by Brother Patrick Howlett
Principal, Parramatta Marist High School
The best educational decision I have made in the past 26 years was introducing Project-Based Learning (PBL). As a secondary school principal, I witnessed first hand the disengagement of students in their schooling coupled to their inability to see the relevance in what they were being taught. Like all school principals, I wanted to provide the best educational opportunities for my students and teaching staff, in an attempt to arrest this disconnection of interest. I believe that PBL has been the answer for Parramatta Marist High (PMH) in Sydney, Australia.
The inspiration for Parramatta Marist’s move to PBL came in 2005 when I met with New Tech Foundation (NTF) staff in Napa, California. They used a single pedagogy - PBL. My journey towards PBL had begun and soon discovered that there was significant global interest in PBL. That first meeting presented me with my first pedagogical challenge – what were we preparing our students for beyond standardized testing? Why were we teaching in a certain way and what were our students actually learning?
At Napa New Tech High, I observed relationships between staff and students, built on trust, respect and responsibility – as described by the students themselves. This school was more akin to an adult learning environment. Students worked in small groups in an open-plan learning environment, with a 1:1 computer program. Similar characteristics were seen when visiting newly established New Tech schools; Da Vinci Charter in Davis, Sacramento New Tech School and the Los Angeles School of Global Studies. These schools had much to contribute when it came to determining PBL best practice.
Subsequent exploration of models of best practice in PBL has led to international visits, collaboration and training with the New Tech Network; the Buck Institute for Education (BIE); High Tech High, San Diego, all US-based. That’s not say that PBL belongs to the U.S. - development of PBL best practices is occurring around the world. We also work with Republic Polytechnic and the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore; and Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Consequently, arising from these international learning opportunities, in 2013, PMH hosted the first PBLWorld outside of the United States in partnership with the Buck Institute. This partnership will continue in 2015 with the hosting of the PBLWorld Australia 2015.
A recent case study of international collaboration between students and educators from PMH and Manor New Tech, Austin, Texas was “The Bridges Project”, initiated by Stanford University. The bridges theme was intended to promote reflection of the emerging role of collaboration in education for the modern science student. In practical terms, the project enabled students across the world to form research teams to design and carry out investigative projects in an area of their own choice. Teacher specialists from each school mentored the teams. Authenticity was critical to the success of the project and involved the introduction of scientific digital portfolios. The teachers from both schools travelled to Chongqing and Beijing, China, where they presented the projects to Chinese educators.
At PMH, we promote the importance of managing pedagogical change with all stakeholders. It is essential for the success of PBL that a constant and open dialogue is established with parents, staff and students. For example, we offer induction and education programs for students, staff and parents for further understanding of how PBL works.
In my experience, another key success factor for PBL is professional learning. PMH staff has participated in 100 hours per year of timetabled professional learning in cross-curricular Professional Learning Teams within school hours where teachers participate in projects designed to address professional learning needs. This time is equivalent to what is offered to teachers in internationally high-ranking education systems in Singapore and Finland. Moreover, the opportunities for staff to present at symposia, conferences, workshops and other events can be a great source of ongoing professional and personal development.
In order to offer ‘great’, rather than just ‘good’ PBL, there is a need to continually assess our current practices. At PMH we view ourselves as a learning community where teachers are also learners who model this practice for the students. This commitment to professional learning and quality assurance led to the implementation of both the One-Day, One-Problem approach for Year 11 students, (modeled on the Republic Polytechnic, Singapore) and ‘The Flipped Classroom’ for final year students in preparation for their standardised testing and transition to tertiary education.
There is growing global consensus that PBL works. However, the question arises, how can the practice of PBL be further enriched through ongoing global connections between students and educators?