Adventures in Project Based Learning part 2: back in the classroom

In my last blog I outlined some of what I learned from spending a week observing and even participating a little at High Tech High in San Diego last June. Naturally, the intention of such a big trip was not only to watch and document, but to give this process a go ourselves. And so I came back, co-authored a unit of work, “did the project myself” and then ran it with two year 8 classes.

With mixed results. Which explains why the first blog didn’t get published until now, and why I haven’t exactly rushed to write about this experience either. But then teachers can learn from their mistakes too, right? The other big problem is that we started designing this unit of work while we were still in HTH Chula Vista with three faculties involved: it was only half way through the 5 weeks of work that we realised one of those faculties had dropped out. This greatly affected the success of the project because students were being told one thing, and then another, and ingredients to the final product we had planned were missing.

High Tech High in San Diego
High Tech High in San Diego

That said, I won’t do finger pointing here for two reasons. Firstly, while we started planning in the US, we did most of the actual preparation very late. So for us teachers there wasn’t a great period of showing what we’d prepared, making the project, and doing proper evaluation between us. We stayed firmly in our silos most of the time, with a Google Doc to share ideas (if you’re interested to read that document, it may make more sense after you’ve read this blog).

All of the HTH teachers would tell you how important preparation and evaluation is, and we proved that: without investing time in confirming and concreting what we were going to do as a group of teachers, one teacher wasn’t properly invested and it all got too hard. Secondly, despite recognising the fault we made at that early point, it’s very tempting to look at the poor work samples from students at the end and blame them on the faculty that didn’t deliver: then Jeff Robin’s blog reminds me that “If you ever say, “I want to collaborate with other teachers but all my partners are bad”, you are the one that is hard to work with.”

I was lucky to be joined in Music by a practicum student, Tim, from the Sydney Conservatorium, and we were working together with Science. The project, originally designed by the head of Science, was simply called What Does It Mean To Be Green? I was pretty excited about this topic and so very eager to be involved. With the recent introduction of the Carbon Tax in Australia it was a great time to ask students to think critically about the information that bombarded them from every side on the topic of “being green”. The government opposition were running a campaign intended to make the Australian taxpayer believe they were going to be much poorer with no environmental gain, so there was political interest as well as scientific.

While the science faculty were busy getting students to think about these kind of things and what their point of view was, my job was to help them ‘sell’ their eventual message, learning key music outcomes in the process. The overall project was to be delivered in a video, so the focus of time in music would be looking at models where sound is used to enforce an environmental or political message, and experimenting with pitched and unpitched sounds, samples and effects in the process. As directed by Jeff Robin, I made the project myself, and then realised that given so little time (only five 50-minute lessons) the models needed to be really clear. Tim also did the project himself, and we shared the teaching and tutoring in the lessons. Tim uniquely had time to attend some of the science classes, and as you’ll see, did some very important work collecting student feedback at the end of the unit.

The SinkingThe first lesson was a guided listening lesson old-school style, with The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior by Colin Bright and Amanda Stewart as the model. This work uses mixed media of all the above types, and students could easily identify what kinds of sounds were used to gain what effect. The use of drone and a simple pentatonic scale in the first movement provided starting material for students’ own work, and these became core concepts that the students would learn. Scaffolding was also provided in the school LMS (Schoology), with material such as links to find good sample-able content on the topic:

The next four weeks were all about improvisation, composition, and learning the technological skills required to complete the task. I broke these skills down in my own project, which then became the second model for students. I created a rough tutorial video for each skill so that students could either prepare flipped-classroom style, or revise/catch up where necessary. Tim created a worksheet showing how to play a number of different pentatonic modes in Garageband. We taught classrooms “from the back” as much as possible, by which I mean that only the first 5 minutes were instruction or reminding students what had to be done, and the rest of the time working with individual students on their actual projects. Here are the four (be forgiving, I said they’re rough!) tutorial videos:

The most positive aspect of the resulting work was that having a self-contained project within music which was then to be expanded into their videos that would be shown at the final POL (presentation of learning, to which their parents and the school principal were invited) meant that I had some assessable work that I wouldn’t have if I had only asked them to produce the final video: more of that in a moment. However, the rate of completion of the unit (.4 failed to submit) was much lower than all other units of work in year 8 (a range of .11 to .14 failed to submit). It is possible to equate the low completion rate with the fact that this was the last unit for the year, most students were not planning to continue music in year 9, and reports had already been written so consequences for not completing work were perceived low.

