I was a traditional teacher for my first 14 years. I tried hard, cared about my students, took classes, went to professional development workshops, read books, read internet articles and blogs, gave out my phone number, and did everything I could to “Be Better!”. Then I found TPBL. Here is just a few of the reasons I changed everything about my classroom methodology. For the long version, you will need to wait for my book to come out. 😉
From an educational psychology standpoint, traditional education requires patience, self-restraint, and memory. Patience to wait for the teacher’s timeline, and/or the pace that other students can handle. Self-restraint to only speak when asked a question, stay on task with the teacher’s agenda, don’t ask too many tangential questions. And most importantly, the last one… memory. Most traditional classes ask students to read, listen, take notes, pass a few quizzes/worksheets/tests … remember information presented to them.
TPBL asks students to follow the design cycle to solve a problem or create a product that addresses a need (a different form of ‘problem’ – see our Engineering Design Cycle here).
Our process asks Student to Brainstorm (access everything they already know about the subject even if it is only remotely related — or anything they know of, but need to look up). Brainstorm, in our class, means individually first, then in small groups, then as a whole class. This allows the students to compare their recollections to those of their classmates. This serves many purposes, but most importantly, it allows students to compare their knowledge & recollections to their peers and it refreshes their memories about previous lessons/classes/teachers/etc.
Research is an informal step in the design cycle, because it appears during and between practically all of the steps. Anything that the students can research, we try not to tell them. This creates repeated attempts to find information and discern whether the source of the information is quality, and leveled for their abilities and the audience they are attempting to communicate the information to. We also teach, then require, APA citations just like a scientific journal would.
In the Design phase, students are tasked with making dozens (if not hundreds) of decisions about their problem, the solution, and the product they are creating to solve the problem. These decisions require them to compare ideas from all group members and to choose the best, most efficient solution. That means they need to learn to cooperate, convince their peers, take constructive criticism, accept the group’s decision, and create a plan that reflects the best ideas of everyone in the group. All of these skills are rarely exercised in a traditional classroom, but essential in the 21st century workplace.
Whether the product is digital or physical, the act of creating a product requires all of the cooperative skills needed in the design phase and adds in the mental and physical skills required to Build a product. The build may require hammers or PhotoShop, but the give-and-take between group members is one of many critical skills our students will need in their work lives.
After their solution has been constructed, they share their work with others to gather critical feedback. We are constantly reminding them that this is the feedback of a ‘critical friend’. Comments on the work must be constructive, never destructive. Comments must be about the product, not the person. Our methodology requires the students to create the rubrics used to Evaluate each other’s work. This gives them a voice in their grades, but also requires them to compare the difficulty of the tasks they completed, the time required for each, and to wrestle with the point values that should be applied to each part of their work.
Another unique part of our methodology requires the students to score each item in the rubric as being of high quality or not high quality. That means the work gets full credit or no credit. If an item is worth 5 points (as determined by our whole-class discussion), then students will award 5 points or 0 points. Allowing a score of 1-2-3 or 4, allows less than ‘High Quality’ work. What employer accepts substandard work? Why would anyone want to foster work that is substandard? This means student scores WILL be lower than if partial credit was allowed, but partial effort is the result of allowing partial credit and we want to encourage students to do their BEST work. We want students to learn to learn to sustain their efforts, to increase the demands they put on themselves, to step-up their effort level whether talking about concentration, cooperation, competence, communication, or the quality of their work.
The ‘All-or-Nothing’ scoring on each item means that every time a student gives a 0, they must give feedback that will help the creators to rectify the issue the evaluator had with the work. This becomes instructions on how to Modify the original product so that the creators will get a MUCH higher score on their next iteration of their product. As adults, we know that the products we purchase are nowhere near the first version. Most have been modified dozens, if not hundreds of times on their way to market. Our standard two-week roll on our problems allows students to complete their product, get feedback, then modify their work before they are graded by their peers and the instructors.
The Share in the Design Cycle is as authentic as we can make it. Students get familiar with each other and become complacent. Most are OK with failing in front of their classmates and their teacher. We ask student to present to other classes (older and younger than themselves) and teachers within the building, other classes from other schools, Instructors/Professors from universities, and experts in many fields from across the country and around the world.
It should be evident from the length of this description of how we use the Design Cycle that our students are asked to work at a level of thought that is significantly higher than when they are asked to search through a text book to find the words needed to fill in the blanks on a worksheet. The change to TPBL from traditional instruction can be difficult for some students. A student who is accustomed to, and good at, the memory skills required to succeed in a tradition class can become frustrated at not excelling with the same amount of effort as in previous classes.
These students see themselves as the best students, and in classes that operate traditionally, they are the ones who get good grades, complete the work faster than their peers, and rarely struggle in the classroom. TPBL changes the dynamic from read, listen, take notes, and write it down on quizzes/test to the steps in the Design Cycle: Brainstorm, Research, Design, Research, Build, Research, Evaluate, Research, Modify, and Share. These are completely different skills than are needed in traditional instruction, but they are EXACTLY the skills needed in the 21st century workplace and the skills demanded by the Common Core and South Dakota Content Standards.
Education and medical school classes were once almost exactly the same. The methodology and thought processes of the instructors (and even the students) were the same. But this wasn’t what was needed during the industrial revolution, so education was diverted onto another path. The system we have now is what was created to educate students just enough to work in a plant or secretarial pool, to sell insurance, or to be an accountant. Think of the black & white movies with all the workers dressed the same in a huge office with everyone sitting at the same exact desk in rows, doing similar tasks and creating TONS of paperwork. That was what school prepared students for.
That world no longer exists. That business model no longer exists. Maintaining that system of education seems fruitless to me.
So, for me, TPBL is the only way to teach my students what they need.