Teaching Context And Pbl Education Essay

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This final essay combines the teaching context and an educational approach: project based learning. It is a deep analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of this particular approach in this school. It is important to recognize that all the methodologies have important strengths which must be reflected upon so they can be applied. First, a glimpse of the teaching context will be presented, as well as a brief overview of PBL. Next, advantages and disadvantages will be followed by a short conclusion.

This is a private and traditional Chilean school for girls located in a rather privileged area of Santiago, in Chile. There are six key elements that define students in this school: Catholicism, bilingualism, virtues, leadership, family and humility-joy. They aim to form a student who is an all-rounder, capable of using positively her talents for society in which they serve as members of solid families.

Fourth grade is composed by 30 rather homogeneous 9-10 year-old girls. Most of them come from the same type of Catholic family and have a connection to the school's community. They have been taught in English since pre-kinder and therefore, their English proficiency level is high: they can understand and communicate efficiently but still make important mistakes. In general terms, these girls are highly motivated to learn. They feel confident about English and their teacher. They are respectful to peers and adults and there is a general positive environment. In this grade there is an important national assessment called SIMCE, which is highly considered as part of the curriculum.

Project Based Learning (PBL) is a learner-centered approach which has strong roots in constructivism. Students are meant to work collaboratively to solve a real-life problem using tools from different subjects and developing assorted skills. Papanikolau (2010) states that vertical learning (accumulation of the subject matter of knowledge) is combined with horizontal learning (generic skills such as project management and collaboration). Other scholars, such as Markham (2011) simplifies it by stating that "PBL integrates knowing and doing. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter to somebody" (p.38)

Bell (2010) stresses on the fact that the teacher becomes the facilitator who is in charge of guiding the group of students. ChanLin (2008) comments that under this approach "the learning is less dependent on the acquisition of information from lectures, but more dependent on students' use and interpretation of real-world knowledge" (p.57) Opposite from abstracting children from society, this approach pretends to immerse the student in problems which are not invented, but real situations that schools and communities go through. Mioduser and Nadav (2006), talk about this saying "it is a strong relationship with the real world that is both inside and outside the classroom that produces active agents in a learning process" (p. 67). That is why the students become the main active agent of their own learning.

In practical terms, it starts with an authentic need or problem which leads toward working a solution. After analyzing the possibilities and restrictions, a detailed plan is determined and so the project starts. Students work together doing research, dividing sub-tasks and creating a way to present the outcomes. Collaboratively work is one of the many highlights of this approach as well as a different and a plan of an on-going assessment, which includes the outcomes as well as the developed skills. (ChanLin, 2008)

The PBL presents assorted highly attractive advantages for this teaching context. This is a school in which each year a special need is identified. For instance, this year, it was decided that students needed to work more on autonomy and independence, which PBL encourages. Bell (2010) mentions that "responsibility, independence and discipline are three outcomes of PBL. The element of choice is crucial for students' success. They learn so much about themselves when they are empowered to make their own learning decisions." (p.40). Students design their own guidelines and stay on task. They also learn to self-monitor their progress. However, autonomous children also come from teachers who have high expectations in them. As Boushey and Moser (2006) states, "trusting children is the underpinning of what makes any structure for teaching children to manage themselves independently work." (p. 18)

The school is well-known by its charity and community service program. It is actually one of the characteristics aimed for the students since it is an active and Catholic school. Each year, a number of different real needs from the community knock on the school's door, and although there is a committee in charge of organizing the help, there is always a need for more. PBL would go hand in hand with this program in which a whole project is needed. As Markham (2011) explains, "At the core of PBL lies a challenge that must be meaningful and doable. This means that projects start with a big idea, an authentic issue." (p. 39). From this point of view, PBL would be tackling one of the most important goals of this school's education: service to others. In addition, Gardner (1983), in Walker (2004) became famous because of this Theory of Intelligences in which he defined intelligence as: "the ability to solve problems that one encounters in real life, to generate new problems to solve and to make something or offer a service that's valued within one's culture." (p. 46)

Research is one of the horizontal skills developed by PBL. Unfortunately, this is a skill which has not been developed in any subject during this last year in the school. Although it has a strong connection to the lack of autonomy, it is a very important need, which cannot be placed aside. ChanLin (2008) claims that "the most valuable finding from the project-based learning approach was to observe the production of new knowledge derived from students' own investigation and exploration" (p. 61)

The school has a program which is in charge of students with special academic/behavioral needs. It is in charge not only of personalized methodology and strategies, but also of a thorough record of useful information. A questionnaire applied last year demonstrated that around 30% of students in each class has special needs and that the three learning modalities -visual, auditory and kinesthetic- were evenly present in the group of students from 1st to 4th grade. Not only is this information highly valued, but also should influence the curriculum and teaching practices. Walker (2004) states "a successful teacher recognizes that diversity may affect learning, and thus works toward a classroom in which diversity is celebrated and revered" (p.2) Bell (2010) connects this to the PBL by stating that:

"the active learning process of PBL takes students' various learning styles and preferences into account. Students use a range of tools and resources to conduct their research. They also choose individual ways to demonstrate their learning in their final product" (p. 41)

PBL keeps the students' highly motivated and on task. Bell (2010) comments on this saying "a big cheer rises from every student in the class when they hear that a new project will be beginning soon" (p. 43). Although these students are generally happy to come to school, PBL will be a boost of energy and excitement. In general terms, they are wide open to help others and to develop curiosity. Walker (2004) claims that:

"Emotion has the power to shut down or to enhance quality learning. It is important how each student feels about the learning, about the instructor, about the classroom and about herself or himself in the learning. These feelings are critical to an average student." (p.50)

Finally, another advantage of PBL to this school is the collaborative work. As a Catholic, Christian school, they encourage not only service to others, but working with others to serve. While it is a skill which has been developed in the school, group work is always important. ChanLin (2008) says that "although disagreement and conflict among group members sometimes occurred, this reflected a healthy internal growth among group peers." (p. 63) It is also supported by other authors such as Bell (2010) who claims that "students learn the fundamental skills of productive communication, respect for others, and teamwork while generating ideas together… They do not want to let their friends down." (p. 42). PBL practitioners also identify that there is an expectation that each child will contribute to the project equally, and therefore, learn to work together towards a goal.

