Designing a student-centered classroom

Part of my Master's project involves creating a project/problem based learning (PBL) environment for my 9th grade science classroom. I'm getting to the point where I need to start nailing down some specifics, so I'm going to lay down what I'm thinking here (publish-then-filter, right?). Your comments and critiques are welcome.

I've seen several example PBL units that gave students one specific question to solve. They may have been good prompts, but the problem I have with this method of PBL is that it seems overly prescriptive. It doesn't give students much room to follow their own interests. I'd prefer to leave things much more open to student choice. Currently, I think I'd like to give students a general topic to frame their investigations (climate change or evolution of the universe, for example) and allow them to follow their interests to specific areas of study/research that they find interesting.

Goal:

Create at minimum a unit where students choose their own topic of research and follow their passion in determining it's continued direction. I want students to be able to follow their interests and passion wherever it leads them (with some limitations). Students will be expected to document their learning and do some sort of public exhibition at the end of the process.

Challenges:

  • Overcoming student expectations of school and science. In my experience, students expect to be told exactly what to study and how to study it. When given some choice they're often uncomfortable and unsure of how to proceed (I know that's how I reacted). Also, science is generally perceived as being a bunch of information and facts that they need to learn. Science is more about what we don't know than what we do know. I'd like students to ask questions that haven't been answered and try to figure out the answer.
  • Choosing a research topic. In theory, I'd like to simply say, "Research an area of climate change (for example) that you find interesting. Ready? GO!" I doubt this would work for several reasons. First, if students don't have any real background knowledge about climate change then they may not be familiar enough with it to be able to pick something that interests them. I'm torn on how much information I should cover before starting the student-directed phase. Second, students are unfamiliar with being able to control their learning in school. I'd expect a lot of uncertainty and frustration from students if I left things so open. At the same time, I struggle with giving students example research questions since they often just choose an example to follow instead of following something that they find intriguing.
  • The state standards (see recent posts). In all likelihood we're not going to cover as many content standards using this format. Depending on what topics the students choose they might not cover many content standards at all. I'm OK with this. My administration may not be. I found some research to support my position1, but that may not mean much to those who hold the power.
  • Fostering reflection/collaboration. I want students to be as focused (if not more focused) on the process they're going through as they are on their end product. I'd like them to reflect daily on what things they're having success with, what things they're struggling with, and what methods they're using. I also want students to be aware of what all the other students in the class are doing. Creating an environment where "collaboration through the air2" is possible- where students can freely leave their projects and go help other students who are struggling- is very important to my vision of how the classroom should run. Since this is (sadly) such a foreign idea for many students, I'm debating whether or not there needs to be some at least semi-formal structure to encourage it.
  • Documenting the learning. I want this to be a major focus of this project. I'd like students to have some artifact- digital or otherwise- that allows them to look back and see what they were thinking and doing with their topic throughout the entirety of the project. I'd like some analogue to the Reggio Emilio approach to documentation- but I'm not sure exactly how that plays out in a high school environment. At this point, I think giving students the option of how they choose to document their learning is okay. I'll give several examples of formats they could use (pictures, videos, written documents, audio notes), and several methods of organizing their documentation (blogs, wikis, etc.).

What do you think?

I feel like I've got a pretty good mental vision of what I want to happen with this project, yet I still have a lot of work to nail down the specifics and make it sound all scholarly. To date I've been reading lots of research and have a lot more research left to read. However, I'd love hear your thoughts on the challenges I've laid out above.

_______________________________

  1. Students engaged in PBL gained less knowledge than students taught in traditional styles, but the PBL students remembered more knowledge several months later. They were also shown to have better problem-solving skills, be more open minded, and perform better on tests. See p. 567 of: Fallik, O., Eylon, B., & Rosenfeld, S. (2008). Motivating teachers to enact free-choice project-based learning in science and technology (PBLSAT): Effects of a professional development model. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 19, 565-591.  (back)
  2. I believe Gary Stager used this phrase, or maybe it was Peter Reynolds of FableVision?  (back)