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 human development. Encountering a meaningful challenge is how we learn in life. That’s what a good project should do also.

Identifying the exact problem to be solved is next — and if it’s a solid challenge, then it automatically leads to a wicked problem without an easy solution, captured by a well-constructed Driving Question that points to the solution and identifies the constraints to solve the problem successfully.

In my next article, I’ll dive into the Driving Question, which is the true north for a project. It is the weakest link in project planning, primarily because it takes creative energy and reflection (and often conversation with colleagues) to get the question right and articulate it. It’s also an intuitive process. Most PBL teachers have an inner vision of what they want to accomplish in the project and what they hope students will know and understand at the end. Sitting with this vision helps. PBL teachers can also use an easy self-test. Any teacher, at the end of the planning process, if asked What is the problem to be solved in this project? should have a clear answer. If not, back to the drawing board.

What comes after the Driving Question? This is the ‘messy middle’ that many PBL teachers talk about. To my mind, this muddiness has been cleared up in the past few years as design thinking comes to the fore. Every problem to be solved, whether it’s creating a product or refining an idea, can be subject to the process of empathy, plan, do, refine, launch, or share — the elements of design thinking. And, in my view, it should always include either teams or cohorts so that students practice the fundamental 21st-century skill, collaboration.

The messy middle always includes the question about the teacher’s role. Do I teach them content before the project starts? Do I teach in the middle of the project or let them flounder?  Do they investigate on their own or do I scaffold the websites? Do I teach at all? Do I always stand back? 

The answer is: Yes — to all of it and none of it. That’s why PBL requires a skilled, knowledgeable attuned teacher with good powers of observation and strong relationships with students. The process will vary every time, with no clear guidelines, and as a coach and facilitator, a PBL teacher constantly searches for the right balance between giving information as a teacher and guiding as a facilitator. As a PBL teacher, you walk a knife’s edge of choices, which leads to inevitable errors and regrets, but which also engages you as a co-learner with your students during the process — a reason, by the way, why most PBL teachers are happy with their profession. It’s energizing.

Finally, everything gets shared with a public audience. That’s a core design principle for PBL. It doesn’t have to be a showcase, Broadway production, or over-the-top celebration. My rule for PBL teachers? Have students show the work to anyone but you. Raise the stakes. That drives better performance.

The basic formula for high-quality PBL? Really, it’s a simple one: Set up a meaningful challenge — something that matters besides preparing for a test — and turn it into a problem to be solved. Turn students loose on the problem, and step in as needed to arm them with the knowledge they will need to perform. Hold them to the 21st century standard for rigor: performance, not seat time. Offer them the opportunity to show what they know and can do.

And then? Celebrate!

Thom Markham

Thom Markham, Founder & CEO, PBL Global, is a psychologist, educator, author, speaker, and internationally respected consultant to schools focused on project based learning, 21st century skills, innovation, and high performance cultures. He has authored two best-selling books on project based learning, the Buck Institute for Education’s Handbook on Project Based Learning and the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K – 12 Educators, as well as Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. Thom has worked with over 300 schools and 6000 teachers worldwide to help establish transformational inquiry-based programs that integrate PBL with social emotional learning and design thinking. His intention is always to work collegially with other educators to discover, empower, improve, and succeed.

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