PBL workspace with staff

Among the many highlights of the recent iOnTheFuture6 conference in Australia was the opportunity to see how PBL comes to life in different contexts. One of the most compelling projects I learned about “down under” is one that is unfolding at Banora Point Primary School on Australia’s scenic Gold Coast.

Arriving at the school, which was the host site for the second day of this well-attended educational gathering, I noticed colorful artwork near the entrance to the campus. A mural proclaiming “JINGIWAHLA”—“hello and welcome” in the language of the Bundjalung nation—provides the backdrop for an outdoor meeting place.

I sat down with the three teachers whose year 4 students created this cultural learning space. The teachers’ own backgrounds reflect the diversity of their community. Amy Clarkson’s heritage is Aboriginal; Zia Maley is Torres Strait Islander; and Viv Winfield was born in England before migrating to Australia.

Their collaborative project began with a focus on science outcomes, but soon expanded.

“We wanted to introduce students to traditional sustainability practices,” Clarkson explained, which have been practiced by Aboriginal people for thousands of years. To build students’ background knowledge, they took them to a culturally significant site to learn about fire stick farming and other environmental management practices from a local expert known as Uncle Frank. 

Children sat in a traditional gathering place called a yarning circle to listen to stories of learning. Moved by the experience, they asked their teachers, “Why can’t we have a yarning circle at our school?” The teachers’ response: “We can!”

And so began the project to develop a yarning circle that would benefit not only the school but also the larger community. It wasn’t a simple undertaking. Students had to identify where such a space should go, how it would be used, who would benefit, and why their principal—Paul Taylor—should approve it. That led to intense literacy work with lessons on persuasive writing, including considerable peer feedback and drafting. sample of material from PBL project. draft of plan

With the principal’s OK, students proceeded with design. Their ambitions grew. They wanted the space to be big enough for a whole class--30 children--to gather at once on logs arranged in a circle. They also wanted community members to have access to the space for special events or just for quiet reflection. Students wanted to incorporate native plants and also to curate the plant collection on a website. 

Culturally authentic artwork was another must-have. Help came from a group of about a dozen year 6 students who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. They call themselves the “Deadly Leaders” (“deadly” being the equivalent of “cool” or “sick” in American slang). They tackled the large mural design, incorporating native animals along with other culturally significant symbols. 

“There were times we wondered, will this really happen?” admits Maley, who is a first-year teacher. She felt fortunate to team up with Clarkson and Winfield. Both are veteran teachers who are embracing PBL.

Project planAs the project unfolded, Winfield was struck by students’ growth in literacy and their use of academic language.

“They’re experts now,” she says, “and will pass on their knowledge.” Knowing that their work will be seen by the wider world has motivated student writers. “They know that it has to be their best,” she adds.

Clarkson has been impressed by students’ sense of responsibility and ownership of their work. Creating a cultural gathering place “is service to the community,” she says. “They’re super proud.”

Maley has been overwhelmed by the community’s response. Donations of everything from plants to logs to cash have poured in to support the project. “It’s amazing how tight the community is,” she says.

Although the first phase of the yarning circle is complete, more projects are already on the drawing board, including totem poles and more plantings.

Outcomes have been powerful—and unexpected. One student who took part in the project convinced his mother to claim his Aboriginal heritage on his school enrollment forms. Previously, she had been unwilling to “tick the box” for Aboriginal out of fear that her son would be bullied. That had been her own experience in school. But the child made a persuasive case. “He persisted,” says Winfield. “He told his mom, at this school, we’re all connected. I’m proud of who I am.” 

“Culture will call you,” adds Clarkson. 

Through the authentic PBL happening at Banora Point Primary School, culture is calling children and community alike.

Suzie Boss was a keynote speaker at iOnTheFuture6 along with John Larmer of PBLWorks. Read more highlights from the event in John's post and by following the Twitter hashtag #iOTF6. In partnership with PBLWorks, iOnTheFuture will host PBL Down Under in January 2020

Suzie Boss, National Faculty
Suzie Boss is a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty and the author of Project Based Teaching: How to Create Rigorous and Engaging Learning Experiences.