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1st Grade digital PBL: Does it work?

Project-based learning, as we have often examined in this blog, is a powerful way to not only impart information, by exploration, but has the added advantage of stimulating and developing a range of other skills and habits such as communication, creativity, curiosity, confidence and collaboration.

The Internet is subsequently filled with incredible PBL ideas and projects, shared online on forums such as YouTube and Pinterest by teachers from all over the US. What is not as common are PBL ideas using digital, rather than physical tools.

There are differing opinions as to the usefulness, as well as wisdom, of teaching very young students with digital technology. In my previous blog on the subject, we explored some of the better online resources for the elementary school teacher hoping to blend their elementary school classroom.

1st Grade digital PBL: a case study

Today I will share with you a more specific example of how an elementary school in California, Woodcrest Elementary School, of the Fullerton School District, has created wonderful digital learning environments for its K1 learners, specifically in the area of literacy. Tech co-ordinator Susie Wren, and Kindergarten teachers Cari Bailey and Jennifer Brkich, generously shared their experience at ISTE 2017 recently, and all the resources can be found here.

The teaching team challenged themselves to start with the very fundamentals of what their digital teaching program needed to achieve, and they wanted to align it not only with CCSS (Common Core State Standards) but also with ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) guidelines, as well as the P21 Framework for 21st Century learning.

You will find all of their thinking and theory in the folder at the link, but my favorite part of what they shared was the project-based nature of the way the lessons are given.

Using apps such as My Story and Adobe’s Spark, and Pic Collage on school supplied iPads, students created a portfolio of their literacy projects, that were then shared with their parents via SeeSaw. I found it charming and inspired to see young students creating projects that demonstrate their proficiency, using creative communication tools, that not only demonstrate an astounding high level digital literacy, but also a wealth of 21st century skills. Have a look at some of the projects below:

  • 1st Grade MyStory Zoo Animal project: View
  • 1st Grade Digraph project (two letters that make one sound): View
  • 1st Grade Short Vowels project: View
  • 1st Grade Reading: Compare and Contrast Project: View
  • 1st Grade Writing: A story animated with Toontastic: View

I was quite surprised at how adept some of these youngsters are with the technology (although I shouldn’t be by now!) and wanted to see more of how teachers actually go about introducing new technology into the class. If you have a spare 20 minutes this full video of a 1st grade class being introduced to the My Story app is insightful, as well as delightful — I love that the teacher refers to her students as “my friends”.

Why is digital PBL so rare in foundational and elementary phases?

Why is that, indeed? Of course there are the usual suspects: cost and access, most schools probably feel that spending a limited digital budget on older students makes more sense, when K and 1st grade learners can get by with glue sticks and recycled materials.

In setting out to answer this quite bedeviling question, I naturally delved into the academy — for while blogs and news articles are great as idea starters, they are seldom satisfactory when it comes to finding out what’s actually going on. In 2013 Leslie M. Foley wrote an interesting dissertation for her PhD at Arizona University studying, “ Digital Storytelling in Primary-Grade Classrooms “ and furthermore its effect on student outcomes. Ms Foley is now a professor in the Education Department of Grand Canyon University.

If you want to read through the 330 pages (they are interesting, exhaustively detailed and well written) you can do so here, otherwise continue for what I consider the highlights of her research conclusions:

  1. In a technological age it is recognized that some students are resistant to traditional literacy models, so digital storytelling is a way to introduce resistant students to traditional modes of reading and writing:, “Striving writers may be motivated by digital technologies because they are more facile with new literacies than with print literacies and may employ these practices to scaffold traditional literacy. Recognizing students’ attraction to new technologies, creating stories of any genre through digital storytelling may be a viable solution to improving struggling writers’ literacy development.”
  2. It’s never too early to start incorporating 21st century skills into the curriculum: “Emergent writers can acquire the 21st century skills and abilities typically associated with older learners. These include collaboration, peer feedback and critique, multitasking, hybrid writing, and making intertextual ties across textual forms.”
  3. Ms Foyle concludes that even young students can meet specific CCSS for writing using digital storytelling. “Individuals were able to meet specific elements of the Common Core Standards for writing through the digital storytelling process, a new finding in the literature that supports digital storytelling as a means of writing instruction for beginning writers.”
  4. There is a change in attitude when students understand their writing will be preserved and shared digitally: “Knowing that a piece of writing can extend beyond the writer and the teacher prompted even young students to refine their writing, clarify confusing parts, and write to entertain and/or inform.” “Awareness that their writing will be memorized in digital form and shared broadly can provide a sense of permanency and authenticity. The knowledge that their writing will be preserved and acknowledged by their peers can be a motivator for even reluctant or struggling emergent writers.”
  5. Young students live in a world dominated by technology, teaching in this way ensures what they experience in the classroom reflects what they do and experience outside of class: “In a world increasingly defined by technology and its impact on personal, political, economic, and social lives, all students, including emergent literacy learners, need to have experiences in classrooms that reflect and resonate with their out-of-school literacies.“
  6. A key point that Ms Foyle makes, with a supporting quote from another research paper, is that teaching writing is improved when writing is seen as a social, multimodal activity - rather than one isolated to an individual, and pen and paper. “Zammit and Downes (2002) argued that: Literacy can no longer be seen as just a set of cognitive abilities or skills based on an identifiable technology, for example, alphabetic script on paper. It needs to be recognized as a social activity embedded within larger practices and changing technologies.“

It is a real conundrum for elementary and foundational school teachers how to incorporate and blend technology in their classes, without reverting to rather simplistic maths and strategy games. One point that Ms Foyle makes in her paper, that made absolute sense to me, was that teachers need to find a way to teach through the technology, rather than just with it.

Undeniably, this is a subject that can and must be taken up by coaches and designers of professional development courses, so keep an eye for my next blog where we’ll discuss just that.