The Five Roles of the PBL Teacher: Rethinking the Guide on the Side | Thom Markham | 6 Min Read

July 7, 2021 & May 24, 2023

The idea that a teacher today is a ‘guide on the side’ is now hardwired into nearly every conversation about the future of teaching and learning. Teachers don’t deliver information any longer; they act as co-constructivists and facilitators, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with students.

This is particularly true for PBL teachers, whose job description includes coaching and facilitation. But it’s time to raise objections to this narrative. First, it’s disingenuous. PBL teachers often stand at the front of the room. They teach, using traditional tools and tapping their repository of information to share with students. They lecture. Yes, even sometimes too long. But students may need the information to proceed, and it’s hard to know how much or when.

But my objection is aimed more at education’s habit of settling for shiny new terms when facts demand a deeper commitment to truth-telling. And here’s a fact: The job of a PBL teacher is challenging because teaching is a complex profession. It’s time to capture and recognize that fact.

It’s also time to build out the particular skills required for success as a PBL teacher. The job of designing projects, personalizing instruction, teaching and assessing 21st-century skills, coaching for social-emotional growth, and attending to equity and social challenges, along with other complexities of teaching, can’t be captured by a simple ‘You’re now a guide on the side’ mandate. 

Instead, let’s recognize that teaching in a PBL ‘ecosystem’ calls upon a rich, demanding skillset that has transformed the term ‘teacher’ into something else. I won’t try to predict the label that comes next, but it’s clear to me that a new mental model is evolving around what it means to support young people to achieve the goals of project-based work. What’s the term for “meeting the needs of kids by helping them achieve the goals of the project?” It’s this new model that will eventually impact the quality of PBL in the future.

If you’re a competent, successful PBL teacher, you already operate in this new arena, but also likely see the skills gap. Despite the decades-old ‘guide on the side’ conversation, little attention is paid to developing the facilitation skills and coaching protocols that PBL teachers need for effective people management. Instead, the focus remains on classroom management, traditional behavioral tools, and preparing novice teachers to deliver content and encourage engagement through bell-ringers and other…

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Thom Markham

Thom Markham is an educator, positive psychologist, and global entrepreneur. For over 25 years, Thom has pioneered the worldwide buildout of project-based learning and human development programs for youth. Thom 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. As of mid-August, he will begin publishing the Open Heart, Whole Mind newsletter, designed to prod human thinking beyond convention and assumption.