Thursday, April 10, 2014

Essential Questions

One of the early steps in successful project-based learning is for students to develop essential questions. Somewhere in the misty regions of their interests and passions, familiar topics, recent learning, and often the complete unknown, an essential question takes shape to guide inquiry and project work.

There are many variations on what makes a good essential question; here are some guidelines being used by students in a "Middle Earth 12" class at D.P. Todd in Prince George:
  1. an essential question should spark the imagination 
  2. an essential question introduces a problem that has a means of being solved 
  3. an essential question has depth -- dimension and significance 
  4. an essential question pushes thinking, creativity, and authentic inquiry
  5. an essential question is broad enough to make connections between diverse fields, but still has a recognizable focus 
Middle Earth 12 is a senior Humanities course exploring society, history, language, and landscape by going in-between real and imagined worlds.  Here are some of the essential questions that the students in Middle Earth 12 are using for their first of two attempts at project-based learning:
  • Can the use of creative writing and visual arts be used to understand and empathize with daily life in a medieval village?
  • Why does the legacy of medieval mythology passed down to modern times leave us with the sense that dragons could be real?
  • How did the design and construction of castles satisfy the social needs and engineering talents of past societies?
  • How and why have monsters such as werewolves developed in modern literature and cinema?
  • How has the character and moral purpose of Robin Hood evolved over time to fit modern society and new audiences?
  • What do the Spartan, Aztec, and Ancient Chinese cultures have in common regarding the social impact of weapons, armour, and warfare?
  • What has been the purpose of calligraphy and related forms of graphic expression in past societies and how has this changed?
  • What part of the classic mythological record of Hercules is reflected in modern versions of the story such as Disney's "Hercules?"
  • How have various past societies and cultures been shaped by military strategy and weapons technology?
  • What patterns are in place in the lore and creation of Dark Souls characters such as Havel the Rock?
  • What purpose do the Asgardian Weapons have within Norse Mythology?
  • How and why do fictitious "cryptozoological" creatures come into the stories of past European and First Nations cultures?
One might notice a recurring theme here of medievalism and fantasy worlds (this is what drew many of the students towards the course), but there is also an undercurrent of critical inquiry -- applying concepts such as the benchmarks of historical thinking. The students are now involved in the next steps of PBL: asking more questions, planning their research, developing a system for organizing their learning, and putting some thought into the construction and presentation of their inquiry projects.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Example Projects including Genius Hour

This is a presentation that was shared recently with Teachers at College Heights. The slides include links to a number of video descriptions of sample projects. We had some great conversation around different elements of PBL we could roll into existing projects or use to build new ones.

One of the example projects that got a lot of buzz here was the genius hour video. Its worth checking out #geniushour (aka Passion Projects, aka 20% time, aka FedEx Projects) if you are interested in launching an inquiry project and want students to own the process of developing a question, conducting research, and sharing their knowledge. I think the whole set-up provides a great avenue for Teacher experimentation as a Teacher can really get creative in finding ways to guide the project and teach the process while giving a great deal of student choice in the content (which isn't always possible or ideal ;). To that end if you are curious about genius hour I'd totally recommend searching the hashtag #geniushour, the work of Joy Kirr, or catching Gallit Zvi at the Spring Fling.

What's important to you as you consider reiterating a project you've run in the past? What do you work towards when creating new units or projects? What examples have you found helpful along the way?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some Comprehensive PBL/ Student Inquiry Resources

We've had a few requests for Resources, so we wanted to share a few we've come across and find particularly useful. My question for you is - what are your favorite resources?


Free Online Reading:



So, what are your favorite resources? See something missing? Please comment below?

Cross posted to

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Collections of Projects

Library by jwltr freiburg

Library, a photo by jwltr freiburg on Flickr.

I've been asked a few times where some good collections of projects exist online. Here are three resources that I've come across and that have been shared with me:

I hope we can work toward building a local collection as well. Its interesting to see the way these three institutions differ in their approach to Project Based Learning and the depth of Inquiry that's involved. How would you like to see these shared?

Where have you found or collected PBL or Inquiry Project examples? Care to share?

Friday, December 13, 2013

SD 57 Learning Teams

200+ Bird Huddle

School District 57 is starting two new Learning Teams focused on Project Based Learning. Our goal is very much to learn together so we can go out and share our learning. Schedules and Timelines are flexible at this point but a ballpark commitment to think about would be five afternoons a month (district release) from February to May. The two Teams will be set up as follows:
  • One Team will be working through BIE's PBL Starter Kit together. We could, of course, set expectations together but I would think we'd ask everyone to be reading on their own. Then we could meet to discuss ideas, share experiences, and perhaps build some projects together.
  • The second Team will be getting together to collaboratively build and improve upon projects. Similar Teams have met the District in the past using Tuning Protocols and were very well received. This way we could offer one another feedback and/ or look for ways to partner in projects. 
One of the ways we could share out learning would be to share to examples of the projects we've created for our classes, but that's just one way. There's lots more we could do.

If either of these Teams interests you or if you'd like to collaborate in other ways please contact Steve Chase

"All For One Purpose: Engaging Students"

"All for one purpose: engaging students". So glad to hear our local media capping this piece with that statement. I've had the privilege of collaborating with a number of SD57 Teachers recently, and its so encouraging to see these skilled Educators leveraging the best parts of their practice to be as effective as possible. Regardless of what the tools and experiences look like its great to remember that we all have the same goal - engaging students in learning.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Scaffolding Project Based Learning

Ladder by Christop

Ladder, a photo by Christop on Flickr.
I always enjoy open, honest dialog about Teaching Practice. The best conversations are the ones built on a relationship of trust, when we can begin to ask probing questions of one another and share personal reflections on practice. Recently I have had the privilege of coming alongside colleagues who are exploring and implementing Project Based Learning. We've enjoyed sharing in the successes of the journey, and also in the lessons learned.

A few themes have emerged in my conversations, all focused on scaffolding the Project Based Learning experience both for the Teacher and the Student. Teachers shifting toward student-centered approaches commonly wonder about assessing projects, about structuring projects, about building competencies, and about academic rigor. There are two things I really enjoy about these conversations. First, we're all in it together. These same questions seem to come up again and again, underscoring their importance. Secondly, I appreciate the position from which these questions are asked. Teachers asking these questions are interested in and motivated to push their practice to increase student engagement, motivation, and success. I feel strongly that we need to continue to share our wonderings and to share our strategies for implementing methods of Student Inquiry.

In general terms I think we'll all agree we need to implement new systems one step at a time. If the change feels significant for us as the classroom Teacher, its definitely a change that needs to be carefully introduced to our students. One article that stands out in my mind to help us scaffold the learner experience is Ertmer and Simons' "Scaffolding Teacher Efforts to Impliment Problem Based Learning". Do their suggestions resonate with you? What scaffolds have accompanied your shifts in instruction and assessment? What do you want to know more about as you explore Student Inquiry and Project Based Learning? What specific questions do you have?