by Ryan Sprott
Students preparing for field research at the US/Mexico border.
I teach humanities at the International School of the Americas, a public high school in San Antonio, TX. Along with working at my current school, I have worked in rural, urban, and international settings. As a member of the Buck Institute National Faculty as well as the co-founder of Borderland Collective, I strive to extend learning beyond the classroom walls so that students and teachers may develop 21st competencies like collaboration, critical thinking, civil discourse, and global empathy.
PBL makes school what I’ve always thought it should be. I’ve always loved learning, but as a youth I found that many of my most educative moments happened outside of the classroom. Compared to school, I felt that activities like part-time jobs, travel, and playing music helped me foster my most important life skills like curiosity, problem solving, and collaboration.
As a teacher, I wanted to create classrooms that mirrored the dynamic, authentic learning I was experiencing outside of school. I found PBL to be the pathway to rekindle and nurture students’ innate passion for learning. PBL has been essential in helping me transform classrooms into place of authentic and transformative learning.
Projects on Controversial Issues
Exploring contentious topics in classrooms can scare teachers. That’s because too often these lessons devolve into rancorous debate, leaving students and teachers frustrated and unfulfilled. However, if we are to position students for success in a rapidly-changing and increasingly-global world, teachers must help students develop the skills to have productive dialogue on complex issues. As such, I’ve found that my favorite projects have occurred when students explore divisive issues such as criminal justice, energy policy, and immigration reform.
For instance, a few years ago students pursued the question: “What is the purpose of a border?” They continually grappled with this question by posing it to a variety of people including politicians, immigrants, Border Patrol agents, asylum-seekers, scholars, and family members. Using socially-engaged art as well as structured dialogues designed to enhance equitable sharing of voices, students processed the distinct and sometimes overlapping perspectives they were hearing. The project, which included travel to the border, helped illuminate the complexity of a topic too often portrayed in overly simplistic and divisive manners. At the culmination of the project, students reflected upon the value they found in listening to other perspectives in order to gain a fuller understanding of such a multi-layered topics. Through an exhibition at a local gallery and an experimental newsprint publication, students were able to share their learning with a wide audience.
A Lesson Learned: Sizzle but No Steak
I remember one project that is indicative of a common struggle I’ve had as a teacher. In the project student groups made their own ancient civilizations in order to persuade others that their own civilization was superior to ancient Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia. I was super excited about the project, and all of the student groups made impressive looking projects; however, at the end of the unit several of the students struggled to articulate what they had learned. The projects looked good, but, for too many of the students, learning was minimal. To remedy results like this, I’ve followed the Gold Standard model of PBL in order to move students toward mastery of key objectives by providing clearer structures to improve scaffolding.
Facilitating BIE Workshops
Each time I have provided BIE professional development, I’m inspired by the teachers I get to meet, and I appreciate learning from the shared wisdom of each room. Too often teachers work in isolated silos, but what I love about the BIE model is that it embraces collaboration, reflection, and revision. After each workshop, I leave with new ideas I want to use in my classroom as well as a renewed faith in the quality of educators driving our profession.
The teacher is the lead learner in the PBL classroom. If we expect our students to be collaborative, reflective, and thoughtful risk-takers, then we have to practice those traits as well. Not only will this model learning for students, but it will help us design and lead better PBL. We ask our students to stretch themselves by engaging in PBL; we need to be willing to do that, too.