However, collaborative work is not only for students. PBL also requires collaborative work for teachers as well, which will be so useful since the school lacks cross-curricular projects. Markham supports this by saying "very likely, the challenge of moving to a collaborative form of schooling and learning will involve all of us - from teachers to parents to students." (p. 42)

On the other hand, there are also a number of important disadvantages of implementing PBL in this teaching context. One of them is related to the collaborative work previously mention. In this teaching context in which friendship is so important, PBL may cause difficulties when dealing with emotional consequences. ChanLin (2008) admits that "some students are more involved than others due to individual differences in perceiving task. Within the same group, there are both positive feelings, including anticipation, confidence and negative feelings, including uncertainty and disappointment." (p.59). Although it is important to trust that students will deal with these feelings, it must not be easy for everybody, and some students might just not do it. Bell (2010) also identified this issue:

"the group dynamic creates interdependent team in which students must each do their part, and as a result, a natural consequence exists for those students who do not demonstrate accountability -others may no longer want to be paired with students who do not do their fair share. Therefore, peer pressure is important" (p.41)

Moreover, it is important to consider that the school has been struggling with the fact that students communicate in English to teachers, but not among peers. Although it is natural to speak in one's first language, the school provides a proper environment to practice English as a language. However, it will be very difficult to ask the students to go against nature and use English while working in teams and projects.

Another important disadvantage is the significant cost that implementing PBL represents. Not only there must be a fully equipped library, but also, technology and media access, which is strongly related to PBL. ChanLin (2008) describes a classroom equipped with at least 6 computers connected to the internet, plus a desk-layout properly set for laboratory activity. That is apart from what parents would have to invest in different aspects of the projects. Moreover, Jones (2006) identified the costly resources to train effective facilitators and teachers which would represent an important part of the school's budget.

Teachers in this school constantly comment on the amount of work they have to do. Most of them would have to use extra-time to finish up tasks and long to-do lists. This also represents another disadvantage of PBL for the school. Not only from the financial point of view, but also in terms of time. Jones (2006) presents one of the disadvantages saying "the time required of trainees to fully engage in PBL can be particularly problematic for time-poor faculty and trainees who are being asked to teach and learn within an increasingly crowded curriculum". This is also a point to be considered when taking into account assessment, which is another weakness presented next.

In fourth grade, the national assessment SIMCE is highly important. Not only because it represents how the school is in comparison with others, but also because with the result, a ranking is published. Since it is a national exam, it doesn't consider the school's individual curriculum. It is so important that it goes over language and teachers have been asked to teach specific topics or even subjects in Spanish just to obtain better results. However, if PBL is implemented, the results might place the school in a lower point of the ranking and therefore, affect its public opinion. Bell (2010) refers to the abilities developed under the PBL approach and comments "many of these skills are not measureable through standardized tests" (p.43).

Assessment in general terms also presents another difficulty. Being a traditional school, there is more traditional testing. Grades are important to teachers, authorities and parents, and usually the result of unit tests which measure the content of each subject. Besides, there is little space for self-assessment. PBL suggests changing the way of assessing. Bell (2010) explains:

"With PBL, assessment is authentic. We measure child's performance via rubrics, but a critical aspect of this model includes self-evaluation and reflection. Children learn from their processes. They reflect on how well they worked in a collaborative group and how well they contributed, negotiated, listened, and welcomed other group members' ideas. Students become critical friends by giving constructive feedback to each other" (p. 43)

In order to change assessment to become like Bell (2010) explains, a change of mind must occur as well. ChanLin (2008) also clarifies that the teacher needs to have conferences with students constantly to assess their process carefully through formative assessment. Actually, in PBL it is suggested that students themselves create a rubric and self-assess accurately. In this teaching context, it would represent an important change of beliefs and practices.

Assessment is not the only important change, there are also the skills students need to learn, and therefore, teachers must work on. Although scaffolding is part of the PBL approach, it might be time-consuming and difficult to implement in practical terms. Archer (1998) in ChanLin (2008) explains,

"Precautions need to be taken in liking skills across the curriculum in technology integration. Studies show that students often fail to make these connections, and teachers often fail to design classroom activities to facilitate learning of situated knowledge and a broader understanding of concepts". (p.55)

Scaffolding is not easy, because it's personalized and requires a perceptive teacher who must be trained before. It is meant to be temporary and only to help the student. In simple words, if a student has not developed the skills to research, for example, she might not work properly in the project, and therefore, feel frustrated.

In sum, the PBL approach presents a many advantages such as autonomy development, a great attention to learning modalities, and a strong focus on real-life problems which seem to go hand in hand with the school's system. However, it also presents some disadvantages such as costs and time management which cannot be set aside.

All in all, teachers must find a balanced approach, in which they take out ideas from different methodologies and apply them to their context. One project a year sounds reasonable to give a jump start to this approach in this particular school. It's not hard to convince a community to change once one presents positive results, which PBL promises to provide a school which applies it wisely.

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