PBL Should Be a Happy Marriage

September 8, 2016
Andrew Larson

Andrew Larson

What does educational reform look like? Maybe a lot like a happy marriage.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed learning new teaching approaches along the way. Some have stuck. People in my district born in the Seventies or earlier remember Baldridge, which taught us a “Plan- Do- Study- Act” approach to having a data- driven classroom. Carol Tomlinson’s Differentiated Instruction was eye- opening, indeed (you mean to tell me I might want to consider teaching different lessons for different students??) Later on I learned what Inquiry- Based Lessons were; I remember feeling pretty energized by this approach after a two- week intensive seminar at Indiana University with Jose Bonner forever ago.

When I first learned about Project Based Learning, it felt as though I had truly been called home. I didn’t think that I would ever teach any other way as long as I remained in the field (to be clear, I still feel this way!) What I have come to appreciate, however, is that like all of us, I am the sum of many of the reforms that have come along over the past twenty years.

There was a period where I was under the misconception that PBL was so utterly new that all of the cool stuff I picked up along the way were now obsolete and ought be abandoned. Though those were exciting and exhilarating years, but they were also exhausting and sometimes baffling. Now, when we approach projects, we go into it with full awareness that our projects are going to be data- driven and will utilize differentiated instruction, inquiry- based approaches on some level, because that’s where we all came from, years or decades ago. These were revolutionary, innovative education at a point in time, and should be honored as important steps in our collective journey.

PBL is a revolutionary and transformative educational reform, though no longer brand- new. The movement continues to spread rapidly (some may argue too rapidly.) Fewer and fewer people are abjectly clueless about it. Many realize, after some explanation, that they do some permutation of PBL in their classrooms. Therein lies that tricky part: how do we do PBL with integrity while blending and incorporating our past strategies, and not fundamentally altering the “DNA” of Project Based Learning?

Here are some somewhat more “modern” educational philosophies and approaches that I feel pretty confident should be in a (polygamous) marriage with PBL.

  1. Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a systematic, brain- based approach with allows students multiple means of expression and action, and allows instructors multiple means of representation. Students need to see, hear, smell, touch, and experience our projects. When it comes to representing their knowledge and skills, they need to be given voice and choice in their expression. PBL should be very engaging, especially to students that need to see the relevance of the content to their lives. If done well, it can provide a range of challenges for varying ability levels. All of these facets of PBL fit into the framework of UDL. This is a marriage that works.
  2. Growth Mindset. Having a growth mindset is almost a prerequisite for students in a PBL environment; it is certainly so for instructors. Things get messy, and it’s never the easy path to do a PBL project with students. Failure and setback are a virtual assurance for teachers and students alike. Embracing those challenges as opportunities to improve is a fundamental part of the fabric of  the PBL learning environment. The “culture of revision” that Carol Dweck advocates means that the work is never truly done and that it can always be better (what a great opportunity to implement prototyping into our work!) Not all of our students possess a Growth Mindset at this moment; Dweck might correct me by adding a “not yet” to the end of that statement, especially if we integrate that culture of revision and continuous improvement with a PBL environment.
  3. Standards Based Grading. This is my current tinkering with the PBL model, though I am far from the first to do it. I remember, years ago,  listening to Mike Kaechele speak at the New Tech Annual Conference about their use of SBG in their wall- to- wall PBL school, Kent Innovation High in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They spoke with such confidence about their assessment practices that I was intrigued and inspired. It’s taken me three years to get to the point where I feel confident doing Standards- Based Grading in even a primitive form, but I have no doubt that Mike was right about it working in a PBL environment. What’s even better is that it is a perfect compliment to the development of a Growth Mindset, as the “not yet” approach to mastery fits right in with a revision mentality to assessment. SBG has also taken much of the mystery out of creating rubrics for projects, which has traditionally been one of the most difficult aspects of PBL for new trainees to embrace or implement. While SBG doesn’t need PBL to work and vice versa (as evidenced by my friend Michael McDowell’s school district in California where both traditional and PBL schools have united around SBG) they should be married. Like some marriages, the love increases with time.

No classroom is an island, no teacher is a purebreed, and no one strategy will save education. But Project Based Learning is a perfect partner for some of the best thinking around schools today. It’s no surprise that it’s growing fast. And it should be no surprise to teachers that PBL works, as long as they don’t forget the journey that led them to it.

Read more from Andrew at Magnify Learning.

Tags: , , ,