Before I refer to marks, let me explain that these marks may seem very low, but that I am privileged to work in a department that teaches well above the expectations of the NSW BoS syllabus, and so a mark close to 100% would reflect the ability of students many years in advance of state expectations in music. The two classes (of six total year 8 classes) involved in this unit had only a handful of students who might be expected to gain high marks based on their prior musical education and pretests. The marks that I cite are used only for internal assessment: student feedback shows not these marks but descriptors for outcomes (not evident, developing, satisfactory and high) aligned with BoS outcomes. Nonetheless the marking is entirely consistent and very useful for comparing progress over the year and response to different material and styles of teaching.

Of the assessable outcomes, marks (39% average) were much lower in this unit of work than the two proceeding units (average 54%) for the class which had at the start of the year done better in their pre-test; while marks improved slightly (35% average from a previous 29.5% over the year) for students who had done least well in the pre-test. One could conclude that the students with lower ability were more engaged by the project based learning task.

Non-completion of the task also influences comparison with earlier units of work. Therefore, marks of students who submitted marks in each unit only were also compared across both classes as a whole. When non-completions were not taken into account, students across the two classes showed a slight overall improvement over the two previous units of work, up from a range of 51-58% to 60% in the What Does It Mean To Be Green unit. In addition, some students who had not achieved good marks before did for the first time in this unit. Here is one example:

These results suggest that the PBL unit at the very least maintained their levels of engagement and successfully introduced understanding of new concepts. However it must be noted that these results were gained from marking the music-only task which was designed to be a prototype for the students’ own eventual work. Instead, of the seven films submitted at the POL, only two included any music composed by the students at all, despite notice that students would be assessed on the final music in their videos.

Finally, Tim created a survey in which students were asked to anonymously reflect on the process of a single unit shared between science and art. He shared the results with me, which I’d be happy to share with anyone in full (they’d make this blog a bit long), so here are the highlights:

What motivated you?
Parents and principal being there – 5 (presenting)
Getting a good mark – 7
Keeping up with the group – 2
Having fun
What part of the project did you enjoy the most? Why?
iStop movie – 4
Videoing/filming – 4
The choice of freedom because to everyone “what does it meant o be green” is intepreted differently
Working with two motivated classmates  (in a group) – 2
Presenting and listening to feedback
Working with play dough
What part of the project did you least enjoy? Explain
Writing music – 3
Meeting time limit
Research – 2
Finding time to do our project and working together because in every group there is a person who does not co-operate, but we worked around it
iStop movie – took so long
Did you feel Music and Science fitted together in a way that helped you learn or produce a better final product?
Yes  – 6
Only did Science segment – 5
Would this project have been better or worse if it was just taught in Science? Why/Why not?
No because it gave us the freedom of learning about the part of the project you liked
Worse, there wouldn’t have been that extra push or motivation
Worse – both skills were needed to create a good product
Would have been easier without music
Better if just one subject
Do you prefer working on a project over several weeks or being taught more traditionally toward a test or exam?
Project Method – 6
Traditional Test Method
A combination of both – 2
Please give some feedback or suggestions
Longer period of time, broader time frame
Something I’ve never done before, lots of fun but stressful
The only firm conclusions I can come up with following the experience of teaching this unit was that:
  1. Following High Tech High’s procedures for collaborating with other faculties would at the very least increase the chances of creating a successful unit of work. We made time for one 7:30am meeting halfway through the unit, but we really needed that time every week. In the future, this will be supported by the school with structural changes to timetabling.
  2. It is very important for students to see the same expectations from all the different staff of different faculties.
  3. Some students were more motivated in this unit than previous units and did better work.
  4. Projects need to run on a whole-class or whole-year basis where there aren’t some students just in one class and some just in another. Rather than de-streaming classes, faculties can look for similarities in classes and timetabling, or faculties can agree to run projects in every single class in a particular year.

And guess what? Yes, I’m designing the next cross faculty PBL and this time it’s with Maths, the subject that even HTH have found impossible to teach in projects all the time. More on that in a future blog… In the meantime, if you’d like to adapt this unit of work yourself or see how it aligned with BoS outcomes, here it is.

One response to “Adventures in Project Based Learning part 2: back in the classroom”

  1. Intrigued to hear more about your adventures in PBL James. I’m the salmon swimming upstream at my school doing the same – and in the music department too! Hope to chew the fat at mtec.

Please, have your say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: