The End of “Average” PBL

January 23, 2017

Kristin Cuilla, Senior Director of Partnerships and Communications

Mind blown.  After nearly 25 years as an educator, I’m only now meaningfully grappling with, rather than merely tolerating, the notion of “average” thanks to Todd Rose, whose argument is persuasive: There’s no such thing as average.  And with that…two decades of constructs for grading, norming, and standardizing around the average in education imploded.

Only slightly less dramatic is the impact Rose’s argument has had on my vocabulary.  Most notably, I’ve selectively eliminated “average” as a description for everything from my children’s effort during activities to wait times in TSA lines to classroom experiences at schools I visit across the U.S.  The elimination is still fresh, and I often find myself self-censoring in the moment.

More specifically, this constant self-editing has led to deeper insights as I observe and endeavor to describe the classrooms I visit. In the past, I might have described what masquerades as PBL in some classrooms as “average,” and identified “allowing the project to drive the learning rather” as a critical area for improvement.  

Now I endeavor to understand the jaggedness of the PBL practice I observe in context and to understand how that practice is intentionally designed to help individual learners get the most out of the learning process.  It is in that intention of personalizing PBL for individual learners that any notion of “average” PBL implodes.

Last summer, our network of New Tech schools embarked on a year of learning about personalized PBL with the express goal to make learning more personal.  In a few short months, we’ve come to understand the principles Rose argues and have continued designing projects that are more highly personalized and, by extension, decidedly NOT average.  Chief among current examples is Christie Wolf’s (a teacher at New Technology High School in Napa, California) Ecology project that launched with a field trip to the University of California at Davis Marine Lab and culminated in student-directed learning and presentations on the various ways in which the Ecosystem balance is being threatened.  There is power in seeing these students’ demonstrations for yourself and in finding your own path to the end of average PBL.

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