Learning To Ask The Right Questions #PBL

Photo by Kreg Steppe

Last week I had my first semi-official attempt at Project Based Learning (PBL). After a few workshop days where we were introduced to the process by Competency Education Specialist and Consultant Rose Colby, two first grade teachers and I began crafting a PBL experience. We were very excited about our overall plan but one of our earliest concerns was that we weren’t quite sure what types of ideas first graders might come back with after hearing our initial Essential Question. We decided the best way to find out was to ask some first graders to play with the question a little bit and get their feedback. We were not planning to launch the unit until next fall but we brought their two current classes together to try it out.

We all met in the library – two first grade teachers and their classes, the curriculum director and I- and laid out the general idea:

This is an idea we have for next year, and we would like you to help us plan it out. We want to know what first graders know about this topic and we want you to help us make the project successful.

We gave them our essential question
“How could a garden space in the library benefit the Main Street School Community?”

We asked for their ideas, thoughts and questions. I used a mind-mapping app to gather all of the information and illustrate connections.

One of my first observations was that I don’t get to really hear teachers teaching their classes. This is something I’d like to do more of as K-2 isn’t my natural comfort zone for instruction. It’s something I need to find more opportunities for. Another interesting experience was observing how different students reacted. Some hands were up immediately and constantly, some not at all. One student was far more interested in asking me questions about the mind-mapping application. This showed how the need for a variety of tasks where students can display their different natural tendencies and skill sets will be important as we develop the assignments and activities of the project.

Most of the students focused on the details of having a garden- construction, care, maintenance. Until very specifically redirected, no students answered what we thought we were presenting as the essential question of how a garden space could benefit the school community. I do wonder if the students could have been led to discover their failure to meet the assigned goal of answering the question without being so directly prompted. I think that would have been an interesting discovery to uncover on their own if we could have led them to it with a self assessment checkpoint. Knowing if you met your objective seems like an important aspect of this type of learning that we will need to offer regular opportunities for students to reflect on.

The experience led me to the following conclusions:
We might be asking the wrong question.
We need to frame the question differently.

Maybe the students weren’t well prepared. Maybe we need more planning. Or… Maybe we are asking the wrong question. When specifically redirected they had a lot of sensible answers. In fact they had most of the answers right away.

If they can answer the question without doing the project, why do the project? 
When asking our question we were essentially asking them to make predictions and then prove themselves right. Is there value in that? Could there be more value with a different approach?

This line of thought led me to consider possible alternate questions:

What type of community garden could we build in the library that would most benefit our Main Street School community?
This would lead naturally into a study of gardens and purposes. This also leads into a study of the community to determine what it might need from or be able to do with a garden. And, the idea leads into all the other areas of how we would need to construct and care for it for which the students had many beginning great ideas.

We could launch the project by building background knowledge on community gardens. Hear from people who have used gardens for a community purpose. Organize information gathered about the impacts of community gardens in schools or other settings. This may put students in a better contextual mindset to focus on answering the question. This could be a good early activity to practice gathering information and arranging it for a purpose. This would also be a good lead in from the unit on communities which brought us to the idea in the first place.

Reflection is an important part of this process. Perhaps it would be more beneficial to make the original question about the benefits to the school community part of a reflective piece at the beginning and conclusion of the process. I could see students doing a video reflection on how they hope the community would use the garden and then later one on how they saw the project impact the community.

This exploration of PBL is certainly going to give us a lot to think about as we structure our student experiences.

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