PBL 2.0: What Really Drives High Performance? | Thom Markham | 6 Min Read

In the first article for PBL Week, I made the argument that PBL offers educators a path to transform education from a test-based enterprise into a strengths-based approach that supports the internal growth of students. I termed it brightness, a term that works well for the elementary example that I cited. 

For older students, who are less likely to dance around the stage at the end of an Exhibition of Learning, brightness takes on a different hue. As academics become more important to their future, they want to become skillful learners capable of mastering core knowledge. But even with this age group, the value-add that PBL offers is critical: Are they emerging from projects as more engaged, creative, flexible, and committed learners, more capable of riding the waves of modern life?

These results can be visible, too. In my experience, great projects mature young people. Older students might not dance, but they often stand taller, engage in more adult conversation, and adopt behaviors that indicate greater readiness for the social and personal challenges of life after school. 

Whether we can really mature students or elicit brightness is not an idle question for educators as we face off with mid-21st-century life. The challenge for 21st-century educators is to design a system that works synergistically to shift students’ awareness in the direction of openness, curiosity, flexibility, perseverance, discernment, deeper engagement, mastery of content, and — eventually — wisdom. 

PBL methodology contributes to this growth through a set of best practices that show teachers how to go beyond old-style ‘projects’ and engage students in ‘high quality’ PBL focused on authentic inquiry, deep problem solving, and applying core skills such as teamwork and communication. These best practices include the use of a well-constructed problem to be solved, the public exhibition of learning, and solid performance assessment tools. And when done well, the principles work. Student growth and engagement noticeably improve.

But I’ve also found that too many projects fail to change student behavior or encourage the growth mindset that we hope to see. Primarily, that’s because PBL still operates within the old ecosystem of strict standards, a pacing guide mentality that encourages coverage rather than depth, and a focus on content outcomes. 

That’s behind the question What is real PBL? posed as the theme for the week. PBL can be ordinary or transformational — and the ordinary stems from still thinking in terms of the old paradigm of education. If we hope to meet our goal of preparing students for mid-century life, we need to move beyond this paradigm and imagine PBL 2.0. 

A crucial first step is to recognize that PBL is not an academic method or strategy but is itself a system for encouraging human growth. In fact, PBL is a human development process; it’s meant to elicit brightness. The process of taking on an authentic challenge, identifying and solving a problem, investigating solutions, and finding answers or creating products replicates how we learn in life, whether learning to tie our shoes or facing complex problems as adults. 

A second step is equally critical: Anchoring your projects in an ecosystem that fuels PBL through an intentional focus on social-emotional strengths — the kinds of strengths necessary for high performance in the adult world as well as encouraging students to meet high standards of intellectual mastery. The competent use of best PBL practices is always necessary. But deeper success relies on a continuous set of Petri-like conditions that impact behavior and attitude at a deep level. 

In fact, if we want a replicable model of PBL that incorporates standards and knowledge, but also reliably yields successful fuzzy outcomes, the first step is to reclaim the belief that PBL is designed to facilitate personal growth and uncork human potential. It’s a psychological process as well as an educational tool. But how do we infuse this into one set of systematic design principles that function as parts of a whole? Consider a transformed PBL2.0  process that can be put in place right now:

  • From standards to purposeful challenge. Every great project begins with a ‘why’ that starts the engines of the inner life and spurs openness. Preparing for a test is not a ‘why’ nor do standards stir the soul. Begin with powerful, meaningful ideas that invoke meaning, purpose, and service. Go deep, then import standards into the project. The times demand it.
  • From a Driving Question to a ‘wicked’ problem. The true test of the quality of a Driving Question is whether it forces discernment and flexibility. A wicked problem with multiple solutions and clear constraints — the kind that dominates life today — invites powerful critical thinking that invokes deep inner resources. PBL is NOT a brain-based exercise; it’s a whole body learning experience that yields an appreciation for the richness and complexity of knowledge and lingers throughout a lifetime as curiosity.  
  • From fast to slow learning. PBL oriented to human performance requires abandoning the folk myth that fast learners are smarter and that coverage equals learning. The quality of the work should include attention to detail, perseverance, reflection, and creative effort. The underlying change is from a ‘hand it in’ classroom culture to a design, draft, fail, and perform culture that values depth over coverage.  
  • From groups to intentional collaboration. Group work inspires chat, but when interacting in well-organized teams or cohorts students must stretch communication skills. Those skills manifest as good listening or visible support of teammates. But ultimately, communication succeeds in the presence of empathy, tolerance, kindness, and self-awareness. Since working in teams brings out individual personalities, teamwork gives teachers a grand opportunity to observe students and coach them on behavior and self-restraint.  
  • From educational rubrics to human performance measures. PBL has birthed a set of excellent performance rubrics that describe skills as well as content, but the new generation of rubrics must add measures that focus on the strengths underlying the skills, such as confidence, resiliency, and other factors that support the growth mindset. It will not be enough to hope that students develop strengths; the next generation of rubrics must show and tell.

Does all of this require a skilled PBL teacher? It does! That’s the topic for the third article. Enjoy the week!

Looking to take your PBL professional journey beyond the beach this summer? Enroll in the PBL Global School and join over a thousand teachers from all over the world. Three FREE online courses focused on designing and facilitating high-quality projects. And here’s insider information: They aren’t really courses. No eval, no proctor. Just you and your computer or device creating a Playlist of great tips, resources, and curated videos. https://pbl-global.teachable.com/

For schools embarking on the larger journey, check with me at [email protected] to bring me on board as a year-long coach for staff and leadership. Everything from individual project feedback to creating a powerful school-wide plan for PBL success. And for cutting-edge PD, try this: A three-day PBL Design Challenge, all done online through my partnership with the EdTech Award Winner Massive U. Learning while planning and having fun. That’s an idea!

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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