Promoting Deep Learning

What can teachers do in elementary classrooms to support their students in developing an understanding of science ideas so they can use what they learn to make sense of their world? The ML-PBL curriculum built and researched solutions to this design problem.  Project-based learning (PBL) brings together the knowledge-in-use perspective presented by national and international standards with the project-based learning approach.

The national and international standards, such as those in Finland, Thailand, and the United States emphasize what students do with science ideas rather than what they know. Framing science understanding in this way is aligned with Knowledge-in-Use, or the ability to use science ideas to solve problems and explain phenomena.  PBL is a pedagogical approach that engages students in a meaningful driving question, sustaining learning over time through an ongoing collaborative project and a physical artifact that ultimately addresses the driving question. 

The ML-PBL team saw the potential for PBL and Knowledge-in-Use informing one another. We describe four years of research-based iteration to develop a curricular system that best integrates the two approaches to support student learning. The system, which includes teacher-facing materials, professional learning, and classroom-based assessments, is designed to maximize coherence of learning over time through projects and depth of science understanding, while also enhancing student motivation.

The design team gathered data and iterated materials in five cycles. Each cycle included focal classrooms in each grade where members of the tram collected rich ethnographic data that informed evaluation and redesign of materials. The data collection in these contexts responded to research questions related to teacher and student discursive and collaborative practices, shifts in community, and science teaching and learning as ML-PBL was enacted over time. The design focused on three aspects of science teaching and learning: building coherence, depth of science learning, and designing motivating contexts.

Coherence: Project-based learning can be designed for coherence and to form the requisite perseverance for students to build robust scientific understandings. Coherence involves a system of activity that develops over time and is guided by common expectations and norms of the discipline. Knowledge builds collaboratively and incrementally as students develop and refine knowledge. Each time learners figure out an additional piece of knowledge, they add to the developing explanation, model, or designed solution. The activities shape a narrative that provides an intentional path toward building understanding, anchored in students’ meaningful knowledge-building experiences. In a coherent design, students have a reason for learning what they are learning and are tasked to apply previous steps for accomplishing subsequent steps.

Depth: Depth is achieved in the ML-PBL curriculum by tasking students to use science ideas and practices in a coherent progression toward solving a problem or explaining a phenomenon. The ML-PBL curriculum design describes this progression toward depth as being either phenomenon-driven or problem-driven. In phenomenon-driven design, students’ enhanced sophistication of their use of conceptual tools for developing explanations of the phenomenon necessary for artifact development deepens over time. In problem-driven design, the increasingly more sophisticated use of conceptual tools for developing solutions to the problem deepens over time.

Motivation: The purposeful building of usable knowledge to understand a phenomenon or solve a problem is key to sustaining student engagement and motivation. The final artifact students' work toward in ML-PBL curriculum units is authentically connected to the community and solves a problem or explains a phenomenon in the design or natural world. The artifact leverages the engineering design solution and associated standards in the NGSS. Students must employ science ideas to collect information about a local science problem, develop a solution, test their solution, and communicate their results to others.

We portray this solution as initial thinking, and call for collaboration to address this challenge as a global community. Further questions relate to promoting and sustaining teacher transformation in practice; building in flexibility of design; figuring out how to develop materials that enable community connection and at the same time allow for scale; and further exploring assessment of knowledge-in-use in PBL contexts.