English & Biology: A Collaborative PBL

At the recent Live Curious Conference,  I attended an inspiring session on Global Collaborative Learning. The teachers presenting showed us the incredible learning experience their students in Mexico had collaborating with a teacher in the United States. It was incredible to hear about stereotypes being dismantled as students got to learn from students in other countries.

Ms. Perla Zamora and Ms. Maria Eugenia Morales also offered great resources for global projects such as Flat Connections Global Projects, by Julie Lindsay; Out of Eden Project, by National Geographic and Harvard Graduate School of Education; and, If You Learn Here, by Mary Morgan and Carolyne Skibba, among many others

All of which have inspired slow brewing ideas in the back of my head: watch out class of 2018!

Yet, all the global projects and collaborations made me wonder why we don’t start with collaboration right in our school?  Education is a system and yet we often teach like the blind men who only “see” one part of the elephant, as told by the old tale of the king in Savathi. We stay so focused on our subjects that we often miss the bigger picture of education.

Blind men trying to understand what an elephant is

One of my favourite teaching moments to date is a fantastic English biology collaboration I did with Ms Pamela Zipper. We were both teaching the same grade 9 kids and came up with a collaborative Designer Babies PBL.

PBL- Designer Babies Plan

The idea was that the students would learn about DNA and apply their knowledge to a real life situation, while also developing their reading and analytical skills through a science fiction novel study of the book, Double Helix by Nancy Werlin. Of course, this they were also working on their soft skills like collaboration, critical thinking and communication.

Double Helix

The students learned these skills by acting the role of genetic counselors. They had a case study of a family with a genetic disorder and they had to research this disorder in order to create a presentation where they would educate the “family” (teacher/actors who graciously agreed to this project) about the disorder and explain the probability of their offspring inheriting the disorder. While they were researching the disorder, Double Helix served as an example of how a family dealt with Huntington’s Disease and shed light on the ethical and psychological repercussions of genetic engineering.  This became especially important when the students had to write a final blog post regarding their opinion on genetic engineering and the different perspectives that need to be considered in creating one’s opinion.

Copy of P1050109Copy of P1050117Copy of P1050127

While we were creating the project we had doubts about whether the students could handle the sheer volume of work that this project required but it was incredible to see how much our students learned and how much pride they took in their incredible presentations. The students had choice, in choosing their group members and how they wanted to present their information but more importantly, they faced a real life problem which made their learning authentic and it made sense for them. Knowing that their learning had a final purpose, to “counsel a family” the students really took responsibility for their learning and they seemed to appreciate the collaborative aspect to their project.

We complemented the project with a visit from a real life genetic counselor and a visit to a local university medical sciences department.  Overall, our students had very positive feedback about the project. We were so pleased with their learning and when we saw students having thoughtful and passionate debates on the blog forum, we realized that the students had grasped the bigger picture. Learning was not such individual projects and tests in each class but a great learning journey that is collaborative, interconnected and most importantly, necessary for the real world.

Copy of P1050093

The whole unit is available in this FOLDER


PBL templates and ideas: https://www.bie.org/

Got Credibility and Infographics: http://catlintucker.com/2013/11/student-designed-infographics-process-products/

Elephant image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/climateinteractive/13944682478

Double Helix novel image: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B006OIRRFI/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1