Inquiry Project

Global Classroom Projects

Last year I jumped feet first into participating in global projects with my class.  My students participated in four different projects throughout the year, and they were extremely engaged.  This year, I am again participating in many projects and so I wanted to know, does the research show that this way of learning is any more effective than traditional seat work?  What about when we add the element of connecting with other classes?

It Started with a Roar: My Own Experience 
If  you come into my class almost any afternoon in October, you are in for a big surprise.  At first glance it may seem like mass chaos, students working in various places around the room, material and paper strewn about.  There is the hum of multiple conversations, peppered with “Ms. Nairn, what am I going to use for bat ears?” or “How do I make something look smelly?”.  A small group of students hurry to a table filled with beads, containers, pipe cleaners, Popsicle sticks, fabric and enough bobbles to compete with any craft store.  They look and then touch several pieces of material discussing which one will best represent chapped lips.  By the end of the month, there will be a 12 foot monster stapled to our wall, a part of a set of monsters inhabiting classrooms around the world all a little different, but with marked resemblances.

The first project that I ever joined was the Global Monster Project organized by Terry Smith, a professor of Education at the Western Illinois University.  The concept is that individual classes come up with create criteria for one portion of the monster, criteria that every class participating would follow when building that particular part.  Each class then worked independently to create their own interpretation of the monster.  The first time I mentioned to my students that we would be building a giant monster, they were hooked.  They came up with creative and descriptive words to describe the monsters feet, such as hairy, smelly, grotesque and scarred.  After touching on those language arts outcomes, students worked through the design process: planning, problem solving, critically thinking.  They worked in small groups, collaborating and sharing the decision making and creation.  As we explored the other classes that were participating, we pulled out maps and had discussions about where they were located and what life might be like, and on a few occasions we were lucky enough to Skype with a class and actually ask them.   

This single project allowed students to explore outcomes in Math, Science, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Visual Art.  Much like they are in the real world, this subjects areas came together to provide the pieces needed to make our monster successful.  Students were working on other skills as well, including collaborating both with classmates and global partners to create the monster, working in small groups and balancing their ideas with those of the group and problem solving.  Everything seemed to be coming together to benefit my students, but is this what others were finding as well?  I needed to look at this idea a little more carefully.

Project Based Learning – The Foundation for Many Global Projects
Many of the projects that I have discovered are based on the idea of project based learning, so that was the first topic I wanted to investigate.  The Buck Institute for Education defines project based learning as a process where “…students go through an extended process of inquiry in response to a complex question, problem, or challenge. While allowing for some degree of student "voice and choice," rigorous projects are carefully planned, managed, and assessed to help students learn key academic content, practice 21st Century Skills (such as collaboration, communication & critical thinking), and create high-quality, authentic products & presentations.” (2012) 

This definition bring to mind the Manitoba Education’s Literacy with ICT document.  They define the Developmental Continuum for Literacy with ICT as a “matrix of descriptors that portray how students demonstrate their literacy with ICT. The following concepts, processes, and methodologies are embedded in the continuum and have become supporting principles for the implementation of Literacy with ICT Across the Curriculum:
  1. inquiry
  2. constructivist learning
  3. higher-level critical and creative thinking
  4. reaching deeper understanding
  5. gradual release of responsiblity
  6. digital citizenship
  7. multiple literacies for the 21st century “ (Manitoba Education, 2006)

So if nothing else I know that if I am doing project based learning, I know that I will be touching on some of the curricular outcomes that my provinces expects my class to meet.
The Buck Institute has also come up with a video discussing project based learning:

The video emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, collaboration and communication in project based learning, all “21st Century Skills”.

