An important element of project-based learning worth looking at closely in the context of global learning is that of public audience. For largely practical reasons, a public audience in PBL usually includes the parents of students (including extended family), the broader school community (other teachers, administrators, etc.), and maybe the friends and colleagues of students’ parents. This is by far the easiest approach to gathering an audience, especially in school communities with significant parental involvement.
But there is something inherently inauthentic in using this audience if the topic of the project isn’t connected to the experiences of the local community. In fact, if our students are participating in a global project and we are asking them to consider a very different set of cultural perspectives, offering them an inherently western audience only dampens the global nature of their experience. If student work is only being seen and explored through the lens of local culture, and if feedback only comes from students’ local community, how global is that project, really?
If we broaden our ideas about what a public audience might offer us and our students in a global classroom, we can increase the importance of their role in the project. Such an audience could include interesting individuals who immigrated to the local community, or local experts who work in an international field which has significantly influenced their world views. This kind of an audience can be brought in to see student work at key checkpoints, offering professional feedback and helping to ensure high-quality products by the end.
For example, a middle school math class at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco has an incredible project on international micro-loaning, which brings in international organizers and economists who live locally but manage and partner with lending initiatives across the world. The teacher works closely with the local offices of Kiva.org, and Kiva’s global experts offer feedback on students’ product and marketing plans in order to deepen the reflection and revision students are able to employ (follow their project in 2012 on Kristen Goggin’s blog). This sort of audience quickly becomes an integral part of student growth and development during the course of the project, as much part of the final celebration as the process itself (see the article Kiva published in celebration of Town School’s 2011 micro-financing project).
In order to further globalize our public audience, we need to think beyond those in our immediate physical environment and consider all the voices which e-technologies like social networking and multipoint video conferencing can now offer us as well. International “experts” come in all shapes and sizes, and I put that word in quotation marks because even the least famous individual can have an incredible impact on the direction of a project by inspiring and informing students in transformative ways. In fact, if s/he brings passion and purpose into the conversation, even the least-famous, most unknown individual can become the expert your students need to hear from. There are people all over the planet doing good work to make the world a better place, and they are desperate to see new generations growing up with an interest in what they can contribute to such movements. These are people with a story to tell–and in many cases, as with refugees in your local community, the chance to tell that story is a true gift. As a result, it is fairly easy to draw in international speakers throughout a project, individuals who will gladly offer their voices and share their experiences because they live by their commitment to the work they do and the lives they’ve chosen.
Of all the examples I’ve seen of authentic audience in Global PBL, my favorite by far is TakingITGlobal’s environmental protection project, DeforestAction. In this project, which involves classrooms from a variety of disciplines and grade levels all over the planet, students work together to end deforestation and protect the natural environment by monitoring illegal logging in Borneo. Classes are assigned portions of land to monitor through satellite technologies, and are taught any variety of 21st century skills and significant content, depending on how teachers approach the project. English teachers have students compare perspectives on the logging industry and develop their own arguments; math teachers have students measure land area and explore the percentage being logged and protected in the hectares the class is monitoring; science teachers explore the complex environmental impacts of losing native trees and planting of palm oil trees, just to offer a few examples.
Classes develop action plans in response to the problem, from orangutan-friendly product development and fundraising, to truth in labelling campaigns designed to pressure corporations toward public recognition of palm oil use. My favorite story is of the 5th grade class in Canada which staged a sit-in at their own cafeteria when they realized it used palm oil–without any involvement from the teacher, these students successfully pressured the school administration to change the practices of their lunchroom. I heard a wonderfully similar story from an elementary teacher in Australia as well, in which students became real crusaders for the end of palm oil use in their own community. While a somewhat disruptive way to create change, perhaps, there’s no question that these students felt informed, inspired and empowered enough to stand up for what they felt was right.
Whereas all of my nieces’ favorite e-games include the monitoring of virtual puppies or fish which are completely imaginary, or the solving of puzzles and problems which are inherently fictitious, DeforestAction asks young people to do real work to contribute to the wellbeing of a real place, where real orangutans and humans are quickly losing the richness of their natural environment and are suffering as a result. What makes this project so powerful is that it includes a real and authentic audience in the truest sense–the students’ most important audience, beyond the people students educate to change their habits or invest in change, are the people of Borneo whose lives are impacted by the loss of their native trees.
When Australian-Canadian educator Chris Gauthier’s high school math students realized their land was in fact being logged illegally in Borneo, they sounded an alarm which was taken straight to the people of the Ensaid Panjang longhouse community nearby. Satellite images provided by students allowed the community to stand up against the illegal logging almost immediately, and to pressure key stakeholders toward the protection of their local environment with verifiable proof. (Click here for a video of Chris’s students discussing how this project impacted their world view.) There is no more authentic audience than this: real communities whose lives are improved by the commitment and passion of these young people around the world. It is no surprise that there is talk of starting DeforestAction projects in other parts of the world which need such virtual monitoring of and support for their natural environment.
In the end, the most authentic audiences in Global PBL have the same need to know as the students they interact with, if in a slightly more urgent form. In the case of DeforestAction, the audience’s lives depend on information which students are able to supply. And such urgency in the audience, whatever the example, improves the quality of student products naturally. The more connected students feel to the needs of their authentic audience, the more they want to contribute significantly and do it well–and the more they grow up as young leaders who are contributing to constructive global change already, and will continue to do so throughout their lives because of these early transformative experiences.