From Pencil/Paper Rigor to PBL: the transformation of a teacher
As I got into the Project Based Learning style of education, I was the only teacher in a school that was brand new. I knew that this was a grand experiment where I was teaching all classes, all kids, by myself. The school had strong parent backing. The parents had chosen to send their children to me because they believed that something different, even in it’s imperfect infancy, would be better than nothing different in their traditional schools. And for some, different was infinitely better than unsafe.
But even as a teacher who truly believed in PBL, I knew that I (and PBL) was ultimately being judged by our test scores. And I knew that while the kids were having a lot of fun putting stuff together with PBL, I could only tell they were learning the hard academic content if they could pass a traditional test. Pencil paper. That’s rigor, right? That’s how I would know they actually learned the facts, details, and important stuff. I was sure of it, even though my PBL training had said we didn’t need pencil/paper tests.
I operated our little PBL school in that fashion for about 1.5 years. I’d introduce a question or a challenge to the class; they’d learn by doing. Then they’d prove to me they’d learned by taking that test. And our state assessment scores were ok.
But it all changed with a skeleton and a group of really bright kids.
We were learning anatomy, and specifically the human bone structure. I handed the list of bones to the kids. I handed them a blank skeleton diagram. I told them we were going to build a 4-foot tall skeleton from a pile of driftwood and I figured it would take us approximately 2 weeks. I told them they could study the bones at home as we built the skeleton at school and they got to choose when to take the test. The only stipulation about the test was that it needed to be finished by the skeleton presentation day.
The PBL was real. The PBL presentation-style “assessment” was supported by a “real” assessment. A rigorous assessment. One I could count on. One that would be respected by realeducators. Pencil/Paper.
So off we went.
And in 3 days, every single student had passed the pencil/paper diagram bone test. They’d taught themselves. They’d studied. They took the test in a secure fashion. The learning was done. In 3 days.
But the skeleton wasn’t.
What to do? They’d all proven they knew what I wanted them to know. So should I take up more class time and just let them finish the skeleton? They were having fun and quite honestly, I wasn’t ready to launch the next project quite yet. So I let them keep building.
At the end of two weeks, as the deadline crunch was on, I heard the kids talking about the humerus, the clavicle, how the scapula seemed to “float” on the ribs (must be the muscles and ligaments holding it in place). They puzzled over how the ribs attached (or didn’t) to the sternum. Which bone was bigger in diameter, the tibia or the fibula? They were using correct terminology. They were using to-scale replicas. They’d done some great ratio conversions and other math skills to arrive at the right scale for a 4′ tall model.
And at that point, on that last day of the project, I stood back, watching the beehive of activity. The vocabulary flowing. The learning spiraling. And, with marvel and maybe even some tears in my eyes, I knew they knew. They got it. They knew the bones of the body. Every single kid.
So when they were finished, I asked them. Should we have stopped after 3 days? After they’d finished passing their pencil/paper tests?
They all, quite loudly, said NO! And several patiently explained to me, the dumb teacher, that by having to talk about the bones, to make sure they were in the right place, to have their hands on the learning…that was how they actually knew the names and locations.
And I had a turning point. I was done with pencil paper tests to check the kids’ learning.
So now how do I know that kids have learned? I talk with them individually as they’re working. I check for the facts I want them to know. I check for understanding…as they’re working. And at the end, they know what they need to present to show their learning, their understanding.
And that is lasting learning.
Dare I say it? I think it might be true rigor.