See Part 2
Project Based Learning:
I was first formally introduced to project-based learning as an approach to curriculum and instruction three years ago though as an art teacher what I have done my entire career has been related to this concept. At that time I started teaching at an alternative school where the staff had decided to invest heavily in the project-based model. Our school district was in the process of being approved as an IB school and as part of that had adopted Understanding by Design as the curriculum framework district wide. This was a massive undertaking by the district as the next few years were marked by something that looked like mandated reflective practice, many training sessions, and lots of curriculum alignment. What we saw occurring in the other "normal" schools was what I have concluded was a massive misinterpretation of the backwards design model. Rather than stripping learning down to its essentials and examining what it is that really needs to be taught and determining exactly how learning is really done, regardless of our previously held beliefs, teachers for the most part approached UbD as something they could mold over their previous programs and not a fundamental structure change. What resulted were slight improvements but massive confusion on the student part as to why teachers were doing some of the things they did.
At the ALC we took a different approach. We eliminated most of our classes and replaced them with a semi structured time we called Inquiry. Inquiry was about project-based learning and we used the UbD framework to structure this time from the ground up. The idea was that students would not take specific classes during Inquiry but could work on projects they develop with the guidance of the teaching staff that could satisfy part or all of the credit needed for course completion in any of the subject areas. Inquiry was not without its flaws and we did have massive growing pains as we all adjusted to this new system of instruction. We had to overcome curriculum issues, behavior issues, time management issues, and issues related to differentiated instruction. However, we were all on the same page with this. Very few of us had experience doing anything like this and we all learned from each other and made changes in our program as we saw fit and when we saw them needed. When our Inquiry program reached its maturity we had a system where students owned their own learning, collaborated with each other, and achieved learning objectives by doing rather than rote memorization. Students were able to complete their high school credits engaged in topics that interested them. Because it was driven by student interest and personal aptitudes students were more engaged in the learning process.
Step 1 - Start from scratch:
The Inquiry model as I have described it does not fit well in a traditional school setting. Especially not one where students are only in a class for 40-50 minutes each day. However, there are elements that could be pulled from this experience and applied within the traditional school classroom. First, if we remove all of our old baggage and prior beliefs about how learning occurs or how a classroom is supposed to be managed we have a chance at actually finding a better model of instruction. So, put aside everything you have done in the past and every way you were ever taught (don't toss it out, we may reference it later).
Step 2 - Identify limitations, resources, and boundaries:
What are our limitations? I am presuming, based on my prior experiences in "normal" high schools, that teacher's classrooms are treated like islands and what you do in your class has little transfer to other classrooms (obviously not always the case but often true). In the case you are doing this alone or only with a single department and not as a building-wide initiative you will be limited by the Pavlonian bell schedule. You will most likely also be limited by the mandate to report assessment outcomes in the form of grades. Likewise, you will be limited to reporting credits as the class you have been assigned to teach that hour, unless you can partner with teachers in other classes. Since you probably have neighbors in your building who have their own thing going on and don't want their classes interrupted you will most likely be limited by the physical boundaries of your classroom and places on or near the school grounds where your presence will not be misconstrued as a disruptive presence.
What are our resources? I am assuming that your classroom has at least one computer and an internet connection. I am also assuming that you have a modest budget for supplies, capital, and curriculum. You most likely also have about 30 desks and chairs or tables and chairs. I am sure there are community members who you can count as resources as well as places of interest within reach of your school. If you have a webcam and microphone you can connect both visually and audibly to people in distant locals as well. If this is not something you already have it is something even the most modest budget can make room for. Pretty much anything out there that is open source or public domain is available. We could probably list all your resources for a very long time but for sake of getting on with things lets just keep that list in our heads for now.
What are our boundaries? It is also important to consider what our boundaries are. What can we do and where can we go. Is the internet filtered at your school? If so what sites are limited? Of course there are legal boundaries that limit what we can do but there are most likely also boundaries created by school regulations. We need to make sure we respect those because if you want something to happen in your classroom that does not follow the traditional method of instruction you do not want to be viewed simply as a disruptive influence in your school. Are there limitations created by the expectations of administrators? These are important to note if you want to keep your job.
Step 3 - Identify Learning Objectives
No matter what learning theory you subscribe to or what teaching method you choose to use it is important to identify learning objectives. The problem I often see, and something I was guilty of when I was a new teacher, is that many teachers confuse learning objective with learning activity. Another thing that bothers me, and one of the issues I take with the UbD model, is the practice of deriving learning objectives from content standards. The problem with this is with most content areas the standards are pretty basic and represent what our most under performing students should be able to do and know at the most basic level. The standards are not a good starting point if you want to engage or teach to the level of the majority of the students in your classroom.
Now, once you have determined what key ideas students should know when they complete your course then you can check them against the standards to make sure you did not forget anything. Now is time for curriculum compacting. How are you going to assess which of these objectives don't need to be met? How are you going to develop a pretest or preassessment that will accurately determine which students already know some of these key objective? I am also a firm believer that your own objectives are not nearly as important as those of the learners. How are you going to find out what students want to learn. The ideal curriculum is one that blends the objectives the teacher has for their students with the learning goals of the individual learners and doesn't waste time trying to meet objectives that have already been met. This means that no class you teach will ever be the same. You can't teach one year 30 times. If you have three sections of the same class there is no reason each of those classes have to be the same nor should they. This also means that you can't plan activities in June for a class that doesn't start until September.