Wednesday, April 30, 2014

PBL slow steady progress

I have had the pleasure of taking in some wonderful student presentations in my Middle Earth 12 class over the last week.  It took considerable time for the students to work through essential questions and other stages of project-based learning (PBL) development. It is not clear to me that PBL is as "productive" as other forms of learning -- and yet I am impressed with how the early projects represent learner identity and authentic research. I am increasingly convinced that with an unsorted group of students (e.g. an average crowd in a public school classroom), PBL must be blended with more traditional forms of learning. The all-or-nothing PBL approach requires resources I do not possess, structures that are unrealistic, and technology that is not accessible. In fact, I think PBL will be most successful in contexts where it is necessary to break down curricular walls. Nonetheless, we are making slow, steady progress towards both our course goals and a thorough examination of PBL.  Here are the first three presentations:
  • Can the use of creative writing and visual arts be used to understand and empathize with daily life in a medieval village?
This turned into an interesting construction of a fictional medieval village in two ways -- writing which explored the evolution of social structures in Britain leading up to feudalism, and a model of the village built out kits that the students crafted from a variety of internet "maker" sources.  I learned some new things from the students' timeline about the evolution of British society and was impressed with the amount of time it took to build the village.  Both presenters had knowledge about their topics that exceeded what they presented... in other words, there was a depth of understanding that formed a foundation for their project, rather than "just-in-time" learning that scratched the surface.
  • What patterns are in place in the lore and creation of Dark Souls characters such as Havel the Rock?
This student project focused on character development and speculated as to what the game writers had in mind when they created various "NPCs" in Dark Souls.  The discussion extended into archetypes, base qualities and symbolism behind the characters, with comparisons to Greek mythology and Tolkien's creations.  The presenter is a hardcore gamer, but this did not prevent him from being overly technical during his narration of video clips.
  • How and why have monsters such as werewolves developed in modern literature and cinema?
The project grew to become a study of the Trio of Gothic Monsters (Werewolf, Vampire, Frankenstein), their literary origins and cinematic debuts, and the role they played in popular culture a century ago compared to today. The student's conclusion was that the roles were similar, but not the same: in the past, these monsters were scapegoats, a way to blame society's ills on external forces, whereas in the present these monsters are used as a release for our tensions and way to address our anxieties, particularly about growing up. The student was definitely "caught" by her own research, and was busy reading Shelly's Frankenstein before and after her presentation.  We got to hear quotes from the Romantics, video clips from 30s and 40s films, and insightful analysis from the student who drew from a deep well in her presentation to the class

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