My PLN: working with Bianca

Part of the re-vamp I’m undertaking of English Curriculum Studies 1 to ‘make it my own’ is to use the first tutorial as time to:

  • get to know each other and form reading groups, and
  • start the students building their online PLN, or personal learning network

I have also been picking the brain of my friend and colleague Bianca Hewes as I prepare materials on project based learning, or PBL.

Bianca is a key node in my personal learning network, and her thoughts, arguments and resource links pervade my personal learning environment – we follow each other on Twitter, read each others blogs and are connected as friends on Facebook.  For me this illustrates two important elements I have found to be instrumental in building my PLN

  1. that learning happens everywhere (even in ‘personal’ spaces like Facebook)
  2. that a good learning environment is ‘personal’ in a very literal sense – friendly, generous and warm

It’s worth recording some of the building blocks of our collaboration thus far.  I’ll pick up the thread where I saw Bianca’s tweeting away while she prepared English lessons for Term 1 at the end of the summer holiday and started asking questions, to which she replied:

I had heard about PBL, but hadn’t used it well so far myself.  So I asked Bianca for some help because…well, that’s one of the lessons of this story really.  She’s in my PLN.  I know she’ll send me what she can, when she can.  As a learner, I’ve had an opportunity to personally ask her though about what it is I want to know.  And because I want to teach PBL, I know I need to learn more about it, and draw on the expertise of others:

SUCCESS! A willing expert!

To maximise Bianca’s willingness to let me pick her brain, I emailed her some more specific questions about what I wanted to learn:

Now Bianca is back at school and has preparing materials for her ‘Innovator’s Workshop’, while I’ve been busy working away on thesis corrections and planning the learning sequence for my English Curriculum Studies Unit CLB018.  This has included making a blogging ‘hub’ for the tutorial groups to compliment the QUT Blackboard resources and a twitter account for unit related tweets.  She’s created a Prezi with the information she would like to share about PBL with my class (yesss!) and now even if we don’t get a video interview or link of some sort as I had originally envisaged, I feel like I have enough material to move forward and teach this concept to my pre-service teachers.

Bianca’s Prezi includes a Common Craft video about personal learning networks, which links to the website for , so now I also have two killer links to refer people on to who are new to PBL.  Are you?  Why not watch the common craft video now, you’ve come this far:

So, THAT is the story of how having a PLN that you love and put energy into building pays back in spades.

If nothing else I hope that giving my students this path and these tools for expanding their personal learning environments will encourage them to look forward to learning again.  If they read this post they will see that learning done well doesn’t limit itself to one space, one person, or one network.  I won’t be able to teach them everything I think is important about English Curriculum in nine weeks, and that’s why equipping them with the motivation and capability to keep learning beyond week 9 is priority number one.

Thanks Bianca for being in my PLN and for being part of this story 🙂


  1. #1 by Carlie on February 21, 2011 - 11:37 am

    I’m a pre service teacher however I’m studying at UQ. While I’m sad that I don’t get to study directly at university with you, I am glad you blog here and share what you will be teaching your students – I hope you continue. I am very interested in your approach to teaching and learning, so thank you!

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on February 23, 2011 - 10:57 am

      Thanks Carlie! Feel free to drop by and add your thoughts any time 🙂

  2. #3 by cj on February 21, 2011 - 11:46 am

    A couple of quick thoughts. In my mind there is no doubt that getting kids into serious knowledge production works a treat. But, IMHO, this means it is not something engineered by well-intentioned old folk (WIOF, aka teachers). Two keys. The work has to matter to someone else, if it is a fridge door assignment than it will be treated as such by kids. And, the most important: kids need access to mature insider forms of practice, i.e. experts. For most WIOF they are not experts. The exceptions tend to be in the performing Arts area and maybe in Phys Ed if the teacher is an athlete of some kind. But in general, maths teachers don’t do any maths, english teachers don’t write, history teachers don’t do history etc. So important that whatever kids do is as cutting edge as it can be made. WIOF can’t give them that.

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on February 23, 2011 - 11:07 am

      I’m glad you mentioned this…
      I completely believe that “kids need access to mature insider forms of practice”, and that there is an epic problem in the fact that English teachers, although often avid readers are not often comfortable as writers. As an English teacher hoping to use more PBL I am also hoping to develop ways to increase teacher participation in writing. This will lead not only to them becoming an authentic member of the classroom writing community, but it hopefully will mean that students’ work ‘matters’ more. When teachers get involved in writing processes, I believe they will be more inclined to ensure there is an authentic audience for the group’s work, even if that is just the department head, or another class.

      • #5 by kmcg2375 on February 23, 2011 - 11:17 am

        Actually, I’m reading a really interesting paper at the moment about teacher writing, here is a bit:
        “Advocates who support teachers’ authentic involvement as writers argue that when practitioners demonstrate writerly behaviour, model interest and share their challenges, younger writers benefit…and recent UK research has shown the value of affording professionals the time and space to consider the compositional process and the thinking strategies involved.” (Cremin and Baker, 2010: )

        The interesting aspect of this is that teachers don’t necessarily have to be ‘experts’ (this idea is what scares most teachers away from PBL imo), rather they just have to be experiencing the same process of knowledge production as the students are in order to fully connect as part of the learning community.
        The idea of being the ‘leading learner’?