In regards to what project-based learning may look like in a classroom, Terry Smith notes that “students engaged in project-based learning can be observed doing the following:
1. Considering a motivating question about a real-world problem or situation.
2. Investigating concepts, manipulating knowledge or thinking in a variety of ways.
3. Using tools to shape their thinking: paint, scissors, paper, audio, video, computers, etc.
4. Negotiating, collaborating, evaluating, socializing in a project context.” (2009)

What Does the Research About Project Based Learning?
Based Learning has been around as a process for over 40 years and there is some quantitative research in this area.  In 1996, Schneide, Krajcik, Marx, and Soloway did a study to look at how high school students in classrooms that focused on project based learning performed on the National Assessment of Educational Progress(NAEP) and found that these “students performed as well or better on almost all of the items used to make comparisons with similar White and middle-class students nationally”.  So at least we know that project based learning doesn’t negatively affect students.  This became a reoccurring theme in research into PBL.  The Buck Institute for Education complied an overview of 40 years of research in PBL, and many of the studies started with can, rather than does.  Specific mentions are made to being especially effective with low achieving students, which may be because PBL tends to be more hands on than traditional methods.  In an overview of research put together by Vanessa Vega for Edutopia the potential for meeting learning outcomes was describe thusly:

                          “Studies comparing learning outcomes for students taught via project-based 
                          learning versus traditional instruction show that when implemented well, PBL
                          increases long-term retention of content, helps students perform as well as or
                          better than traditional learners in high-stakes tests, improves problem-solving 
                          and collaboration skills, and improves students' attitudes towards learning
                          (Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009).” (Vegas, 2012)  
Again the term “as well or better” comes into play.  From what I read my own conclusion is as with a variety of teaching methods PBL can enhance and improve learning in some students without being detrimental to other student’s styles of learning. 

Below is a video on one school’s shift to a PBL model for their entire school and the success they have had.  They have had great success not only on test scores, but in graduate rates and university enrollment.  It shows the real life success that can come from project based learning.

Does What Does Making These Projects Global Add?
All the information I could find on the benefits of Global Projects was anecdotal, teachers giving their opinions of what they have observed.  The major benefit observed was that students who shared their projects with a global audience were provided an authentic audience, real people who were coming to see what they had done, a very important aspect of motivating the quality of students work.  In Challenging the Whole Child: Reflections on Best Practices in Learning, Teaching , and Leadership Ed Gragert, director of iEARN-USA provides a real life example of the benefits of collaborating with global partners “They get feedback from an authentic audience of their peers who are commenting on [their work]. That sort of student-to-student dialogue [doesn’t always happen in a traditional classroom].  Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re learning…”(Sloan p. 291)
In a blog post about students connecting online Toni Twiss shares

                          “The modern web - namely web2.0 or the read/write web allows any user to 
                            create and share content with the world. Harnessing the power of this audience
                            is certainly not limited to the secondary classroom - infact there are a huge 
                           number of highly successful primary school blogs, wikis and podcasts that attract 
                           audiences from around the world.

                          The fact that students can undertake a project and present their findings or final 
                          product to a relevant audience for the purpose of informing or gaining feedback
                          is incredibly powerful.” (Twiss, 2009).

Kathy Cassidy, a grade 1 teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatewan also commented on the difference she saw in her students’ writing when they had a global audience:
                      “Having these "big" blogging buddies has already impacted the writing of the 
                      children. As we headed off to the computer lab the other day, instead of 
                      reminding the children about what good writers do, I asked them what kinds 
                      of things their blogging buddies would be looking for in their writing. Because 
                      I provided the U of R students with grade one end of year expectations and 
                      they have been using these to make comments on my students’ blogs (which 
                      I have been reading aloud so that all of the children benefit), the children easily 
                      told me. “A period at the end.” “Starting with a capital letter.” “Spaces 
                      between words.” “Sounding out the words.”

                    The remarkable thing was that as they wrote on their blogs that day, they obviously 
                    thought about their blogging buddy audience. Not only did some of them address their     
                    writing directly to their buddy, (for example, “I like your name and i oslu like you.”) 
                    but there were more periods, capital letters and spaces in evidence than I had ever 
                    seen in their writing before. An authentic audience is a powerful thing. “ (Cassidy, 2008)

 Technology and Global Project Based Learning:
 Global project based learning lends itself to the use of technology, both for student use during projects and for teachers looking for ideas and connections.  Sylvia Chard,  a professor at the department of Education at the University of Alberta and author of several books on project based learning sees the use of technology for students as two fold:

       " There are two aspects of technology that are important for project work: One is in the 
          investigation of a topic or an interest. Children can not only use Internet sites to acquire 
          information but they can evaluate sites and look at the authenticity of the people who are 
          claiming some knowledge of some aspect of the topic they're interested in.

