We interviewed Dimitra Saisanas, Teacher Librarian and Integrated Learning Coordinator at Wiley Park Girls High School (WPGHS) and a member of the English Faculty, on her experience teaching and implementing PBL that develops information literacy skills.
Dimitra recently attended the UTS:U@Uni Teacher Professional Development opportunity, ‘Project Based Learning Through a Design Thinking Process’.
Q: Could you please tell us about your current project based learning program?
While I coordinate our cross-KLA PBL programs, I am particularly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to teach a non-curriculum course with Year 7 for the past two years, where we focus on Information Literacy skills that can be applied in the classroom. My current Year 7 cohort is undertaking a PBL task where they will answer the question “How do we solve the problem of plagiarism at WPGHS?”, an authentic need that we have identified through discussion of ethical and responsible information use.
The real difference in my work since the U@Uni Teacher Professional Development PBL workshop is the fact that I have approached PBL more adventurously, and with more defined purpose. The design thinking paradigm (which we used during the UTS workshop) has actually helped significantly here.
Q: What have been some challenges in planning and/or implementing your project based learning program?
I had been considering PBL for my Year 7s for some time, but I was worried about moving too fast with them as their knowledge gaps were quite pronounced in some areas; letting go of this concern was quite challenging, but it is proving not to be so much of an issue now that they are working towards answering their question, and filling in the gaps by themselves.
There is also the issue of tying PBL into the curriculum and outcomes that must be addressed; backward mapping from outcomes is necessary for the authenticity of the unit, so that it doesn’t feel like an ‘add-on’ to your everyday teaching. Clear planning, from outcomes down to sequencing, is also very helpful in understanding the flow of your project, and how students will get to their answers.
The logistics of PBL in the classroom can also be quite challenging, particularly when negotiating technology use in shared spaces around the school. I have actually developed a more low-fi approach, encouraging students to use the resources at hand instead of relying purely on technology for collaborative work.
Q: What has been an enabler at your school to help you plan and/or implement project based learning?
I am very lucky to have the support of my Head Teacher and Senior Executive in the implementation of my programs; they see the value of PBL very clearly, and understand that it is an important part of the 21st Century learning landscape. A good professional network is invaluable in providing the support necessary to undertake a challenge like PBL, making it seem a lot less daunting, and providing practical feedback when you need it.
Q: What are your two top tips to share with other teachers looking to implement project based learning programs in their school?
Take a risk, but provide support – using PBL is a calculated risk that can yield incredible rewards in terms of teaching and learning, but you really have to commit to it. You also have to encourage students to take a risk on PBL with you, by providing support when they feel directionless or discouraged. When they feel positive about their learning, they are more likely to commit to PBL.
Also, start small – many teachers think of PBL as a grand undertaking in cross-KLA project work (and it can be), but it can be as simple as a 2-week project-based unit undertaken during class time. This also helps you test project sequencing and activities, and doesn’t disrupt larger projects when something doesn’t work the way you’d planned. You can work up to bigger and lengthier projects, but build fundamental skills in students by starting small.