This is the success story of a school-based research project that charts an institution’s transition from traditional learning methods to project-based learning. In this report, Dr. Maliha Ahmed gives a detailed account of the deep-rooted problems faced in implementing the project and its eventual success, against all odds.
This report on a school based action research project recounts the transition process from a teacher centred to student centred learning carried out in grade six of The Karachi School (a pseudonym) through the adoption of an inductive teaching method of the Project Based Learning (PBL). The action research involved 176 students and 8 teachers and was spread over a period of six months. The research was initiated with the intent of improving learning of students and teachers by use of an inductive pedagogy. Evidence of data collected through informal interviews, anecdotal records, journal keeping and feedback from the participants of the research indicates that PBL has been effective in initiating the process of changing the prevalent passive learning to an interactive one. This report entails the plan of the introduction of an inductive pedagogy, its implementation in the classes and lastly, assessments of the learning outcomes. Results of the outcomes demonstrate that student centred teaching can be made more effective if the teachers are given professional scaffolding about inductive teaching methodologies, guidance on how to manage large number of students and the required teaching skills to do so.
Keywords: transition, student- centred learning, project based learning skills, inductive pedagogy.
Introduction to the Problem
The problem that I faced at the school was that the teaching practice was primarily teacher centred. I wanted to change the style of teaching from the passive rote learning to an active one through introduction of newer methods. The rote learning was leading to poor learning amongst students evident by their inability to answer questions not taught in textbooks as Well as complacency on part of the teachers who had no interest in professionally developing themselves or changing their habitual classroom practices. This situation led to my quest to introduce a learning methodology, which would motivate students to be active in class and adopt the inquiry approach. Project Based Learning (PBL) is one of the inductive methods, which equip students with critical thinking, independent learning and information seeking skills (Prince& Felder, 2006).
I observed that during the class lessons the students were passive learners as they just listened to teachers lecturing without posing questions about the subject being taught. When I saw the lesson plans of the teachers, it became apparent that they did not prepare their lessons by reading relevant literature to enhance their knowledge or bring in any innovation in their teaching style. My action research plan was based on the introduction of PBL in an attempt to realize my vision to improve the learning of teachers and students. I wanted teaching and learning at the school to be more contemporary and meaningful and for teachers to come out of their comfort zone and be willing to increase their content knowledge.
Describing the Problem Context
Introducing any new approach is not easy, as change has to be brought in gradually to be accepted and fully adopted by the whole school environment (Copland 2003; Fullan, 2001; Hallinger, 2003). The first step I took was that I became well cognizant of the key components of PBL by reading educational literature (Bell, 2003). I learnt that PBL is one of the 21st century methods which has shown fruitful results in changing the approach of teaching from teacher centred to student centred learning (Bender, 2012). Students need to be actively engaged to hold their attention and not just be bound to reading their textbooks but taught skills to deal with real life problems. Through PBL students are taught how to identify a problem and then solve it. Educationists have suggested ways of how learning and teaching can be more constructive and authentic (Savery & Duffy, 2001). The strategy of students working in groups is an effective way of enhancing interest in learning and to teach children social skills (Barell, 2007). Students learn to support each other as academically brighter students help the weaker ones in the group to accomplish the given tasks of the projects.
Introducing change in a 64 year old school was extremely difficult as most of the faculty members were set in their ways and reluctant to learn a new teaching methodology. To introduce and implement an innovative pedagogy I had to first convince the school policy makers to adopt PBL and then involve my critical friends Mrs Jameel the headmistress of the secondary section, Ms Saleem the head of the academic Quality Enhancement Cell (QEC) and the grade six teachers. I acquainted all the research participants comprising of my critical friends and class six teachers with the PBL ideology and outlined its learning benefits. I also convinced them that the action research process would not be a hindrance to completion of the syllabus or cause problem of classroom management as literature shows that learning is achieved more in interactive classes (Hattie, 2011). The parents too had to be persuaded to allow their children to be taught PBL, as their reservation was that involvement in searching for information would prove to be a distraction from acquiring academic knowledge. In a culture where attaining of high grades is the benchmark of quality education and parents are pre-occupied with their child’s academic achievements, I had to allay their fears that PBL would not affect their child’s grades adversely.
An action research process is a culmination of putting ideas into action to bring about an improvement in an existing system. The concept of action research originates from Lewin’s Model, which is based on four basic spiral steps of planning, action, observation and reflection (Burnes, 2004). The model shown consists of a cyclic pattern, which allows action plans to be revised as the need arises. The length of each cycle of an action research depends on the type of action being taken, and the spiral pattern of action, observation, reflection and re-planning continues in each cycle.
Fig.1. Kurt Lewin’s Model (http://infed.org/mobi/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/lewin_action_research-Copy.gif)
Action research has the uniqueness of allowing for flexibility of actions taken by those who are involved and is based on doing a planned action. It is a disciplined procedure of conducting an inquiry by and for those taking part in the process (Denizen & Lincoln, 2011). The intentional overlapping of action and reflection in the cyclic pattern of action research gives room for needed changes as the process continues.
