When the classroom shifts to an environment that focuses on Project-Based Learning (PBL) the students become the centre of what drives activities throughout the year. With the teacher at the helm helping direct student projects so that curriculum outcomes are met, the students are able to explore issues and concepts that interest them while discretely obtaining knowledge relating to the curriculum. A perfect example of this is, after reading a novel together, students are given the opportunity to show their understanding of the book by creating an artifact using materials of their choice. In this quick example, the teacher is able to assess student comprehension of the reading through a student driven project.

This sometimes sounds hard and daunting for teachers as it makes the task of assessing student work harder than just assigning them the task of writing a book report. The added bonus of PBL though is that the teacher is able to address multiple learning styles and truly be able to better assess student successes and or challenges. Not everyone can successfully express themselves through writing a book report but if students are given the choice of how to express themselves they have the ability to gravitate toward their medium of choice and in turn be better understood.

One way to ease both the teacher and the students into the openness of Project-Based Learning is to centre the projects around one focal point. To help understand this concept a bit more I can relate this idea to my own daughter’s experiences in elementary school. While she was going through Kindergarten, grade 1 and grade 2 her school ran a year long project driven program called Learning In Depth or LiD for short (founded by Kieran Egan). Under the LiD program every student chose a topic that they would focus on in completing a school project.

My daughter chose bees as she was very passionate about them. Every year she would work on a project of her choice that focused on her LiD topic. Again, she had free reign of what she could do and how she wanted to present it as long as it related to bees. One year she researched bees wax and worked with a local beekeeper to extract honey comb and make her own bees wax candles. The next year she researched bee friendly flowers and plants then planted a garden in our backyard. Throughout this process she got to research famous beekeepers like E.B. White (the author of Charlotte’s Web) and write about them as well. Each one of these projects took on a life of its own but each had a common theme. As a parent involved int his process too I was cognoscente of how it helped make PBL more attainable, both for the student and the teacher. My daughter came out of that experience with a deeper understanding of something that she felt passionately about and her teachers were able to embed the curriculum in everything she and her classmates did.

More recently, a colleague of mine (@KeatingNellie) introduced me to a TEDx Talk by artist and educator Gregory Gavin. In this talk he introduces the concept of building a river in your classroom to spark student engagement. He gives many examples of how a prominent feature such as this could be the focal point for everything that takes place in the classroom. He discusses how he was able to introduce complicated issues like civics and resource management by giving students parcels of land along the river banks. This inevitably would lead to students having to balance having the freedom to build what they want on their plot and them having to collaborate with their neighbors and share resources.

He goes on giving examples of how this ecosystem can evolve as the year goes on and classroom topics change from one thing to the next. What I found amazing is how, after watching this video, my mind started to race with possibilities of how a large feature such as this in a classroom could lead to many practical and relevant opportunities for students to create and explore. Moreover, it would be very easy for a teacher to tie something like this into their curriculum. I can see a teacher tackling structures with bridge building or math concepts with a “supply shop” full of building supplies for sale. I can even see how this could help in a history or social studies class where the students could be challenged to reenact historical events along their river. The possibilities are endless.

When thinking about the incorporation of PBL and Inquiry-Based (IBL) in the classroom some of us feel intimidated. It is important though to think about these two techniques as existing on a continuum. There can be many steps between nothing and full student led inquiry. Building a large feature like this in your classroom and using it as a focal point for your PBL is a really interesting example of how a teacher can help direct or support inquiry. In Gavin’s case he is skillfully using his classroom river as a way to facilitate what is referred to as controlled or guided inquiry. In this model the teacher is choosing project topics and either providing materials for the student to work with (controlled) or allowing them to choose the materials they want (guided). In the end, the teacher is facilitating the activities to help reach curriculum goals while the students are able to freely explore and create.

Again, there are many similarities to what he has achieved and what my daughter experienced in her early elementary years through the LID program. The difference here, and what really struck me about this, is the focal point of activities. It is always understood that the classroom river is an ever changing and evolving feature which takes on a specific shape and serves a specific purpose because the the class decides it. The free and openness of this concept lends itself very well to the PBL and IBL philosophies. My mind is still blissfully wandering as I think about the possibilities.

Watch Gregory Gavin’s What if you built a river in a classroom? |