The New PBL Ecosystem: Handing Learning Power to the Next Generation | Thom Markham | 6 Min Read

I began the week with the question What is Real PBL? In my view, it’s about to get very real — in fact, possibly too real for comfort.

Here’s what I see. During the past 15 months, the edifice of education nearly disappeared overnight, almost like the Berlin Wall. 1.52 billion young people were sent from the classroom and began learning, unlearning, or doing something at home. 

This was an amazing geological event, as the end of the Ice Age, and spawned a range of questions, from ‘Who knew it was so fragile?’ to ‘What will we do with all those expensive whiteboards?’

A bit of humor might be wise because more demolition may be underway. A system defined by ‘safe’ expectations crashed, disposing of normal educational practices, and leaving everyone adrift. I know that schools are trying hard to regain their footing, but in this last article for PBL Week let’s consider what many young people have experienced and how that could affect project-based work:

  • Learning is fun. 91% of young people have momentarily escaped the Death Valley (Sir Ken Robinson’s term) of an outmoded industrial system that values information and instruments of control before people, relationships, and open-ended exploration. An astounding number of youth (and their parents) have awakened to a novel reality: When driven by passion and curiosity, learning fuels itself. 
  • The whole child is back. Industrial-era education allowed learning to be defined as a set of standardized targets met by using evidence-based methods to deliver chunks of information to the brain. This highly reductive, mechanistic, and cognitive-centric view of learning — on steroids for the past two decades — disenfranchised critical elements of human personality, such as curiosity, empathy, and wonder. COVID forced the embrace of the ‘iceberg’ model of human functioning — the hidden, least teachable, and most difficult-to-measure domains of imagination, creativity, resiliency, and human connection. 
  • Adults are lost. With so many young people experiencing the freedom to learn on their terms, plus the unspoken loss of trust and trauma brought on by global life-shifting on its axis, a sudden vacuum was evident. No one knew what to do, including parents and most teachers. This makes it harder for adults to lead through dictate. 
  • Something bigger is in the air. The moment of ‘unknowing’ coincided with the somber realization that educating the young for the future they face is not an ordinary choice. Climate change, inequality, water scarcity, and other crises on the horizon will inevitably arrive with the same suddenness as the virus. It’s difficult to voice because of its implications, but a secret question underlies this moment: Is this the final opportunity for humans to thoughtfully redesign learning?

So, everyone is scrambling and asking: What now? Focusing on more PBL is a good start. PBL provides a beautiful frame for questioning, problem-solving, design thinking, social-emotional growth, and collaboration and contribution. It upends the dreaded lecture and invites less standardization.

But as I emphasized before, to be real PBL, it needs to evolve beyond a teacher-led, student-friendly method for ‘problem-solving.’ That’s part of the demolition.  Education must find ways to regain faith in exploration and trust in the evolution of human talent rather than repaving a safe path between the lines. 

I believe only one choice remains: Hand power to learn back to young people and turn them loose to find a better future, independent of preconditions. I’d like to think beyond PBL, or even PBL 2.0, to imagine how teachers can encourage a ‘project mindset’ in students by shifting from outcomes to explicit values that support wellbeing, personalization, purpose, investigation, deep collaboration, and a commitment to a positive future. This means moving from a test-based system of accountability to a system based on trust observations, peer assessment, and clear standards for internal growth captured in well-constructed rubrics. 

In this new ecosystem, PBL still exists in some form, but with two crucial changes. It’s driven by a deeper vision of change and led by mentor-ready teachers who become co-learners on the ride together. Think of five objectives shared by this team of ‘learners.’:

Offering the opportunity for finding self. The ‘project mindset’ begins with encouraging and training young people to develop empathy, openness, curiosity, perseverance, and resilience. Shift the focus in learning from gathering data about the outer world to more insight into self. Reflection, a sense of the journey, and a healthy focus on developing positive strengths take priority. 

Developing a vision of the whole. In the new system, everyone is in this together, regardless of any national, ethnic, or cultural boundaries. It’s time to connect holism, wholeness, holistic, and health (and holy) — all of which derive from the same word — into a vision of interconnectedness that underlies all learning. A new fundamental, basic skill is to help make the planet whole. The ‘project mindset’ is focused on sustainable solutions and meaningful, authentic problem solving, with teachers serving as sensitive guides on important issues.

Revisioning accountability. Literacy and science and language and quadratic formulas and beautiful forms of knowledge will continue. But as life moves outside the lines, young people will define these in terms personal to their needs. In the process, they will invent new forms of knowledge that won’t fit neatly into the container of existing subjects. Inevitably, the focus for accountability moves from content to the skills necessary for investigation and collaboration, such as empathic listening, conflict resolution, and media literacy. 

Adopting human-centered design. A critical goal of the ‘project mindset’ is to tap the power of purpose necessary to drive a new generation of design thinkers committed to solutions for the whole. Since this process is no longer dependent on standards and predetermined outcomes, the barriers that prevented PBL and design thinking from a complete merger have been removed. The goal for PBL teachers now? Take advantage of this by placing design thinking at the heart of the PBL process of exploration, imagination, and creativity. 

Telling the story of a learning planet. Young people may spearhead the ‘project mindset’ but the greater goal is a ‘communal mindset’ that unites students, teachers, and parents into a planet-wide village of learners. PBL highlights public sharing already, but the next step for teachers is to amplify the message of change, exploration, and innovation by focusing on the ability and opportunity for students to tell their stories, share global solutions, and find their tribe. In fact, the best thing education could do would be to build a global network of design challenges that transcend culture and country. Orthodoxy is over, synergy is in.

What are the elements that make up this new ecosystem? If you like the graphic, feel free to share it!

Thanks for joining me on the journey this week! Hope it was helpful and evoked a bit of fresh thinking about PBL!

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.

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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