PBL, Real-World situations, and Reflection using ePortfolios

When I think about the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, I find that they share several important elements, including:

1. They were based on a problem that seemed important to my life outside of academia. That’s not to say these learning experiences didn’t have relevance to school, rather it’s to say that the problems could have existed in the “real world”. “How do I swim out from the beach past the waves and into the calmer open water?” is a physics problem that really mattered in my life, and was the problem that really made me understand Newton’s second law of force, mass, and acceleration.

2. They required real-world tools. I had to figure out how to do something using the best technology for the situation. “Design a process for real-time feedback to the Model U.N. Conference headquarters from 100+ small sessions” was a problem that led me to Google Docs – an important tool I now use daily.

3. They asked me to innovate, to think about a situation differently. When my high school government teacher Mr. Garcia asked me “What is the best way to draw single-member district lines for the House of Representatives?” I didn’t even know what gerrymandering was. I found I had to invent something called proportional representation, and though I later learned PR was already working in places in Europe, my interest was piqued and my creativity was fostered.

4. They were collaborative. I spent most of my youth in teams or groups, tackling all kinds of real-world challenges and learning from them. It’s funny when I look back on school and realize that the really valuable learning came from those situations during which I was working with others.

5. Reflection was explicitly required. “What did I just do?”, “Did it work?”, “How can this work better?”, “What should I do next?” are all questions that any problem-solver must ask to succeed. If I don’t reflect, how can I learn? Through reflection, I control my understanding and am able to transfer a lesson from one problem to the next.

Problem-Based Learning that focuses on Real-World situations is the gold-standard for instructional design. When done well, students must be creative, innovate, and reflective in their thinking. I know that my best teaching comes when I can design these authentic learning experiences for my students.

David Stinson’s approach to instructional design reflects these important principles. By using ePortfolios and allowing students to identify and solve real-world problems, he’s creating authentic learning – the kind that transfers not just from one class to the next, but transfers from school to life. The ePortfolio allows him and his students to see the process of learning and not just the products. Within that process are ways of thinking that are relevant to life outside of school, and fostering and habitualizing these ways of thinking should in fact be the purpose of schooling. Stinson’s class is one place where this is happening in a powerful way.

David Stinson’s approach to technology is altogether human: he learns alongside the children instead of instructing them the traditional way. At Sullivan upper school in Holywood, Co. Down, secondary-level technology students have fully embraced the brave new world of the e-portfolio.

Electronic files, images, multimedia, blog entries, hyperlinks and soundbytes are all “dropped” into documents and PowerPoint presentations in David’s technology class to explain an “entire” process of learning, not just the end product.

I really wanted a break from the hammering-a-nail philosophy to what technology could be,” he says. “Five years ago, I got involved in the whole area of e-learning and I’ve been running fast after myself ever since.”

By using video and audio diaries and much more besides, the kids can reflect on trials and tribulations they’ve encountered during the learning process,” says Stinson. “I will set a project that sounds simple enough: build a model of a stage, design a bird-cage, and so on, but how the students apply themselves to that process is where the real curve learning is.”

I am very open-minded when it comes to the students’ ideas,” he says. “Once I give them the basic learning tools, skills, confidence and approach, they can then innovate. Even if ideas are wacky and original, even if they fail, I respect their decision to go ahead. Students also need to fully write up these projects too, at a later stage, but you want the creative juices to flow without any impediments.

We didn’t have a big blue wall here in school, so the kids used a type of Blue Peter approach and brought in blue sleeping bags, pinned them to the wall and filmed themselves miming instruments. Music was added later and the entire thing superimposed on to their stage model for use at the press of a button. It was brilliantly impressive.”

The real benefit of using e-portfolios is that every student, regardless of ability, can adapt to the dynamic nature of recording their thoughts and emotions in video and audio, removing some of the anxiety involved in pen and paper communication. For students with special needs this can be especially constructive, as the unique nature of expression in e-portfolios takes away the need to endlessly compare to their classmates.

Sound files and video clips are used throughout the project. “I wanted to make an additional safety feature on my bird feeder,” explains the boy in an embedded sound-clip that accompanies the design drawing. “I wanted it to be safe from cats, but in no way to spook the birds. So I thought about having the birdfeeder sitting well away from the house, suspended from poles … I got my idea from an episode of You’ve Been Framed – seeing a cat climb up a brick wall.”

The corridors outside the technology room are chock full of children’s designs, drawings, roadmaps and “virtual models” used in technology portfolios. One virtual model is the sitting-room of a house where the window works as a wide-screen TV in its own right.

“These are the kind of forward-thinking ideas we need,” says Stinson. “This design makes a lot of sense: TVs in our sitting rooms are often very bulky and eat into the design space of the room, while in fact the biggest glass screen in the room is already ‘naturally’ there in the window, so why not base the design around that idea?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/nov/02/teaching-awards-david-stinson

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