  3. #6 by David Chapman on February 21, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    PBL rocks. That sums up my view of it. That being said – it is very challenging to many teachers (I have tweeted with Bianca about this too).

    A few observations I have made from tackling PBL in my classroom and encouraging in my English Department:

    1. Teachers need to relax – when a class of students start down the journey of a PBL task, there is a real chance it will be the first time for some of them. This means that some students will not engage with the task well if they feel they are not being graded for every step. It takes work to encourage students to engage – and it takes great self control to not stress out when some students appear to ‘not be learning’. Group PBL tasks are amplified in their benefits and challenges as compared to other group tasks.

    2. Engaging tasks are needed. While not all tasks will appeal to all students – a carefully designed PBL situation will work so much better than a poor one. Of course this is true in almost everything we do in the classroom – but PBL also seems to really require attention to the engagement factor.

    3. Calm, creative and interested teachers seem to cope best with PBL – and in the long run the students really gain benefits.

    SimpIy put -I love PBL.

    • #7 by kmcg2375 on February 23, 2011 - 11:24 am

      Thanks for this invaluable tips David. I see myself in point one! I am especially afraid that “some students will not engage with the task well if they feel they are not being graded for every step.” I am trying to think of ways to engage students in the university classroom context, where we are only together for about 10 weeks. Their final assignment involves designing lesson plans for diverse learners, but I’m loathe to tie their experience of PBL to an assignment task.

      I think I am going to relax and embrace the calm. Starting the first tutorial with a KWL exercise might give me some inspiration and help ground our eventual project in the real interests of my students 🙂

  4. #8 by Troy on February 23, 2011 - 7:24 pm

    May I join in? This would fit right into the course I have at University of Newcastle this semester. I’ve seen the course weekly overview and so much of it can be PBL based.

    • #9 by kmcg2375 on March 7, 2011 - 2:06 pm

      Yes yes yes of course, join in!
      I am considering this project to span over about 3 tutes – ‘Devise a new content area to be added to the English curriculum’ I’m thinking they could present their ideas in the final tute? This came out of discussions about the publishing industry, Borders/A&R etc and students realised there is a whole heap of stuff to do with the world of words and texts that is not covered in the curriculum. I want expose the gaps and omissions in the curriculum 😀

  5. #10 by dskmag on February 23, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    PBL – yum. It’s completely alien to me, after adopting PBL via New Technology High in the US – why anyone would ask a pre-service teacher to create a lesson plan. The thing with PBL in Australia is that it’s not readily aligned to outcomes, so there is a lot – a lot – of work to do in mapping the project in a single subject let alone over several. It’s a real turn off for those who like to teach in a linear sequence. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that PBL as a model (with steps) is a platform not a solution – and that it takes imagination, creative and out of the box thinking to do it well.

    I recommend – and perhaps looking at his ideas on learning ecologies. Bianca is great at this, she moves between spaces and keeps conversations alive. There are a handful of teachers teaching as PBL (in that it uses the BIE backbone) in Australia, and something that Ive seen bring kids alive. But it’s no magic potion if the teacher isn’t prepared to work harder than ever. I have a group on Diigo – that I kicked of a few years ago – it has some amazing educators in it and a swag of resources.

    There is lot in PBL, a lot of tricks and techniques that are not in the materials … not least technology integration. My dearest wish is that teacher come and learn about it. The door is always open – and I’d be more than happy to run sessions for teachers in Australia. It is an amazing way to transform the learning experience … but not all teachers enjoy it as it creates new issues as well as soothing old ones – not least the fact in my experience it wipes away classroom management issues that so often plague teachers in attempting to information-dump on kids.

    In a nutshell – PBL is about meaning making, not information … glad you’re looking into it.


  6. #11 by Alix on March 5, 2011 - 10:20 pm

    Hi, I love the idea of PBL. Although new to teaching I can see how this would work wonderfully well in the classroom. I would love to use it with my Language class, clustering students in ability groups so they can direct (and set the pace of) their own learning. My obstacle would be ensuring they all meet the same requisite outcomes.

    I wanted to share a personal experience with PBL from the student’s perspective. I recently completed a degree, most of it as a distance student. The one unit that I felt I gained most out of was the one structured as project-based learning. I found the experience thrilling of being the ‘captain’ of my own ship. I learned so much about this topic – one I had little interest in but which was mandatory – and because of the thrill of my learning, the more I learned the further into it I was able to progress. The further I progressed the more I wanted to progress. My progress depended on my collaborating with others, especially experts. I had to produce a final presentation as a reflection of all I had learned – this made me careful not to skim and rush but really take it in and question. This experience turned me onto both an area I had previously had little experience of and the broader notion of self-directed learning, to which I believe PBL belongs.

    I was reflecting on what made this experience so successful and I came up with three answers: (1) it was interesting – technology in the classroom. (Can’t avoid it! Wouldn’t want to!) (2) it was mandatory to my being able to graduate. (Simple reality) (3) I was able to see the instant results of my learning. One skill enabled me to move to the next level and that was apparent to me as I was studying. The first reason was engagement, the second motivation, the third was the immediate and gratifying rewards of learning. I hope this is of some help.

    Thanks for sharing all your ideas Kelli – I find your blog and resources invaluable 🙂

  1. Tweets that mention My PLN: working with Bianca | Kelli McGraw --
  2. Presenting on PBL to English Head Teachers Network meeting « Bianca's Blog

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