PBL as a Platform for Personalized Learning

May 21, 2016

Drew Schrader

While personalized learning is a difficult term to pin down, the energy around the topic is a useful reminder that school in general does not feel well designed to support student growth or to provide deep, transformative learning to all students. Personalized learning is as much a field-wide desire to reimagine how we approach school and learning to maximize individual student potential as it is a coherent design or approach.

For many of us in the deeper learning world, PBL provides a coherent way to organize a student-centered approach to learning. While PBL shares many aspirations with personalization, just doing PBL is no guarantee we are “personalizing learning.” In this two-part series, I want to first explore the ways in which PBL provides an entry into personalization and then look at the many opportunities to increase the impact of PBL through attention to personalization.

Part One: How PBL Personalizes

PBL makes important content meaningful. College and career readiness knowledge and skills anchor conversations about learning in our modern educational landscape. PBL asks teachers to determine what content they are willing to go deep into, which usefully helps deepen their own awareness of, and commitment to, essential knowledge in their discipline or grade level. As information access becomes ubiquitous, we have also seen an increased emphasis on application of knowledge over factual recall. PBL is designed to address the reality that “it’s not what you know, but what you can do with what you know.”   Beyond core academic content, college and career readiness involves a suite of communication, interpersonal, and self-management skills which PBL cultivates by putting students into frequent contexts to encounter and practice these skills.

One of the tensions with personalization is the question of students vs teachers deciding what to learn. PBL usefully sidesteps this question in some ways by recognizing that part of what an educator needs to do is identify enabling knowledge and skills and then also create experiences where students are confronted with the importance of that content.  Students make other important choices in PBL, but part of the beauty of PBL is the way it apprentices young people into important questions about our world and begins to establish them as engaged citizens.

PBL develops new adult and student roles. Personalization is all about putting the student at the center of the learning process. PBL’s emphasis on learning that stems from student-generated questions and next-steps moves the teacher from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” This shift creates the space necessary for students to move into that center and also provides a context where they can be supported into directing their own learning. Teacher designed projects create an open-ended space for students to solve problem, but with sufficient context for that teacher to guide the learning process as much or as little as their students’ developmental needs require to ensure knowledge and skill development.

PBL provides space and time to personalize instruction. “Classroom management” is one of the primary drains on teacher time and energy, and when the teacher is dictating all of the actions in the classroom, students require constant management.  This limits the range of options available to support student learning as well as teacher freedom to engage in the more important work of teaching. In PBL the project can drive the action rather than the teacher. With the project dictating the action, classes can take on a momentum of their own and students are able to assume a level of leadership and self-management that does not require constant teacher direction. When the intrigue and pressure-to-produce demands of a project are humming along, teachers have the freedom to provide more individualized and customized instructions, resources and guidance because they do not have to worry about “what all the other kids are doing” while they help a smaller group. The other students are working.

PBL cultivates collaborative learning. Most projects involve students working together to solve a complex problem, and even individual projects are often layered with purposeful structures for students to collaborate, share learning, and provide each other feedback.  When students regularly work with a wide variety of peers, it builds school culture and relationships, helps them see diverse perspectives, and enjoy learning as a social enterprise. Additionally, purposeful student collaboration multiplies out the number of potential guides and tutors a student has available to them at any given moment. Not only does this increase the opportunities for students to get a more customized explanation for a concept they may be struggling with, peers who have newly learned something are often better able to help translate those new ideas or skills than the teacher because they can still remember what it was like to not know it and are closer to their own experience with “getting it.”

PBL reveals a wider range of student strengths and weakness. A major theme in personalization is helping students become better known to their teachers and to themselves to inform the learning process. By exposing students to a wide range of real, and even simulated, projects and problem solving scenarios, we allow them to perform in more contexts. These different contexts reveal important areas of strength or weakness that remain hidden in a classroom where the primary actions and behaviors are limited to the role of a student. Many students get good at this role, and it hides real weakness they will need to address as they move out into the work world. Other students struggle to find purpose as passive receptacles of knowledge and their disengagement masks talents and interests that could lead to their long-term happiness.

In a PBL school, a student may take on the role of genetics consultant, landscape architect, city planner, historical critic, playwright and work within their groups as leaders, resource managers, researchers, authors, artists and more. Each of these scenarios allows for an exploration into different ways of working and helps students see more of their potential, increasing the power of tools like personal learning plans by revealing more of the person in the plan.

Those same contexts and problem solving situations also require those broader readiness skills referenced above. Formally naming, teaching, and assessing these outcomes alongside more traditional content standards furthers the aim of giving students a more complete picture of their strengths and areas to grow expanding the scope of skills in personalization tools like personal learning plans.

Although PBL is aimed at many of the same goals of the personalization movement, just doing PBL isn’t a guarantee that student learning is being personalized. More to point, the explosion of tools and ideas related to personalization present exciting opportunities for teachers to take PBL to a new level with their students.

We’ll explore some of these opportunities in Part Two of this blog.

This blog originally appeared on Learning Habit.

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