        The other aspect of technology is communication. Children can prepare presentations to
        help other children, help the rest of the class understand something which they have 
        researched, which the others may not have researched. So that part of project work is 
        sharing the information that you're acquiring as you engage in individual, small-group 
        research. So technology offers many opportunities to prepare video or still photography
        or mix it with text and prepare a way to present your work to other children. (Chard, 2001)

There are tons ways students can use technology to research and show their learning.  Maggie Hos-McGrane breaks down PBL into different strands such as create and communicate, Investigate and organized.  She lists online tools that can be used to enhance each of these areas such as Voicethread for collaboration and Voki for communication.

There are also websites that can be useful for connecting with others or getting ideas for creating your own global project based learning experience.  Stacey Matsumoto, a colleague of mine, and I created a global projects wiki with links to both websites that connect teachers and facilitate projects and tools that can be used when collaborating.  The West Virginia Department of Education, also offers examples of project based learning clusters for students from grades four to twelve.  This can be searched by grade level and subject material, and can be a great starting point for teachers who want to start off on a smaller scale.

My Final Thoughts on Global Projects
In closing I wanted to share a video entitled Caine’s Arcade 2.  It is the follow up to a video that went viral on Youtube earlier this year about one child doing something amazing at his father’s shop.  It reminds me that all students have that ability to create and collaborate.  By making this boy’s story a global one it has inspired others.  It is project based learning at its best, because it was started by a child and his interest.

To watch the original video go here.

Blog Posts
Twiss, Toni. "The Power of An Authentic Audience." Web log post. Mobilising Education. N.p., 24 Aug. 
            2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
Cassidy, Kathy. "More Yacking." Web log post. Mrs. Cassidy's Classroom Blog. N.p., 24 Jan. 2008. 
            Web. 20 Nov. 2012

Scherer, Marge. Challenging the Whole Child: Reflections on Best Practices in Learning, Teaching 
            and Leadership. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 
            2009.  Print.

Online Journals
Canada. Manitoba Educatio. A Continuum Model for Literacy with ICT Across the Curriculum
             Winnipeg: n.p., 2006. Literacy with ICT. Manitoba Education. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. 

Schneider, Rebecca M., Joseph Krajcik, Ronald W. Marx, and Elliot Soloway. "Performance of Students in
Project-based Science Classrooms on a National Measure of Science Achievement." Journal of Research in Science Teaching 39.5 (2002): 410-22. Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons Inc. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <>.

Smith, Terry K. "Project-Based Learning: Changing the Face of Traditional Education." Lecture. Irish
Educational Technology Users’ Conference, EdTech 2009. National College of Ireland, Dublin. 21 May 2009. Open Educational Resources. Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <>.

Online Articles
"Buck Institute for Education." What Is PBL? N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
Edutopia Staff. "Sylvia Chard: Project Learning." Edutopia. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, 10
Jan. 2001. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <>.

Caine's Arcade. Dir. Nirvan Mullick. Caine's Arcade. Interconnected, 9 Apr. 2012. Web. 04 Dec.
2012.Caine's Arcade 2: The Global Cardboard Challenge & Imagination Foundation. Dir. Nirvan Mullick.

Caine's Arcade 2: The Global Cardboard Challenge & Imagination Foundation. ImaginationFndn, 13 
            Sept.2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Project Based Learning: Explained. Dir. BIEPBL. Project Based Learning: Explained. Buck Institiute 
            for Education, 09 Dec. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Project-Based Learning: Success Start to Finish. Dir. Edutopia. Project-Based Learning: Success  
            Start to Finish. Edutopia, 23 May 2012. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.


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