What Exactly is PBL and Why Should I Use It? | Joel Backon | 7 Min Read

Like design thinking, PBL is a process that students master (making it transferable) and then can manage themselves with appropriate support from peers and teachers. The complexity of the process will increase based on grade level and the details of the process will be nuanced by the requirements of specific academic subjects. The general process, however, will become routine over time. According to Bob Lenz, Executive Director of the Buck Institute for Education, there are six criteria of high-quality projects:

  • Intellectual Challenge and Achievement: Students learn deeply, think critically, and strive for excellence.
  • Authenticity and Empathy: Students work on projects that are meaningful and relevant to their culture, their lives, and their future.
  • Public Product: Students’ work is publicly displayed, discussed, and critiqued.
  • Collaboration & Communication: Students collaborate with other students in person or online and/or receive guidance from adult mentors and experts.
  • Project Management: Students use a project-management process that enables them to proceed effectively from project initiation to completion.
  • Reflection: Students reflect on their work and their learning throughout the project.

The most common question raised by teachers is how to adapt all the existing course content and skills work into a PBL format. The short answer is that not all traditional course materials will make the cut given the nature of project work, a very unsatisfactory response for teachers who are committed to their scope and sequence or teaching an AP course. The reality of quality PBL is that there are stages of the process in which much of your current curriculum might be incorporated but will require flexibility regarding scope and sequence. There are several opportunities for injecting your course curriculum into the projects, and some of those opportunities may not be planned, depending on how well students manage their work. Here are some of those opportunities (based on Boud & Feletti, The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning, 1997).

Our experience indicates that the quality and scope of the big or driving project question will define how much of your existing curriculum will be included. PBL work is often completed in teams, where a combination of individual and collective resources can be brought to bear. The first thing students will do is organize their ideas regarding a response to the big question based on previous knowledge. The goal of the subsequent discussions is to define what aspects of the question they do not understand so they can create a matrix of their thinking that includes what they know and what they don’t know. If you, as an experienced teacher, anticipated what they don’t know, it is an opportunity to formally introduce the curriculum of your subject matter. If you feel students will not be able to master a necessary concept without understanding two previous concepts, then you have a choice: Point the students in the right direction and see what they come up with, filling in the appropriate gaps, or create mini-workshops in advance, with students learning the requisite concepts or facts in order to move forward. 

As students collect and compile the information and understandings with your support and coaching, they must now rank them as useful tools for answering the question and breaking the question into fundamental parts that can be pursued by subsets of the team or individuals. This is an opportunity for you, the teacher, to introduce project-management techniques and tools that capture the resources needed and where they can be located, who is responsible for what, and realistic timeframes for completion based on the overall project schedule. You might also introduce the notion of a contingency plan; what happens if something goes wrong with a component of this project? Finally, there is an ongoing process of students reviewing what they have learned to date, what still needs to be learned, and how that learning will be applied to the question at hand. There is no guarantee that students will be exposed to every step of the current course curriculum. However, if the goal is learning, not coverage or exposure, then you will be more confident that students have learned those curricular components they needed to complete the project. What happens to the gaps in your old curriculum? They wait for the next project or you lower their priority in your traditional scope and sequence. 

You may be thinking to yourself that PBL seems great in concept, but what about the realities of managing a classroom of kids who are doing PBL for the first time. I have done this in my own classroom, so I know it works. I also know that the process of student adjustment was made more difficult because many of my colleagues in other disciplines had not adopted PBL. The students were only learning it in my World History class. I wanted my students to understand each step of the project as a progression and development in their thinking (verified by formative assessment) rather than a series of discrete submissions, each subject to formal evaluation. Over time, they figured it out. Most importantly, doing PBL forced me to rethink some of the issues we identified at the start of this section. I had to rethink the frequency of formative assessment (more is better), rethink grades (more competency-based), and constantly remind each student that this project was theirs, not mine. My contributions were to help formulate the original big question and be a resource and coach to each student and team when they needed me. Was it more work? Initially, yes. Anything you try for the first time is more work because you don’t know what to expect. Before long, however, the workload was about the same as teaching the previous course, although the types of work I did were allocated quite differently. I spent almost all of my time interacting with the students in the context of the project curriculum. Isn’t that why we’re teachers? 

The most important lesson of PBL is that it does not care about setting or delivery. Students need the ability to interact with each other and with adults, and they need access to tools for planning, research, production, and submission of the final project. They need to do research, but in the K-12 world, they are not researching at the Masters or Doctoral level. While a steady diet of Internet sources is not ideal, it can work (bricks and mortar libraries are only closed when we are experiencing severe pandemics such as this one). At times, I found myself taking photos of passages from my own library and sending them to students to circumvent the wild goose chase students would experience finding more shrouded information. This technique would certainly work in the COVID environment. The idea was not to do the research for the student but to provide research support (“You find a good source, I’ll find a good source”). Next, I had more flexibility as well. During a typical term, I spent several days away from school attending workshops or visiting colleagues at other schools. On none of those occasions did I ask a local colleague to cover my class. Students knew what they had to do, and they knew their deadlines, so they worked, either in the classroom, student meeting rooms, or the library (or online in the current scenario) without formal supervision. Because all project work was recorded in shared documents, I was always able to informally check-in and monitor progress. Finally, as Jeff Robin, a founding faculty member at High Tech High and PBL expert, explains, well-designed projects allow teachers to coach larger numbers of students since the demands for their time are more uneven (students work at different paces and their need for the teacher varies across the schedule).

Traditionally, our schools would encourage the “innovative teachers” to learn about and subsequently transition to PBL while the rest of the faculty continued with business as usual. Doing so might be a good first step, but without wider adoption, the kids will never completely buy into the concept and change their thinking about learning because too many of their courses will not be asking them to do so. A critical mass of coursework needs to shift to the PBL pedagogy. We are also not arguing that if you don’t use PBL pedagogies every day, you are not an innovative teacher. There are times in every course when the tried and true direct instruction approach, class discussion, and one- to two-day creative interludes are the best solutions, but the PBL philosophy must become the rule rather than the exception if a school is to best serve its students and provide strong justification for reexamining many of its traditional practices. And, of course, PBL fits perfectly with the “time as a variable, learning as a constant” model of effective education. 

Joel Backon

Joel Backon has been the Editor of Intrepid Ed News since its inception in January 2021, responsible for all educator content on the website. He joined the OESIS Network, owner of Intrepid, in 2019 as Vice President. Joel spent much of his career at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT) where for 27 years he held founding roles in Information and Academic Technology, as well as being a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, coach, dorm head, and student adviser. Prior to Choate, Joel spent 15 years in the printing and publishing industry educating printers on how to maximize their strengths and minimize weaknesses. He has crusaded to achieve consensus on the question of why we educate kids in an effort to meet the learning needs of every student.

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