Accidental PBL

After asking my Modern Asia seniors what they wanted to learn a few weeks back, we started moving through their choices. A few days on Khmer Rouge, Cambodia and post-Vietnam War Vietnam left me wondering where to go next. It helped that President Obama was in the region. Looking at the lists they made, Southeast Asia was the next logical choice – ASEAN in particular. The question was what to do.

I began with my standard approach of looking for readings the students could do and video clips to watch. While scanning articles on ASEAN today, I noticed that the organization is working to improve its integration through a program, ASEAN Connectivity. One aspect of that is tourism. It was the most interesting for me to read about, drawing my attention away from economic integration, political concerns, etc. I think I was feeling in a bit of a rut – we were taking pretty much the same approach to each new place we considered.

I had an idea – what if I had my students begin looking at the region through tourist eyes? They have had so little exposure to the area that even basic geography would be useful. Out of nowhere, but after wracking my brain for a few days about how to keep the students engaged in learning about this region, it hit me. There would be no common reading, no written assessment. They would create brochures, paper or electronic, that would market tours of the region that they would plan. I would gather a few willing colleagues to review the brochures and select a trip.

What happened next exceeds even my highest expectations. Students cannot wait to get to class to work on their tours. They are taking into consideration the teachers who they will be marketing their trips to, and they have even taken to recruiting more on their own. There is now a list of 22 teachers who will review their work and choose which trip to take.

The sheer number of things the students are considering in their planning is amazing – infrastructure, safety, distance, a range of activity to appeal to all types of people. They are learning what the local history is as well as information about the local population. Many are navigating between the type of trip they would like to take to something that would have broader appeal. In considering how they would design and share, they are using programs to create infographics, learning as they go.

When I decided to run with this idea, I did not know how well it would work or how seriously the students would take it. Not only are they taking it seriously, they are owning it. I cannot wait to see the final products. They are going to be judged by how many teachers choose their trip. I will also look at each one individually to provide feedback on the different components. They asked me at the beginning how I would grade it. I told them I had not thought about that yet. They have actually not asked since. I admit that I am still not sure.

As I look at our school’s teaching and learning paradigm, which highlights five habits of mind we want to teach students, this project fits better than I could have planned. Creativity – check – they are making their own tours. Curiosity – check – they are investigating things that intersest them as they go. Empathy – check – they need to think about what might appeal to others. Reflection – check – they have to think about the implications of their choices, in terms of their tours, their clients and the local populations where the trips go. Resilience – probably, although most likely to be seen in that latter stages of the project nearer to the due date, or in dealing with the disappointment when someone does not choose their tour.

What amazes me is the simplicity of the original idea. What energizes me is the commitment of my students. What frustrates me is that this does not happen more often.


2 thoughts on “Accidental PBL

  1. I found that projects and assignments that were in some ways connected to popular culture, like the one that is the subject of this blog post, were almost always successful with a wide variety of students. I think it is because by virtue of their participation in popular culture students have the background knowledge to understand and think about the project or assignment. I guess it is not always possible to create work for students that builds on their experience and knowledge, but the more we are able to do that, the more often everybody will be winners.

    • I agree, Bill. It is golden when I find something that really captures interest and generates energy in the classroom along with serving my curriculum. I do not think it can be done all the time, but projects like this help to keep my students with me when I ask them to fill in some gaps with things that are not so inspiring to them. I guess this is why I keep reinventing the wheel. Also, I find that different sets of kids respond to different projects. I tailored my work last year with this course to a different set of students.

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