Pedagogy or assessment – what comes first in PBL?

So many things to blog about at the moment…transmedia and transliteracy, the Gonski review of school funding…but in the thick of Semester 2 teaching I find myself inexorably drawn back to curriculum studies.

And goddess, please bless Bianca for coming through with a new blog post about Project Based Learning (PBL) to stimulate my thinking this week!

I have been trying to work out how to formally incorporate PBL into the structure of my unit English Curriculum Studies 1This week I think I have a solution, which I’ll outline below.  But first, to answer Bianca’s question: when I proposed this structure in a comment on her blog she asked:

Did you design the assessments or the pedagogy first?

And that question, RIGHT THERE, is our chicken and egg, am I right?

Because, as Bianca rightly points out, school teachers find it very challenging to engage in “inherent ‘assessment for learning’ within the rigid ‘assessment of learning’ framework already in place”.  So, while it might seem logical that your pedagogy will determine your assessment, the ‘reality’ of teaching and learning puts this possibility beyond reach for most. 

For some schools their ‘rigid assessment of learning framework’ is tied to NAPLAN exams, for others it is focussed more on Year 12 exit credentials.  And in schools that claim not to be driven by external assessments, rigid assessment frameworks can still be constructed by Heads of Department (or others) who seek to place multiple additional constraints on teachers’ planning (e.g. “you MUST have a half yearly exam!”, “every Year 9 class must write an essay in term 1”)

The curriculum places constraints on assessment and pedagogy too, and I could start talking about the Australian Curriculum here.  Instead I’ll show you what I built for the university semester context, and try to answer Bianca’s question from there.

Here is the draft outline for my unit in 2012:

  • Weeks 1-4 focus: Inquiry based learning (assessment = critical/reflective essay) assessment as learning
  • Weeks 5-7 focus: Project based learning (assessment = project + review of pedagogy used in class project) assessment for learning
  • Weeks 8-9 focus: Challenge based learning (assessment = make lesson plans for English) assessment of learning

I can safely say that for this unit, I started with the assessment.  Literally, I have adopted an existing unit with existing assessment pieces that take at least 6 months to get formally changed.  So, while I have been tweaking each assessment piece each semester, I’ve been teaching it for 18 months now and a full overhaul of the structure is now needed to fully incorporate PBL and other constructivist approaches.

Beyond that initial point of departure though, I have oscillated between a pedagogy focus and an assessment focus each time I plan and change something in the unit.

I would say my major points of development around pedagogy and assessment were:

  1. Reviewing the balance of assessment FOR learning and OF learning in the existing unit.  In the university context it is only possible to mandate summative assessment…so I had to reconsider my approach to build a learning environment where the learning process was valued.
  2. Reviewing the first summative assessment, which was a critical essay, gave me the idea to make the relevance or ‘connectedness’ of the opening weeks of the unit more apparent.  Students now do a range of inquiry-based activities to help them engage in the scholarly material, motivated by the need to interrogate their own perspective.
  3. Activities planned for the first few weeks of the unit were redesigned around a new assessment that focussed on the students personal teaching philosophy.  This increased the potential of the assessment to be FOR learning, I thought.
  4. Teaching the new opening to the unit was really affirming, but showed up the weaknesses in the pedagogy of weeks 5-7.  A PBL approach was therefore introduced to ‘liven up’ this part of the unit.  This coincides with the time in semester when students begin having heaps of assignments due, and I felt they needed a pedagogical experience that was less ‘intense’, and enjoyable enough to get them through the ‘hump weeks’!
  5. The PBL appraoch worked really well, but the students put a lot of work in that wasn’t rewarded in assignment grades.  So I am now redesigning assignment 2 to include ‘project participation’ criteria so students can get their work on this counted in their final grade.
  6. aaand…MOST recently: because the final assessment of creating alesson plans really has proven a ‘challenge’, I’m going to use this to explore Challenge based learning.  I see this as being the same as Project based learning, but where the outcome does not have to be presentation to an audience.  Instead, the project outcome must ‘meet the challenge’.  Think Mythbusters 🙂

You can see how thinking about assessment and pedagogy are totally bound together – thinking about one always raises questions for the other.  Or, it should!

I’m still searching for material that can explain the realtionship between Inquiry, Project and Challenge based learning.  I’ve tried to use them here in a complementary way, but tbh it’s been tough to find sources that relate the approaches to one another.  I started off this process thinking they were slightly interchangable.  Now I can see that each one is informed by a respect for ‘learning by doing’, but has its own unique flavour.  But are these three the only three?  Do they sit in a hierarchy of some kind?  Are there other ‘Something-B-Ls’ out there that I don’t know about??

Who knows.

If you do, please add a comment!  (I hope this helps someone out there!)

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  1. #1 by Andrea Hnatiuk (@ahnatiuk) on September 5, 2011 - 11:45 pm

    Great connections and comments regarding inquiry based learning and assessment- fits with SK curriculum in Canada.

  2. #2 by kmcg2375 on September 6, 2011 - 4:22 pm

    Is that Saskatchewan? Would you mind sharing a little more about what it is like there? Thanks for the comment and tweet 🙂

  3. #3 by bhewes on September 8, 2011 - 8:58 pm

    It’s interesting isn’t it – the whole assessment as driver for pedagogy? It’s what I would say most English teachers in NSW have been ‘trained’ to do via PD sessions led by the likes of Karen Yager and Prue Greene. When planning a unit of work (and for most of us now this is a ‘conceptual planning model’) the instruction is to design the assessment first and then create the rest of the ‘learning activities’ to lead up to this assessment. It’s not overly a bad model, if done well and in the spirit of assessment for learning – that is the final assessment is a product that students ‘work towards’ with the aid of feedback (peer, self and teacher) throughout the unit leading up to submission of task. BUT serious, serious problems are encountered when the assessment us poorly crafted – essentially it is a task that is simply an ‘assessment of learning’ that is clear to the teacher (as it is typically written in teacher-babble with an impenetrably babbly marking criteria) but not the student and more often than not is a veiled HSC-style essay task. Basically the students spend 5-7 weeks ‘working towards’ an analysis essay … if they’re lucky they’ll get some feedback on a draft, so they might ‘learn’ to write an essay analysing (more like technique-vomiting) a text or two.

