Saturday, January 21, 2012

Is Project Based Assessment the Next Logical Returning Wave in Education?

Each summer, I feel blessed to live close to the ocean.   Sitting on the waters edge is such an amazing way to reflect on ones-self and look for ways to improve.  On a recent trip to our local spot (where my wife and I happen to give our nuptials) there were high waves followed by a tremendous backwash.   A backwash is when the waves of the invading tide surge back off the shore towards the incoming wave colliding and launching tremendous sprays of salted, kelp filled water into the sky sometimes 10 feet or more.  Public education has been faced with this same impending tide, but like the ocean, there is a backwash pushing against those crashing waves. 

It was not that long ago that assessing students meant far more then having them chose between four possible answers.  Being in education for the last 17 years, I’ve seen the “politcalization” of education possibly more then any other generation since the growth of public education in the early 1900’s.  As educators, we are driven by the accountability standards created by legislators, yet the assessments used to hold us accountability is one of the lowest forms of evaluation or knowledge demonstration.  Not only that, but the detailed information gained from these assessments is protected and leaves the classroom educator with little or no data to actual use to improve their own teaching or the education process for the students. 

Now, with the move to federalizing standards, the level of competitive growth that can drive innovative schools and districts will only wane even further.  While standards are meant to guarantee equity, they can also stifle innovation.  State standardized curriculum and testing has lead public schools marching down the path of continued mediocrity.  Imagine a sports league that standardized whatever coach could teach their team or plays they could call.  This might lead to parody, but not to the best possible players or teams.  It is competition that has driven innovation throughout history.  Yet legislators can’t seem to find a way to legislate competition within the public education school system accept through financial means.   So, government standardizes the practice to assure equity.  With standards, what could have been a floor for public education quickly became the ceiling, but there seems to be many backwash waves forming, one of which is called “Project Based Learning.”

Project Based Learning, or PBL is not something that was just created in the past few years, but has been around for decades if not longer.  PBL is based on the notion that students/people learn best when put into real world situations by integrating multiple layers of education with multiple modalities being required to succeed.   Sounds a lot like the world outside of current education right?  PBL seems to be currently having a slow moving resurgence that is quickly gaining speed in the backwash to the multiple-choice accountability we’ve been stuck with over the past decades.  This resurgence can be somewhat credited to the book Understanding by Design authored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  Modern PBL focuses on creating projects that help students’ initial learning.  Understanding by Design is an excellent source for a “backwards style” planning where an educator looks at the final learning outcome desired and works backwards from there to the actual lesson/project that will allow learners to find their way to the desire learning outcomes.  I like taking this concept one step further to what seems to be the logical next step.  I first asked myself what happens in the business world?  Though many discussions with family, friends, literature and a few people I didn't have an immediate relationship with I gained a greater insight.

In parts of business world, employees are trained and then expected to implement their training in on the job experiences.  They may be trained in several different manners depending on the job of course.  The employee is trained for one core set of duties.  Education though must train all students for all potential learning opportunities/jobs/duties they may have.  The ratio for teachers is not a one set of skills of knowledge to one type of training that is often seen in industry and business when the focus is on the content/information.  If education shifted it’s focus from being content driven to being skills and problem solving driven and used the content as the means to acquire higher level thinking skills, creativity, and problem solving techniques.  Simple put, if a person has a need to write, they will learn that skill.  If they have a need for math, they will seek out a means for gaining that skill.  This is part of our core, survival instincts and can be accessed to motivate learning.

In my upcoming book, I look at how to shift from a PBL focus, one step further to Project Based Assessments.  In this new book, I look at examples educators can implement such as why taking a group of 5th grade students to the local Target store for an afternoon is far better then 3 weeks of classroom direct instruction.  When students get “real world” opportunities to use math to figure out things such as sales tax, average price per item, discount percent taken off, rage of prices and space needed to stack items, and other key areas to assess gives a teacher and the students ways to demonstrate knowledge, problem solving ability, be creative and critical thinking skills.  The most important key is it gives the motivating, driving force, needed to learn the skills necessary to succeed in math.  By putting students in a real world situation that can be recreated in any town at the most minimal of costs and the motivation is powerful.  I not only provides basic direction of developing your own assessment, but also provide numerous math, writing, reading, social studies and science Project Based Assessments that can be easily adapted to a variety of grade levels and content areas.