One of the strengths of project-based learning is flexibility. There are certainly lots of ways in which PBL can be flexible, but I would like to focus on the production of learning artifacts. As I’ve explained in my writings, learning artifacts are produced by an individual to represent his new knowledge or skills. However, I would like to highlight here that learning artifacts are individualized (or personalized) and can reflect new knowledge and skills in myriad ways.
New knowledge is individualized.
In workshops one of the statements I commonly make about PBL is that “Projects are not recipes.” Project-based learning should allow learners to individualize, or personalize, the learning in multiple ways. Every learner should not produce an identical artifact. This does not reflect the foundations and purposes of PBL. Here’s a similar quote by Chris Lehmann:
Great quote by @ChrisLehmann “If you assign a project & get back 30 of the same thing, you didn’t assign a project, you assigned a recipe.”
— Susan Oxnevad (@soxnevad) November 4, 2012
When possible, PBL should offer learners choice in the topic(s) under investigation, process of investigation, or both. The in-depth investigation that is part of PBL should be different for each learner. For example, in an 8th grade unit on geography and human rights, I observed learners identify injustices across different countries they were assigned, but then they went on to focus on causes and possible solutions based on their interests and understanding of the problems. So, their learning artifacts, of course, looked differently and contained different assertions. I liken this to differentiation, which is a very hot topic right now in K-12. In other words, the learning is individualized by the learner, which is certainly indicative of a personal learning environment.
New knowledge and skills are represented in myriad ways.
In my own teaching and when possible, I try to offer students multiple ways to represent their new knowledge or skills. For example, I emphasize the learning goals, or objective, such as “Analyze current teaching practices for elements of digital citizenship” or “Relate cognitive load theory to cognitive information processing theory.” Then I suggest a number of different ways in which this may be represented, for example a blog post, website, digital presentation, slidecast, concept map, comic strip, video, etc. In K-12 classrooms, you can, of course, include craft materials.
What I try not to do ever is tell learners to “make a Powerpoint.” I have found from my observations in classrooms that students then tell other students, you have to make a Powerpoint. Then the learning artifact and the essential purpose of the PBL is bound by “make a Powerpoint.” “Make a Powerpoint” is rarely the point of any lesson. Instead, I recommend that teachers and faculty members stay focused on what you’re really interested in learners doing, which is analysis, application, description, synthesis, justification, evaluation, etc. This is often easiest to do when related back to the driving question or central problem under study. I have seen some K-12 teachers post a banner in their classrooms with the driving question, so that they can refer to it. In an online course, it could be great to create a simple graphic that could be referred to or linked as needed in a discussion board posting. (Yes, you could create this as a Powerpoint slide. <wink> )
One of the bonuses to offering multiple outlets for the learning artifacts is that different tools have different “points of view.” In education, we call these mental models, and different software offer different methods of how to accomplish a task. For example, in this post at TeachThought.com, they present 25 different concept mapping applications. However, some of these applications create concept bubbles (called nodes) that allow crossing linking lines, such as Mindjet. Others, though, are quite hierarchical that force subordination of concepts, such as Mindomo. Depending on the content and the individual, the learner may want to represent their knowledge differently. The different tools may be a better match for one learner and content than another.
Multiple representations of knowledge
So, PBL affords learners the opportunities to represent new knowledge and skills in multiple ways. Because learners are able to choose multiple paths through instruction, or learning processes, they may make decisions about how to tackle a topic, and subsequently, how to represent that topic. PBL also gives learners choices about tools to construct their artifacts. When possible, I recommend offering students a variety of tools and choices for constructing their artifacts. We all have different abilities, so choice in tools allows us to use these abilities in ways that are often constricted with paper-and-pencil and computer-based testing.
What are your thoughts? How have you seen PBL afford multiple representations of knowledge? What challenges have you seen to implementing PBL this way, too.