Students of Oberon High school are using PBL to explore their local area.
Mark Armstrong, who works in the TAS faculty at Oberon High School (OHS), shares his experiences in co-designing and delivering the Year 7 PBL project titled ‘Oberon rocks’, which sees students combine science and geography to explore what makes their local landforms so amazing. He also examines the value of embedding community participation in PBL and continued professional development.
- Target Year level: Year 7
- Target Subjects: Science & Geography
- Driving Question: What makes our local landforms so amazing?
- Hook event: Excursion to Jenolan Caves and Kanangra Walls.
Project Summary: Students were tasked to take on the role of designing and producing information media for one of two local landforms in the Oberon area. These being Jenolan Caves or Kanangra Walls. The media they produced was to focus on a value that the landform has to the environment or society and be presented to reflect the needs of the appropriate audience. The information was also to include maps, directions and relevant information for the target audience. Through this process students learnt about how each attraction has formed and how this allows its current use. The students had access to expertise from local organisations including Oberon Council, National Parks & Wildlife Service and Jenolan Caves. The students’ media was to be appropriate to display in the community and available to access in the offices of the organisation/s above. The exhibition of learning and projects was scheduled at a launch event held in the relevant organisation.
Showcase event: Students exhibited their work at the local visitors’ centre and the National Parks & Wildlife Service’s office. The Mayor, General Manager and tourism staff attended the presentation as well as parents and community members.
Utilising professional development
Oberon High School has undertaken and completed two project based activities with year 7. The first was underway during the UTS Project Based Learning workshop (May 2017) and the second commenced and completed after. The things the school did differently from the previous project was spend time with the staff delivering planning and organising the project prior to commencement. The school utilised more effectively the planning tools provided in the UTS training and deliberated over the project’s purpose and each faculty and teacher’s role. The driving question was a major focus for teachers, making sure it would allow the students the scope to show their talents and creativity while ensuring it fitted the curriculum.
The school also ran staff development sessions on creating driving questions for a range of scenarios and utilised the material from the UTS workshop. This was crucial to the success of the project. The project itself allowed a lot of choice for students to create whilst still utilising the school curriculum. All staff were engaged and committed and took on roles within the project development and delivery. All staff were positive about the process and enjoyed the chance to plan learning with other staff and commented that they thought this process invaluable.
Challenges in the planning and implementation of Oberon Rocks
There have been quite a few challenges implementing project based learning into school learning. The challenges vary from staff acceptance and buy in to organisation within the school timetable, meeting requirements for the Board of Studies and Principal sign off, as well as student engagement and acceptance of this type of learning.
Teaching staff still struggle with covering curriculum and see this as an add-on as opposed to built-in. The projects have been implemented whilst teachers are still covering existing programs and this seems like double the workload. However, the teachers who have been involved are beginning to see the benefits of PBL and are preparing for the future.
Timetable and continuity of learning has presented some problems. The school timetable was not changed although certain periods were assigned to PBL and these lessons allowed all teachers to be involved. The feeling is that the program would be improved with a more flexible timetable. However, the school has allowed time for variations for the hook event as well as the presentation. The biggest drawback is that other teachers are not really able to come and see what is happening or be involved as they are on regular timetabled classes. These options are being explored for the future.
Whilst students have generally been engaged in the project some seem to struggle with the independent opportunities it provides. They seem to be programmed to the traditional model where they are comfortable doing as instructed. But this is the purpose of PBL and we feel that we are making headway in this area and will expand the projects to cover both year 7 and 8 next year.
Enablers in the planning and implementation of Oberon Rocks
Staff development sessions that highlight the benefits of this type of learning have played a major role in PBL gaining traction. Staff willing to try and develop new learning activities and improve their own teaching skills and knowledge. The senior executive has also been willing to allow it to happen and evaluate the benefits of it.
We have also had very positive interest from the community particularly in the Oberon Rocks project, which involved a number of local organisations and local government. We have also had positive feedback and encouragement from the parent community.
Top PBL tips
Undertake some professional development on the theory of the learning (watching the film ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ is a great place to begin). Use the tools provided by the Buck institute for planning and spend a fair amount of time in this phase working out what you hope to achieve and how it will benefit and engage the students.
Get creative, utilise staff who are willing to try different strategies and enjoy the challenge, work collaboratively and set up a structure that allows them all to contribute and feel valued. Look for real world opportunities that students are interested in and allow them to be creative in their work as well.
By Mark Armstrong. Mark Armstrong works in the TAS faculty at Oberon High School.