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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Differentiate Through PBL

During my last blog~ I shared a story about how problem-based learning was used to challenge one of my students.

In this post~ I want to outline the steps that have personally helped me implement this method.

First~ you have to find the right problem.

Problem-based learning~ or PBL~ is personalized for each child. It requires differentiation at a very deep level.
According to Dr. De Gallow at the University of California~ Irvine~ One of the primary features of Problem-Based Learning is that it is student-centered. Student-centered refers to learning opportunities that are relevant to the students~ the goals of which are at least partly determined by the students themselves.

For PBL to be effective~ the problem must be relevant to the student. This is a point hammered home by gifted education researchers Sally Weis and Joseph Renzulli in their book~ Light Up Your Childs Mind. They note that a real problem must have a personal frame of reference for the child~ does not have an existing solution~ and is approached using the same tools and methodologies used by professionals in that a particular field.

Renzulli and Weis also recommend that the solution to the problem also be geared toward a real product for a real audience.
Once you determine a relevant problem~ the next step is to develop a question that drives the students research. For instance~ when working with my fifth-grade student~ who was frustrated with a lack of social studies instruction~ I helped him narrow his question down to the following Why do elementary teachers spend less time on social studies and how can they creatively solve the problem?

Using that question as the focal point~ the student generated a series of related questions to form the basis of his research. Questions included how often should social studies be taught? What is the recommended instruction time each day or week? What subjects do teachers spend most of their instructional time on? Why? Have any teachers found creative ways to incorporate social studies? What are they doing differently?

The next step in PBL would be to investigate those questions using available resources. That might include Internet~ texts~ articles~ surveys~ observations and people. I encourage my students to approach experts when tackling problems. Chances are~ experts in a particular area have already grappled with a similar problem~ researched it~ and can provide great insight.

In the students case with the social studies instruction problem~ he contacted a professor of social science at the local university~ who was able to provide a deeper understanding of the problem as well as recommend resources that could serve as potential solutions.

In another case~ I had a student who wanted to know what could be done to save energy at the school. After interviewing an energy expert~ he was inspired to research the schools energy usage and form an energy patrol group to try and make a difference. This kind of information would have never entered his project unless he had been encouraged to seek out an expert.

Out the research~ a plan of action will emerge. Dont make the mistake of trying to formulate a plan and figure out all the details ahead of time. You dont want to force solutions but rather allow a logical path to emerge from what the student has discovered. In PBL~ the process is one of discovery. The method is very different from textbook instruction~ where a pacing guide and strict curriculum is followed. Initially~ there is no clear path to follow.

For example~ during the social studies project~ the student did not know exactly what the project would entail. However~ after learning about various methods of incorporating instruction into the school day~ the idea of sharing this information with the schools faculty was born. This became the basis of a PowerPoint presentation that the student created to present to the schools administration~ with the goal of obtaining permission to forward it to the faculty.

During the whole process~ you may need to provide plenty of coaching. Think of yourself as~ Reis and Renzulli put it~ a guide on the side. You want to pose questions~ provide encouragement and suggestions~ but still let the student complete the heavy lifting. Unless blessed with persistence~ students may become discouraged or burnout. If this happens~ you have may have them switch directions~ regroup~ or push through obstacles. Have them keep coming back to the original question and pursuing answers. The more knowledge they gain~ the more motivated and confident they will become.

Upon completion of the process~ I like to provide feedback using a rubric (the Student Product Assessment Form by Renzulli). I point out the positives and make suggestions for improvement. I also like to have students assess themselves using a series of simple questions~ such as what did you enjoy about this project? and what could you have improved?

In reality~ the real feedback is gained from the impact that a project has on its intended audience. When my student gained approval from the principal to share his PowerPoint with teachers~ he felt successful. He reached his goal. All his hard work paid off~ and the feeling of confidence he gained that day could never come from the result of a rubric or grade.

While I focused on independent problem-based learning~ the concept can be expanded~ and often times with magnified results~ to group work. Competitions such as Odyssey of the Mind serve as great vehicles for students to work together to creatively conquer problems.

Overall~ PBL fosters creative and critical thinking and is a fantastic method for challenging and inspiring not only gifted learners~ but all children. To share your comments on this post~ visit http://community.educationworld.comcontent/differentiate-through-pbl-0?gid=NTEyMQ==