The plan in my action research was to change the teacher centred learning pedagogy to a student centred one by means of PBL which is an inductive teaching methodology; the action was introduction of PBL in class six at the school; the observation was through documentation of teaching practices, using checklists, anecdotal records, journal keeping, interviews and photographs of the steps taken in the first two cycles and lastly reflection was by means of collecting feedback of the participants of the research. Reflection was done by collecting data and reviewing the outcomes of the change introduced, by means of observations and specifically designed checklists.
I decided to base my action research on the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKUEB) Middle School Assessment Framework Project Portfolio, which was being adopted by the school in grade six, to bring a transition from passive to active learning. Based on the student centred learning approach as discussed by Markham, Larmer and Ravitz (2003) the projects in the framework were aimed at involving students in design, problem solving, decision making and inquiry based activities. According to Larmer and Mergendoller (2010) the seven essentials of PBL are a need to know, a driving question, student voice and choice, 21st century skills, inquiry based inquiry and innovation, feedback and review and a publicly presented product. I expected that the introduction of PBL would teach these skills to change the teacher centred teaching to a student centred one to create learner centred environment in classes (McCoombs, 2001). My intention was to enable students to be equipped with problem solving skills, which would teach them how to deal with real life situations and also have the confidence of publicly sharing what they had learnt.
My Action Research Process
I started my action research in September 2012, after I took permission from the administration of the school.
• First Cycle
In the first cycle I introduced the concept of PBL to the eight teachers participating in the action research. The teachers selected to partake the action research were those who were teaching English, Urdu, science, social studies and mathematics and were all willing to be a part of the action research process. After reviewing the teachers’ responses I concluded that they needed support to better their understanding of PBL.I discovered that the teachers lacked motivation to adopt new pedagogical approaches which was evident by their teacher centred lesson plans showing absence of the knowledge of how to conduct group work or how to act as a facilitator for carrying out project tasks. I organized and monitored the presentation given by the AKUEB trainer on PBL and its implementation as a tool for interactive learning. Along with my critical friend Mrs Jameel, I assured the teachers of support and facilitation in carrying out the PBL programme. Through a follow up meeting I explained the modalities of the PBL assessment framework in detail. I told the teachers to select six projects out of the eight given by AKU EB. The projects were selected keeping in mind the relevance of the topic to the curriculum being taught, the interest of the students and the feasibility in reference to the cost involved, time constraint and the competency of the teacher in charge of the specific project.
The material of the project outline was shared with the teachers and I ensured that all the required documents were made available to them to make the project portfolio of each student. I asked the teachers to allocate periods for each project and spread each task over a period of three to four weeks. At this stage, I also asked teachers to make groups of students in each class and assign them roles of group leader, recorder, timekeeper, discussant and presenter. The intention behind this was to teach students how to work systematically in a group for a specific task. I stressed that each time the students had a group discussion their assigned roles be changed so that each student gets an equal opportunity to develop individual learning skills. I told the teachers to clarify the expectations of each task with the students, as well as share the rubrics of assessment for group work and of individual assessment before the start of each activity.
• Second Cycle
When the second cycle was about to begin I included another critical friend Ms Saleem, the head of the QEC to facilitate the progress of the PBL. The project in English was Reading for Fun. My objective of selecting this project was for students to build up a reading habit, develop critical thinking skills by keeping a reading journal, as well as to learn to write a book review and share it with others in the class. The purpose of this process was not only for students to enjoy reading but also sharpen their thinking and analytical skills and in the process learn to become good writers. The teachers’ role as participants of the action research was to help students keep a recording journal and facilitate their writing of book reviews.
The analysis of the learning outcomes of students evident by their interest shown in reading books in the library and their use of new words in their composition writing showed that the book reading activity was a success.
The science project involved the study of living organisms in an environment. The science teachers as outlined in the initial planning worked with the students to carry out the task of studying a piece of land to observe the living organisms inhabiting it. On a field trip to the mangroves, the students noted down their observations and took pictures. Later they had group discussions and analysed the data collected. The purpose of the science project was to teach students ICT skills, social skills, observational and presentation skills and to write a report based on their findings. All this was achieved by actual observation by stepping out of the classroom rather than memorization through reading of textbooks or by traditional lecturing of teachers. According to Prince and Felder (2006) student centred inductive teaching methods such as PBL augments students’ in depth meaningful learning much more than the superficial memorization of the traditional deductive pedagogy. The active participation of the students reaffirms the study of Meece (2003), which says that students involved in PBL are more motivated learners and show better communication and teamwork skills.
In two sections of grade six, a project of history integrated with English was carried out which involved teaching students technique of interview taking and history report making. Groups of students interviewed various staff members, used a digital camera and a recorder for recording the interview and in this way used technology as a tool for authentic learning (Herrington & Kervin, 2007).
