Building Worlds to Change the World

Written By: Daniel Bess, AP Biology and Earth, Space, Science Facilitator

As a facilitator here at New Tech, we have many opportunities to work with learners in after school clubs - Community Service club, Red Cross club, America for Africa club, Astronomy club, Outdoor Adventure club, just to name a few. I happen to sponsor a group called “Table Top Games Club”. We are currently in the midst of a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign, and this has offered me a glimpse of the work our Dungeon Master (DM) has put into the fun we have every week after school.

A DM is the storyteller - they build the world, and the various quests, as well as paint vivid pictures of the actions that take place as a result of players’ choices and their luck in rolling dice to complete those actions. If you have ever played D&D, you know how exciting it can be to find yourself in another world, role playing, exploring, and tackling a crazy story line with your friends. The success or the failure of the experience lies heavily in your DM’s hands.

It may be an odd comparison, but I see so much of what I do as a Project Based facilitator emulated in the work that our DM puts into the experience. Did I mention that our DM is not me? One of our seniors has taken on this task.

The Goal
A DM first and foremost builds a world of characters and quests to challenge the party. The quest drives the adventurers forward with a goal. Just as a quest and all of its moving pieces are developed by our DM, we as facilitators develop real world problems and situations that will challenge our learners and drive the learning in our classrooms.

Example: To teach learners about bacterial, viral, and genetic diseases and their effect on cellular biology → Learners become med school students preparing to see patients during clinicals; they learn about these diseases through case studies with their med school supervisor (facilitator) - and finally they see a “patient/actor” expressing symptoms of a disease that they must: diagnose, come up with a treatment plan, and then teach the patient about the disease and what it is doing to their body.

Within our projects the learners can play the role of countless professionals: doctors, engineers, financial analysts, poets, a film cast and crew, or even game coders. We spend time crafting a story line and detailing requirements that the learners will have to meet in order to proficiently make it through our challenge.

Benchmarks and Collaboration
Most D&D campaigns have multiple bosses to be fought before meeting a final end game “mega-boss”. The goal of fighting these smaller bosses is so that the party can become accustomed to their skills, strengths, and weaknesses as well as understand how to work together to defeat something bigger and more powerful than themselves. When we as facilitators set up a project, we have a large end-game product in mind - a mega-boss if you will, but we try to break this down into smaller pieces before they take on the whole in a final presentation or performance assessment. At New Tech we call this benchmarking.

Example: In the doctor project, learners create a cell model as a cell biology benchmark that they would then use to model how the disease changes the working of cells to the patients in their clinical role play. The learners also have to pass their med school exams before they are allowed to see patients.

This allows facilitators to check understandings along the way, but just as in D&D, this allows learners to figure out how to work together and manage the group’s time effectively for a large assignment that may have been difficult to complete alone. No matter how many times learners have gone through group projects at our school, they realize that no group will be the same and that each group requires a different touch depending on the personalities, strengths and weaknesses of all involved.

Guided Freedom of Choice and Improvisation
D&D players can make any decision and perform almost any action. The DM must be prepared to improvise and must be willing to take the story wherever the characters lead it. That is not to say that they have no control over the situation - they tend to drop fairly obvious clues as to what the party should do next in their quest and they can easily create characters or situations that prevent the party from advancing down certain rabbit trails. This to me is one of the greatest strengths of learning and teaching through PBL. The learners lead the process of learning by asking questions and seeking knowledge in the directions they believe will help them accomplish the task. These questions absolutely go beyond the scope of what I need to teach them!

Example: In the doctor project learners inevitably ask questions about diseases outside of the case studies the facilitator prepared. They see connections between all genetic diseases - how they are similar and how they are not - the same goes for bacterial and viral diseases.

If their questions are not deep enough, it is easy to facilitate a discussion that helps them see that the current level of understanding is insufficient. Learners can take their explorations to a much deeper level when we don’t pre-ordain the extent of knowledge they should experience.

To clear up the next question I know many might be thinking: “How do you teach it once they ask for it?” In the end, the ways in which I teach content after learners have requested it is not entirely different from what I did in a traditional school: Inquiry Labs, lectures, videos, hands-on-activities; and YES I still assess my learners with quizzes and tests. As a PBL facilitator, it is the way that we frame and build purpose into our content that allows me to see myself as a Dungeon Master of sorts; taking learners down a path that challenges them, requires them to problem solve, and ultimately leads to a passion for their work.

Project Based Learning vs. Traditional Education
A personal note for those of you wondering if this is a good fit for your child: I came from a traditional school with 6 years of experience before moving to New Tech where I have been for the last 2 years. Does PBL fit your child? - Possibly, but not certainly! PBL may NOT be the perfect fit for every learner; there are those that struggle with the increased freedom and expectations that are afforded by this school just as there are those that thrive - I strongly encourage you and your child to reach out, ask questions, and take a closer look at what New Tech has to offer!  I will leave you with these 3 key things which I have found are benefits to the PBL Process:

  1. Recall of information: If the learner sees no reason to learn content other than a grade, memorization tends to become the default and information is lost more easily. Being able to connect information to a project and an overarching “why am I learning this” has been pivotal to making it stick.
  2. Motivation - A different effect but the same cause as above: Some learners who might have struggled to stay excited about their learning come here and excel because there is a purposeful project driving it all.
  3. Life Skills - So much more is learned here than just content because we expect it and we grade it - we facilitate how to work collaboratively; how to grow and self advocate; how to orally present to a group of professionals or peers; how to write. These things are assessed in EVERY class at New Tech.


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