Doing Authentic Work in PBL with iBooks

Much of the work that students do for school is just that – work only suited to school. A case in point is the traditional research paper. Where else in life will students have to follow a prescribed formula for presenting research that nobody besides a teacher or professor actually reads? Academic research papers aren’t bad, per se, they’re just rarely “authentic” for K-12 students.

[pullquote]A sure-fire way to create a meaningful project is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is for real people outside of school.[/pullquote]

Authentic work is work students do that is real to them. This is work that has personal meaning for the students, because it has relevance in their lives, or because it is for people outside of school. Sure, it can be argued that because school matters to students, any class work has some relevance, but my experience and a convincing body of research shows that truly authentic work produces remarkable learning outcomes. When students take on authentic tasks, they are more engaged, develop enduring understanding, and produce better work.

A sure-fire way to create a meaningful and effective project-based learning experience is to envision a product that meets a real need, or one that is used for or by real people outside of school. In my U.S. History class last spring, my students and I agreed that by researching and sharing stories about the era during which their parents and grandparents came of age, the students would do original historical work and create a niche for themselves in published Cold War histories. During the six-week project, students thought and acted like real historians, and created a two volume iBook set.

Cold War iBook Screenshot

View our Cold War Stories, Vol. 1 & 2 in iTunes:

In their reflections after the project, students expressed that they had never felt so engaged by a school project, and that they were able to understand twentieth-century American history in new, personally meaningful ways.

In future posts, I will share more about how I structured this project, and about how we used iBooks Author to create digital books now available for sale on the iTunes iBook Store. In the meantime, you can learn more about creating iBooks and publishing on my colleague Peter Pappas’s blog Copy/Paste.

Thinking and Acting Like a Historian with PBL

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 2.01.22 PMThere are many good reasons to teach history to high school students, and not the least of those is to teach disciplinary thinking. Professor Jeffrey D. Nokes expressed the correct sentiment in 2012 in his article for Education Week:

“Like their peers who provide opportunities for students to mimic professionals, history teachers need to design instruction that immerses students in historian-like reading, thinking, and writing. Just as students in a shop class use the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of real-life woodworkers, students in a history class need exposure to the materials, tools, strategies, and vocabulary of historians. Such exposure is especially needed at a time when the Internet makes available to all readers a wide range of sources of varying credibility. Students must be equipped to analyze and evaluate such information. After all, this is how historians spend their time.”

Once you’ve made the decision to set aside purely academic endeavors, like content coverage and timed exams, students begin to understand history and how to think and act like historians. And their engagement and creativity come through in their work.

Here’s one way that I have used Project-based Learning in my U.S. History class to help students understand the 20th century and how to think and act like a historian. I presented the students with a challenging “Driving Question”, that suggested to them that they would need to become published authors about the Cold War. Their work blew me away, and you can see it on the iTunes Store (link at the end of this post).

Link to the students’ iBooks: