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Philosophy and Project-Based Learning at Pearson
By Andrew Sewell 12-Nov-14
When the letter from the convicted criminal came in the mail for my students, I briefly wondered if I was doing the right thing. Writing to convicts was one of many ideas students proposed to make their study of justice in the political philosophy theme of IB Philosophy more authentic, relevant, and engaging through Project-Based Learning (PBL). Drawing on ideas presented by Thom Markham during a workshop at Pearson College, our success was due primarily to the role of the driving question—a single question all students use as a point of reference while engaging with projects of their own design, working in small teams on specific research tasks. Our driving question related the topic to the United World College mission by asking “How can we make education a force for peace through our study of justice?” The driving question made learning more relevant for students and for the community. Other aspects of PBL—such as coaching for success, time-lining, and injecting concepts—all came into play as well. Teams worked on independent projects while I kept track of what students learned, ensured curriculum relevancy and coverage, checked for accuracy, and provided connections with local residents. One student team presented its research to a group of local seniors and interviewed them on the topic of justice, resulting in a written report which was later presented to the participants—a genuine audience for whom clarity, accuracy, style, and insight were not “assessment criteria” but rather common sense expectations. Two teams wrote articles that were submitted to newspapers for publication. One team, with students from the Netherlands, Afghanistan, and Canada, researched justice-related issues in their home countries: immigration, education, and environmental degradation, respectively. Each issue, set in the context of ancient, modern, and contemporary theories of justice, was written up as an article and submitted to newspapers in those countries. Another group researched and analyzed the constitutions of the UK, the US, and Ecuador for philosophical influences related to justice, and submitted their report to several newspapers. Preparing classwork for publication in newspapers required students to choose appropriate publications, research submission guidelines, and communicate regularly with newspaper staff. Two teams made videos: one intended for students searching for justice resources online, the second for IB Philosophy students at another school with whom they established a connection. The first, in which students presented research in visually compelling locations on campus, was posted on YouTube; the second involved research presentations and interviews with Pearson students and was shared directly with the other school, along with discussion questions. Video production-related issues posed a challenge. Students suggested a class blog to meet the requirement of sharing research. Here, individual research was posted, becoming the text from which students studied for the final exam, an essay on justice. These essays were accurate and intelligent, but more importantly, richly illustrated with original examples from the projects. I observed students working before class started and after class ended. They spontaneously emailed me their discoveries and extended their projects and related skills into other areas of their lives, indicating authentic engagement, relevance, and transfer of learning. I no longer wonder if writing to convicts was the right thing to do.
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