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…

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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.