Those who are regulars around these parts, will know that I’m engaged in an Action Research project that is involved in looking at the broad question of maker learning as an inquiry approach to discovering curricular content in our classrooms. If this is your first visit, you may want to read some of my previous posts on maker learning either by clicking here or by selecting the “Making” check-box in the Categories section of the right sidebar.
I will admit that, after a term of collecting data through interviewing and observing students, digesting their final projects, reading learning logs and reading other scaffolding assessments, I’ve hit a bit of a wall in terms of analyzing all of this data. Part of this is this due to my lack of practical experience in doing qualitative research, but part of this has to do with the questions at hand. Today, as I face heaps of data, yet again, to try and make sense of it all, I take a step back and look at some bigger-picture questions.
Probably my biggest hurdle at this point is the question of whether I’ve been able to determine anything about what knowledge has been gained through students’ PBL/Maker projects (note that, for this discussion, I’m using the terms PBL and Maker learning somewhat interchangeably.) We did not do a formal exam on the content at the end of the unit, so it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions as to what the impact of this learning approach has had on the learning of the mandated curriculum. Some would argue that if we are concerned about students about being able to pass standardized, content-driven evaluations, why don’t we use more traditional methods of delivering content. I wonder how much we should care about ensuring that everyone knows the same facts and worry more about a student’s ability to think through deeper ideas that come from becoming more intimately familiar with a narrower subset of the broader curriculum. Maybe, in my research, I need to care more about what kinds of learning are occurring through this inquiry approach and what conditions need to be present to foster rich experiences.
For example, one observation the students, other teachers, and I have made is that the quality of the final product is far higher when there is some sort of personal connection with the topic of inquiry. But what does that personal connection have to look like to ensure that that correlation pans out (if, in fact, that observation is indeed factual)? In our WWII unit, there were students who’s family members were involved in the war in some way, either as soldiers or as civilians in countries directly involved in the war. The student who’s grandfather was a doctor who risked his life protecting Jewish patients during Kristallnacht has some very deep personal connections that were very evident in the presentation of his final work. The student who has a love of board games with a particular interest in historical war themed games (think Axis and Allies or even Risk), has a very different connection to his topic and project of creating his own game based on the Battle of the Atlantic. His presentation and product demonstrated a deep understanding of the implications of the naval battles and how this campaign affected the outcome of the war. What is common to both these students? What can we learn from them that we might be able to replicate in future assignments? What other factors need to be present to ensure that every student’s learning experience is as rich as these two?
I’ve discussed in my jargon post that there likely needs to be some emphasis on the actual inquiry process for a Maker/PBL project to work if the intent is for students to discover content for themselves. If the intent of a Maker/PBL assignment is to get the students to figure out how to construct a particular project, then the inquiry is driven by the end result. We all need to end up in roughly the same place, so what is learned is fairly easy to define. If we want to allow students to explore a topic of personal relevance within a broader content area and we don’t care so much what the end result is, then we need to be OK with the fact that the specifics of what is learned may vary drastically from one student to the next. In the context of my particular research, perhaps trying to test a body of students on the same content at the end of such a project is a fool’s errand.
When I step further back and compare the inquiry that I’m conducting with the students’ inquiry I have to look at some of the similarities between their struggles and mine. I needed to define my research early on, probably at a point when I didn’t really have a clue what I was talking about. I see this happen daily with the students at my school. This has resulted in a state of mild confusion over the direction of the inquiry and a possible re-focusing. I ask myself if I need a new research question or if there is still value in the original question. Is the original question losing it’s original personal relevance? Or do I need to explore it further to expose what I was originally looking for?
While writing blog posts is always a personal exercise in gaining clarity to my thinking, there are many thoughts that would benefit significantly from others’ thinking and comments. What experiences have you had with PBL/Maker learning that might be relevant to my research? Perhaps you are steeped in research experience and have some sage advice for a relative novice in the data analysis phase. What stories might you have around particularly effective or ineffective inquiry or PBL/Maker learning experiences with students? Maybe you can see that I’ve gotten off on a tangent that you’ve already explored and can offer some thoughts that might redirect me?