For the past year and a bit I’ve been bugged by the question of if and how a problem or project based learning model could work in my languages classroom. The push for students to be able to construct their own learning and understanding is far from new, I realise. In many other curriculum areas I know it is popular, highly successful and energizing for both students and teachers. But I’ve never seen it in action in a languages classroom in a main stream high school. Perhaps I just need to get out more…
How does a foreign languages teacher even start helping students construct their own knowledge and understanding on a topic or problem of the student’s choice when the student has limited or no vocabulary in the language and curriculum and reporting requirements dictate the need for specified language components and topics to be covered? It’s not like I can just help the student find information and resources online in the target language… He or she would look at me like I’m out of my mind. Some would suggest I take an immersion based approach or something like CLIL which is increasingly popular throughout Europe. But with 3 lessons a week of 45 minutes each, split into a single and a double, it is hardly going to be immersion on a grand scale. And yet the traditional approaches to language learning are rather boring at times…To me! And if I’m bored with it despite making changes each year, my students must be beside themselves!
Don’t get me wrong! Walk past our language rooms on any given day and you would see a different game in each. There is always noise and laughter and most students are happy enough to give things a go. It’s just a bit… Ho hum… So why am I currently more excited about teaching middle school languages than I have been for the past 2 or so years?!
Why am I not excited at the prospect of teaching senior classes?! Don’t most of us long for those classes? Small group of students, motivated and engaged because they are there completely by choice. BUT what we and they do is heavily dictated by assessment boards, time lines and final examinations. What they can create and do with the target language is funneled down to their Folio requirements and the need to meet the minutiae of performance criteria. As Shelley Wright has written in her blog here, it is rather like a straight jacket.
My answer is partly due to Selena Woodward who opened my eyes to the possibilities of social media and things like Voice Thread and Audioboo and giving students a real and authentic reason and audience for their language use. The iPad trial at my school had helped me realise my students could be more creative than before because we had the tools for them to try things, create, delete and recreate over and over again. But we also have the tools for them to share their creations AND have people respond to them! It is an exciting time!
So instead of going with a Project or Problem based approach as I would were I teaching another subject, I’ve started going with what I think of as Purpose Based Language Learning. There are problems and projects within it, but my overall aim for my students is that they engage in meaningful, purpose based communication with other students and speakers of the language around the world.
We started with a VoiceThread by some primary school students in Italy learning German, introducing part of the key vocabulary for our topic. I then challenged my students to add to the list in pairs, using whatever they could find – iPads, phones, iPods, PCs and good old fashioned pocket dictionaries. We then played games with the words THEY found. I then outlined my Purpose Based Challenge. They are to create VoiceThreads about our topic, put them ‘out here’ and see what responses we get and what we can learn from them. The following lessons were filled with guided brainstorming, guided searching, finding ‘how to’ clips on YouTube, Educreations and elsewhere, small groups teaching the rest of the class what they had found, drafting, correcting and voki. I think we may have found something of a balance between needing more direct input for language and constructing their own understanding.
Drawbacks? O yes! It has so far taken 2 weeks longer to cover the topic this way and we are still not finished the VoiceThreads! Then of course there are technical issues. VoiceThread and I are yet to get back to speaking terms… A colleague and I have played with it and figured out settings so the recording is available via the browse function or a link, but for some reason it’s not happening on the student network… Yet more calls to our friendly and very patient ICT Crowd…
The upside? Only one student asked if we could go back to ‘the old way’ because thinking was too hard!
So have we found a happy medium? Do you use PBL proper in your language lessons?
I’ll let you know when we hit cyber space with our final products and cross my fingers some German classes out there respond!