The teachers’ keen involvement in this project was clearly demonstrated by their introduction of the topic of the project for the students through the means of a power point presentation and making of a face book page to communicate with them and guide them throughout the activity. As anticipated in action research literature there were some difficulties faced in the action research process. There was constraint of time because of unexpected holidays due to trouble in the city, which made the carrying out of the tasks of the project along with the completion of the syllabus tough. When asked through a written opinion poll the parents were supportive of PBL but few had reservations that the time spent on project tasks was taking children away from their studies and hence affecting their grades in class tests. A surprise element was that a few teachers who seemed to have more potential to support change and the PBL pedagogy were not so actively involved in the implementation process. Two teachers who had been inducted for the action plan at the beginning of the action research left the job and new teachers took their place. The newly inducted teachers had to be acquainted with the PBL approach.
After documenting all the feedback I had a meeting with my critical friends to solve some of the problems of time and class management faced by the teachers in carrying out the project tasks. Prince and Felder (2006) say that inductive teaching will not achieve its desired outcome if the implementation of the planning is not well thought out. They say that PBL including other inductive teaching approaches of problem-based learning, inquiry learning and discovery learning can all go wrong if not implemented properly. I had to reflect on my initial planning and revise the action plan. One was to decrease the number of projects to four instead of six so that meaningful learning was able to happen and another was to add an extra period to the class timetable for project tasks. Following what Lam, Cheng and Choy (2010) say that school support increases the motivation of teachers in implementing PBL, QEC members and I gave scaffolding to the teachers who expressed that they needed more guidance.
• Third Cycle
The third cycle involved the evaluation of the learning outcomes of the introduction of the student centred pedagogy of PBL. For the evaluation of the students’ learning I used the rubrics of assessment designed by the AKU EB. Each project had its own rubric for evaluation like in the case of the book review it was the content, organization and language while in science the evaluation was done on organization, creativity and content. Students’ group assessment was done on working together, searching for information, group discussion and participation in oral presentation. At the end of a project task, each student was assessed by means of self, peer and teacher evaluation checklists, which showed the learning outcomes of the students, their capability of cooperation in a group and the skills learnt. At the completion of the four projects, an evaluation of the portfolio was done by the teachers and band grading was awarded in the four areas of content, understanding, presentation and reflection. The students were also asked to write a self-reflection of what they had learnt from any one project. The self-reflection of students demonstrated that they learnt skills of critical thinking and social interaction through the project tasks.
The teachers’ learning outcome was also assessed in the final cycle. The improvement in understanding of PBL was evident in the results of the checklist used to assess the teachers’ understanding at the completion of the action process. Also observation of class teaching showed a shift towards a student centred approach. The outcome of PBL was encouraging and showed that teachers were now more confident about use of PBL in the coming academic session.
The teachers’ change in attitude in adopting newer methodologies assessed by their feedback was encouraging as most of them wanted to continue PBL in the coming session and were even keen to continue it in grade seven. However, the teachers need further motivation and given targets to seek professional development and develop the desire to adopt new pedagogies. They also need training to handle large classes. For this purpose educational literature on managing large classes can be made use of (Cherian & Mau, 2003).
Change as Copland (2003) says can only be successful if it includes the ideas and support of all the stakeholders including staff, students and parents. Another reality that must be kept in focus is that any action plan can come across hurdles, taking of risks and there is always a likelihood of failure of the plan. I realize that the majority of teachers were apprehensive and reluctant at the start as they were not familiar with the new teaching methodology. I also had to come to terms with the fact that expecting teachers to handle the large number of students, approximately forty in each section and of mixed abilities was not easy. I can understand the plight of the teachers who complained about the difficulties faced in implementing an inductive methodology for the first time.
There was a definite change in the teachers’ attitude and their desire to better their own knowledge content. The English teachers took the help of the librarian to search for different samples of book reviews. The other teachers learnt how to make power point presentations where needed for the final product of a project task. One teacher shared that she found it difficult to introduce the topic of the project. For support she read up literature and searched the Internet. Having learnt a method of how to introduce the task in an interesting manner she was amazed at how smoothly the project proceeded from then on. Another teacher said that she introduced the interview-taking project by conducting a mock interview of the monitor of the class. The teachers also supported each other by sharing ideas amongst themselves to make PBL more effective. Observing the actively involved teachers the other teachers were motivated too. The teachers involved in the action research process became familiar with many new terms and methods such as making of portfolios and grading of learning outcomes according to well-defined rubrics. Thus I did achieve my objective of the action plan to the degree that the teachers learnt a new tool for teaching and started to think on the lines of how to make classes’ student- centred (Morris & Herbert, 2012).
Apart from introducing other interactive teaching strategies in due course I would like to further observe how inductive methodologies help students to better their academic performance in all class assessments. I feel that my action research will help educational leaders especially those of a third world country where teacher centred teaching is still widespread to initiate student centred learning. Indeed change cannot happen suddenly but the process has to start and educational leaders and teachers have to consciously want the change for it to be successful.
Dr. Maliha Ahmed has recently completed her M. Ed in School Leadership from NDIE. This action research report is an abridged version of the one she wrote as part of the course. She is the Deputy Principal at well-known Karachi school for the last 19 years. She oversees the administrative and instructional aspects of the school’s campuses. Maliha Ahmed is a doctor and also promotes health awareness in the school.