What does it mean for PBL to be a platform for personalized learning? Part 1

December 28, 2016

This blog originally appeared on Teaching Excellence.

My colleague Kevin Moore recently pointed out a pair of articles by Drew Schrader on project-based learning (PBL) as “platforms” for personalized learning.  Today I want to focus on the first of those articles.

What exactly does it mean for PBL to function as a platform?

For some businesses, a platform creates the conditions for value exchange.  For example, Amazon.com doesn’t really sell Amazon stuff.  As a platform, its primary value lies in the fact that it creates the conditions for other sellers to sell their stuff, and for you to buy (almost) anything you need.

In schools, PBL can function as a platform by creating the conditions for personalized learning. (I am assuming well designed PBL, and not just “doing projects.”)

While I encourage you to read Drew Schrader’s entire article, here are five essential insights:

  1. PBL leads to student application of knowledge, which is personalized.  Contrast this with a more common form of assessment, a recitation of knowledge, which is standardized.  You and I might know the same stuff, but you will apply your learning differently than I will apply mine.
  2. PBL prompts students to ask better questions and to create hypotheses about their next steps.  In many ways, this is about experiencing failure in a safe way, because students aren’t likely to ask great questions from the start, which means that their hypotheses for action will likely be incomplete (or incorrect).  However, the result is not a failing grade but rather a re-evaluation of the questions and the appropriate action steps–in other words, students learn to reframe “failure” as “pivoting toward success.”
  3. PBL allows teachers greater freedom to customize instruction.  When students own their questions, own their next steps, and own the results, they are more motivated to work independently for longer stretches of time.  Instead of worrying about managing the class or using standardized instruction on asking questions or next steps, the teacher can float around to personalize instruction for “the right kid at the right time.”
  4. PBL turns collaboration into “customized instruction.”  When students engage in team-based PBL, the number of “teachers” in the room increases from 1 to however many students are on their team.  And once that psychological threshold has been passed, students tend to see everyone–not just their teacher, and not just their teammates–as a potential instructor.
  5. PBL is superior at revealing unique student strengths and gaps.  In a truly student-centered environment, no two projects are ever the same.  Such differentiated goals and tasks–unlike the standardized assessment of standardized content–prevents students from treating their role as a student like a game.  Instead, the authenticity of what the project demands at ayn given moment means that a student’s strengths will appear more vividly… and so will her gaps. By contrast, a standardized assessment disguises both strengths and gaps.
When you instruct and assess your students, are you using a standardized approach?  Can PBL help you to personalize your approach to instruction and assessment?

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