    So what then is informing pedagogy? The HSC. A big surprise? No.

    I just wrote this but then had a think and I don’t think it’s right but wanna share it anyway: So whether you’re using challenge, inquire or project based learning it doesn’t matter so much. What matters is the assessment because this will drive your pedagogy. Designing a great assessment is damn hard to do … I haven’t mastered it and don’t imagine I will anytime soon.

    Hmmm … your pedagogy will influence your assessment style. (Notice how this point is contrary to what I just said … thoughts in action often are, lol) If you choose an inquiry/constructivist approach to teaching like those you have identified above, then this will shape the types of assessment you set. (ASIDE: The problem is the heavy emphasis on ‘program writing’ that we have in NSW – everywhere probably. I find it inherently problematic to put down on paper exactly what will be taught when … life is evolving daily with amazing and disturbing things happening on both a micro and macro level – we should remain flexible, open to change. A program is a static construct that forces teachers to ‘stick to the program’ and not diverge from the path – look, great teachers will diverge program or not and I know how helpful these programs are to new teachers and to ‘checking’ we’re all being good teacher citizens following the syllabus etc … but I find them annoyingly limiting.) Assessment for learning (feedback) is critical to all inquiry learning – if not included then the teaching approach is floored. There is no gain in letting students flail around trying to ‘inquire’ without receiving feedback (self, peer, teacher). Project-based learning is very much about the scaffolding I think – getting the students to set goals, plan and reflect on learning is central. The un-packing of the project occurs by assessing throughout the project – beginning (a project plan or initial investigation), middle (product, draft product) and end (presentation of learning/product). It’s easy to see how using this pedagogy necessarily informs your assessment. Our job as English teachers working within the current context of HSC pressure is to work out how a PBL approach can ‘fit’ within the existing assessment schedule. I know I’ve said this before but I think assessment MUST change is teaching is to change.

    I guess you left out problem-based learning which is more teacher-directed and unless scaffolded well with embedded ‘expert’ lessons and feedback then it seems to not be terribly effective. It’s great in terms of those ‘soft-skills’ we know kids need, but seems to fail a bit on the ‘knowledge’ stuff.

    Because I’m very new to this whole thing I can’t give you any help with the relationship between the three approaches outlined – as I have stated elsewhere, I am skeptical of CBL simply because it has a corporate brand attached (apple) and I find that worrying. I’m sure that it’s a great approach and it appears to have very many similar traits to project-based learning …

    I did have a cool site I used to check out that explained the difference between problem, project and challenge based learning … if I find it I will share it with you.

    Oh, and I think your last task would be great with a presentation and seems to be a great opportunity for the project-based learning framework … the students would really value hearing about their peers’ lesson plans. One of the really cool things about PBL presentations is the use of questions, get the students to use the ‘I like …’ and ‘I wonder …’ questioning strategy so presenter is engaged in a ‘defense’ of product discussion.

    Sorry for the rant – going to post this on my blog now and see if I can get some challenge based learning advocates to rip me to shreds, lol!

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on September 9, 2011 - 1:54 am

      Yay – do it, do it! I still don’t know what PROBLEM based learning is, so I look forward to your write up 🙂

      I am still not 100% behind challenge based learning, but I think it gives a name to a special set of rules in project based learning. i.e. there is a ‘project’, in the broad sense, but it is not presentation based and you can’t progress in your personal learning sequence until you meet designated challenges.

      One example from my own schooling that comes to mind is of a very innovative Maths teacher I had in year 8 and her approach to assessment and learning as a challenge. There was a chart on the wall of the topics you had to master. In her class, because we were G&T kids, she made 80% in a topic test the ‘pass’ mark. So that was the challenge – study hard enough until you thought you could take the test for a certain topic and get at least 80%.
      We could reattempt the test three times and then we had to have a meeting/tutorial with the teacher.
      There was a big emphasis on peer tutoring – if your friend had already passed a topic test, they were encouraged to tutor you to help you pass. Groups of friends chose to do the same topic as each other so they could sit together and talk while they helped each other out. Sometimes it felt like ‘cheating’…but peer tutoring often does, imo! It is so firmly ingrained in us that we’re not supposed to get help with out work. Wow, huh?

      So that example – it’s not a project, not a problem, and not an inquiry. But I think maybe it was challenge based learning…and it was my favourite experience of learning in Mathematics, bar none. That’s saying something!

  4. #5 by bhewes on September 8, 2011 - 9:17 pm

    Just re-read post posting and there are SERIOUS spelling and grammatical errors in that post – oh the shame! Don’t judge me on my failure to edit ;0)

    (see how I self-assessed there, see that? lol)

  5. #6 by Cecily on September 26, 2011 - 8:18 pm

    Not a comment on PBL. Just a huge thank you for your link to transmedia and my discovery of little Alice! What a treat! What ideas it sent racing! Hope you don’t mind that I have forwarded the link on to lots of English teaching friends.

  1. Response to Kelli: What comes first in PBL? « Bianca's Blog

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