Do You Really Know What PBL Means? | Thom Markham | 5 Min Read

“How do I do ‘a’ PBL for an Algebra unit?”

“Is there a role for the teacher in PBL?”

“What is the difference between PBL and inquiry?”

Sometimes I feel like those questions are part of a wash-rinse-repeat cycle that has been taking place for the last 20 years regarding PBL. Now, PBL is complex so there are no wrong questions, any more than anyone has all the right answers about PBL. But it is clear that many teachers, including a few who consider themselves project-based educators, still grapple to fully understand the principles and elements of project-based learning.  

So, in my first article for Intrepid Ed News, I’d like to anchor what I consider to be high-quality PBL. If you’re one of those teachers who knows PBL well, you’ll see this as just a start on the PBL discussion, as I do, because implementing PBL varies with students, time of year, subject, teacher, circumstances, time available, curriculum mandates, and other constraints. 

This context is the place to begin because PBL is an uncertain enterprise. It describes a dynamic process that can’t be reduced to a set of hard rules or directives. It’s not even a noun but rather lies in the English language no man’s land between gerund and participle (I leave this to the English teachers who are reading this), which differentiates it from a well-defined unit. So, can you ‘do’ a PBL? No, not really. ‘Doing a PBL’ is like getting in the car and ‘doing a driving.’ It doesn’t quite make sense. 

But from that premise of process and uncertainty emerge two principles that offer the first clues to good projects. First, thinking of yourself as teacher as designer sets the right tone for planning. A process is inherently fluid and to some extent unpredictable. Of course, you come up with the best plan you can. But seeing yourself as designing an experience for students (or with students, another variable!) helps you enter into their learning space and make room for the creative, sometimes chaotic problem-solving process that is at the heart of PBL. 

Second, the experience begins with a challenge. This is where the terms authentic, meaningful, and relevant come into play. Projects succeed when students engage. And students engage when the challenge is important to them and they tap into their strengths and skills. In fact, I view PBL through the lens of…

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Thom Markham

Thom Markham is an educator, regenerative psychologist, and global entrepreneur. Thom pioneered the worldwide buildout of project-based learning and human development programs for youth and is the author of Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. Currently, his work is focused on turning schools green through deep sustainability. He shares his ideas in Rx for the Planet, with Dr. Thom, a newsletter designed to prod human thinking beyond convention and assumption.