Balancing Approaches for PBL Success

August 12, 2016

By Andrew Larson

Having done Project- Based Learning for nine years, I can say a few things with certainty. The most important thing I can say is that I have made every mistake that can be made, more than once.

With my pure and good intentions of providing students with an exciting, free, and authentic learning environment, I have occasionally lost sight of the importance of this true fact: good teaching is good teaching. (The opposite is also true.) Having always valued variety and an element of excitement in my learning, there were times when “lecture” and “worksheet” were taboo topics; likewise, in the pragmatic, rooted in reality world that PBL can be, certain awesome activities from my past were shoved in the closet for years.

I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, multiple times. I have ended up in the middle. I suppose that experience is the best teacher. But if you’re starting out on a PBL journey, remember these three guiding principles. My hope is that they keep you grounded and help you sustain this approach as well as help your students ease into it with you.

Use the best tools and methods available on any given day. This might (and will often) mean that you are providing direct, more traditional instruction methods to students if and when it is the best, most proven means by which to teach new content. As my friend and highly respected mentor Michael McDowell recently wrote, “don’t ask kids to Google how to add.” It’s not the best method available. In PBL trainings we always encourage participants to not abjectly toss out their old favorite methods and activities; instead, we ask them to blend those best practices into a new fabric: academic standards mastered and applied to authentic, real- world problems.

One of the paradigm shifts that teachers must undergo as they embark on Project- Based Learning adventures is to not be the expert on everything. To clarify, we’re not suggesting that teachers should not be experts in their content; they should. But they will not know all the myriad ways that the content is being applied to the complex, modern world.

The response of “I don’t know” is uncomfortable for some, at first, but necessary. Use technology resources when you truly don’t have the answer, or know the best way. My friend and colleague Jean Lee taught me the expression that she uses with her college students: “GTF” (Google That Fact). Brilliant! The internet gives us permission to not know everything.

Begin with the end in mind. Create the unit tests, rubrics, and other culminating assessment tools first. Tier those assessment tools according to “shallow” and “deep” learning, and whatever you do, don’t skip the shallow stuff. Sure, maybe some kids blow through the beginner levels, and that’s fine, as long as you can verify this and give them a path to move forward. Whether you use a Standards- Based Grading style rubric or a “PBL- Style” rubric, there should be an obvious next step for students, and that next step should always be a progression towards deeper/ applied learning. In the end, we hope their work demonstrates that they have, first and foremost, mastered the basic knowledge and skills and then (and only then) applied that knowledge to the authentic learning situation that the project presents.

Remember that you are indispensable. It is irresponsible to ask students to direct the course of their own learning if they don’t have the appropriate framework for that content. Why would we forego our own education, experience, and expertise when it comes to helping students unpack a concept, skill, or historical event? It is entirely possible and appropriate to ask students to apply higher thinking skills such as critical thinking, application, evaluation, and synthesis to content on their own, but we must provide them with the context and framework to do so. Otherwise we run the risk of having our students become curators of disconnected ideas, or worse, misconceptions.

Speaking of misconceptions, let’s talk about the internet. Technology is a great tool, but it can also be a crutch. When students don’t even bother to open a web page because everything they need is in the search result summary, have they really done research? I would argue that even unstructured research time should be guided by research questions, especially for beginner researchers. Give them questions like, “What were several effects of World War II on Europe? According to whom (what are their credentials?)” or “In what way(s) do GMO foods affect the environment, and why? According to whom (what are their credentials?)” Whatever those research questions are, make sure they are aligned to your rubric (i.e. they are doing application of or critical thinking about the “shallow” content you’ve previously taught them.)

Believe me when I say that I have personally made these and countless other errors in my delivery of projects with students. I have likewise experienced the corresponding disappointment in student outcomes that occur when we decide to adopt any one approach too fervently.

I now know again what I used to know before. A productive PBL environment needs structure and freedom, variety as well as routine, traditional and innovative techniques. So many like me think that the shift is going to be huge and overwhelming, and it can be… but shouldn’t. Others (and we see this in trainings very often as well) realize that PBL simply requires a shift of context more than anything. When they realize this, the tension in their shoulders releases and they start to get excited, because they see that they can fit their own best practices into a method that will lend authenticity and applied learning to their classroom.

Read more from Andrew at Magnify Learning.