The importance of timelines


I have the amazing privilege of team-teaching year 7 and 8 technology in a modern learning environment (one of a few things I do as technology activator). It is an exciting journey that I absolutely love because we have observed that modern learning environments (MLE’s) have positive affective outcomes on students and MLE’s have a tendency of exposing areas of improvement in your teaching. In this post I want to reflect specifically on the importance of setting a clear timeline for the learning in project-based learning tasks for intermediate students in MLE’s.

It may be helpful to give my reflection some context. At this point we do not have a space that has been purpose-built for technology, so we have to use a general purpose modern learning environment to accomplish the learning. Almost all of our students have iPads although some students are using Android tablets and Netbooks (a.k.a. mini laptops). Technology class for each year level is scheduled once a week for a double period. We have chosen a project-based learning approach to technology. The students get a different project every term. This term the students are building bridges.

We attempted to put together a unit that would take students on a logical, manageable progression through the design process using ’stations’ since we did not have enough tools for the whole group. We introduced some of the principles of bridge design with an app called Bridge Constructor that was available for both iOS and Android. Students then made a sketch of their bridge based on a set of guidelines they were given. The next step was to show them as a group how to make a basic technical drawing on a 1:1 scale of their bridges that consisted of a frontal and bird’s eye view. As individual students completed an adequate technical drawing, they were able to get a 1.8 m 12 mm x 12 mm piece of wood to mark out the pieces of their bridge for sawing at a measuring station. They would then move on to the sawing station and afterwards they would hammer and glue the bridge together at the construction station (most students are at this stage at the moment). We also created an additional bridge design task for students who were in-between stations in which they solved a contextualised challenge that required a bridge to be built. Students do not have a definite timeline for the project’s mileposts, i.e. research, sketch, technical drawing, measuring, sawing, construction, but they are reminded at the start of every technology class of what needs to be accomplished.

One can argue that although this task is open-ended, it is scaffolded to make the task manageable. Furthermore, the absence of a definitive timeline for the project’s mileposts enables differentiation since students tend to accomplish the different tasks at different speeds. However, I have observed two aspects of this approach that concern me.

  1. What does an engaged student look like in a technology class in a MLE? Almost all of the students appear to enjoy their time in technology but I often see students in conversations that have little to do with the task they are busy with. Does this represent the workplace? Could it be that if there is a clearer timeline that students will be more focused?
  2. When you don’t set a timeline for the mileposts in a project-based learning task, some students just don’t seem to be able to progress through the task no matter how much positive encouragement they are given. Unless you take their hands and walk them to the milepost step-by-step, they just don’t seem to be able to get there. I am wondering about what the root cause is for this lack of self-management skills. Either these skills have not been taught or students are not developmentally ready for the level of self-management required. The latter is quite possible since individual students’ rates of academic, social and physical development are quite unique at this age. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.

So I want to propose that well-structured problem-based learning tasks are excellent learning opportunities for intermediate students as long as they are accompanied by clear timelines that include definite dates for the mileposts to ensure students make adequate progress and utilise the time they are given for learning relevant to the task. So, this is what I intend to change in future term plans.

Am I realistic? Any other comments?

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