This is a 9th grade Math-Physics class and the students were preparing to demonstrate their learning about gravity on the motion of objects. Chris made the lesson come alive and got the students fired up for exhibition night, turning the lights off and using a black light to show the illuminated tennis balls hanging in the space. They were going to have DJ music and essentially are making trigonometry fun. I was a bit out of my depth with understanding the Math, however, students explained to me that essentially they had to use equations to work out the trajectories of the tennis ball motion where they had a choice of a constant motion, a one dimensional or a two dimensional motion. I tried looking at Khan academy video to try to understand the physics but soon switched off… The students seemed to have a strong grasp anyway.
Chris walked me through how he started the project and got them engaged in the tough Math that was involved. He started off with the students using sequential photography. Students took pictures of moving objects (using action shot app for iphone) and then they had a discussion around what was happening in the image.
Students were then given the project with the tennis balls to demonstrate the different motions. However, they quickly realised how difficult it was to demonstrate motion accurately. That is when the students needed and wanted to know the equations and Chris was effectively able to teach the Math. As I circled the classroom talking to the students they were collaborating and discussing the essential processes that enabled them to effectively make their product.
Nolan and Gabe walked me through their project folder and previous work they had been doing with Chris and partner teacher Ady. The assessment was clear to see, for example graded tests to assess students understanding of the Math through the projects as well as deep student reflections. They talked me through a past comic book project, where the class combined their Humanities with their Science as one of their larger projects.
What struck me about this project is that it contained many of the elements good teachers in the UK do. Plenty of critique, use of models and redrafting process in stages. For example part of the project was to write a short story where different elements of the story were broken down and critiqued separately. The students used their google docs to redraft section by section. Nolan clearly articulated to me the elements of the project, where they would use physics to design super powers. In Humanities they were concerned with structure and plot. Nolan was even more advocative of his experience at HTH. As a student who transitioned from a more traditional middle school, he like the collaborative nature of PBL.
“People change people”
Nolan hugely valued the critique process and how it makes him and his work better. He appreciates the value and how that critique is what essentially people do in the real world. However, he did say it sucks when he gives good feedback and doesn’t get good feedback in return. He really feels that he is digging deep into topics and likes it how there are no text books. “Text books tell you things which is OK, but PBL helps you to ask questions and to think”. He also reflected on his POL with Chris and his parents when he openly told Chris that he hates Math and couldn’t see the point in it. Chris had a great metaphor to help Nolan understand the importance of Math. This was something about bench pressing to become more powerful, learning Math might not seem useful now but might come in useful in future. You need to practice Math to improve in other areas. I guess this is far more effective that saying to students you need this knowledge for an exam/assessment. I often see teachers using this less authentic method of motivation.
I think the take aways from Chris and Ady’s classrooms today was the transferability of PBL to the UK. The culture and norms within the class were also outstanding. Some of the projects like the comic book could be transferred if teachers across disciplines are prepared to work closely together. I’m also considering not having exercise books for year 7 to start off with. They can show their progress through well drafted work that is authentic. The curriculum already in place at my school for y7 Geography could be developed further with some clever resourcing to really enhance the projects already in place. I also think that Science and Math could produce some really fun projects that allow students to solve problems and apply their learning to authentic outcomes.