This article was originally posted on the Voices from the Learning Revolution blog of Powerful Learning Practice. It contains some information that has previously been posted on this blog. If you are a regular reader of this space, you may want to skip down to the “Showing Their Learning” sub-title.
“Puffed wheat, brownie, rice krispie, brownie, puffed wheat, brownie, rice krispie, brownie” chanted one of my students as she explained the pattern she had just made with pieces of cake. We were in the middle of a passion-based learning (PBL) unit themed around patterning. “I wonder if you can make patterns with cake” one of my students had asked? And so we tried it.
I have wondered for a long time how passion and project based learning would change my primary classroom. I have read with fascination the blogs of teachers who made this shift, but I have yet to find an example of a primary teacher sharing this change. Having an entire class of pre-readers and writers in your classroom alters the playing field for exploring your passions. This year, I decided to find out for myself what the difference would be in my grade one learning space.
I decided to do a patterning unit first, and kicked it off by showing the students an Animoto I had made with copyright-free photos of patterns in the environment. Frankly, I would do this differently next time. My six-year olds seemed to be intrigued, but were not sure of what their response should be, and it did not elicit the questions I was hoping for. I talked to the students about the expectations of our curriculum. Then, I asked them what they would like to learn about patterns.
The questions came very slowly at first (they had only been in my class a couple of days and we were still getting to know each other), but by the end of our discussion, all of the students had had at least one question. They asked things like “can you make a pattern with squares?”, “how many colours can there be in a pattern?” and “can you make patterns with cake?”
As they formulated their questions, I gave them a card with I wonder… printed on it, and they went to a table to draw a picture of their question. As each picture was finished, I printed the words to end their question for them, and the children trotted off to our Wonder Wall to post them. The next day, I showed the students where to find information and materials in our classroom and then told them to choose one of their questions from the wall and to use anything we had to find the answer.
The students worked individually or in a small group with paper and crayons or manipulatives and made patterns, patterns and more patterns. As the students discovered the answers to their questions and dictated them to me, I printed their solutions on a strip of paper for them to copy onto a new card that already had I learned… printed on it. Then, these cards went onto the What We Learned wall in the classroom. This process continued throughout our unit.
Some questions the students wondered about couldn’t be answered by their working on their own. “I wonder if there are patterns in my basement?” needed some parent support. “I wonder if snakes have patterns?” meant I needed to share an informational picture book with the class. The question above about patterning with cake meant that I had to do some baking.
Some questions, such as patterning with paper boxes, stimulated everyone’s interest. Questions about patterns on grass and ladybugs led to a host of new questions that meant we had to move outside to do some discovery. (And meant that we were also venturing into our science and math studies.) There were some days that had to be more teacher directed. During the unit, we made Skype calls to some global friends, and we made sure to ask about patterns in the other classrooms.
As we worked through our questions, we kept coming back to our overarching inquiry, what is a pattern? At first, we just made suggestions and recorded the answers. Later we came back to these suggestions to see if what we had previously documented still reflected our thinking about patterns — adding or removing statements as necessary. Sometimes we used these scribed responses to determine whether something was a pattern or not.
Showing Their Learning
At the end of the unit, each of the children produced a digital artifact to show what they had learned. These were all posted on their blogs. As this was the first time we had done this, I reminded them of what our objectives were at the beginning, and gave some ideas of ways they might choose to express what they knew, although I was open to their ideas as well. Some students chose to animate their patterns with Animationish or make a digital picture and record their voices with Audioboo. Others chose to use the iPad app ScreenChomp and made a screencast. A few made posters and explained them while another student recorded it on video.
I’m Finding the Passion in PBL
Is this what passion-based learning looks like in a primary classroom? I think I’m getting there. I loved the fact that we could learn curriculum outcomes based on what the students (not the teacher’s guide or myself) chose. Digital artifacts have been a part of my classroom for a long time, but I prized the specificity of the ones we created this time. I have some still-forming ideas for ways I want the next unit to be better. However it turns out, I think I’m hooked. And I’m definitely still learning.
In the meantime, the excitement and learning that took place when we tried to look at ladybugs (they were incredibly fast and hard to keep track of) showed me exactly where we should go with our next unit. Living things, here we come!