How to Make Sure That Project-based Learning is Applied Well in Schools

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By Thom Markham

Now that project-based learning (PBL) is becoming more popular, the doubters and haters also have surfaced. The recent anti-PBL message by David Brooks in the New York Times, which was fortunately well rebutted, exemplifies the resistance. Citing High Tech High in San Diego, Brooks’ core message is that PBL is a kind of mindless education dressed up by technology and devoid of the ‘wisdom’ taught in traditional schools. Given that there are probably another thousand-plus schools across the country embracing PBL, this is a serious charge. And it’s false.

But it should also be a warning to PBL advocates. PBL is gaining in popularity, but it’s not being done particularly well in many schools. Early in the school year, I worked with a group of earnest, professionally focused, K-5 teachers who had received three days of PBL training during the summer from a highly reputable PBL organization. They could recite the basics of PBL: Design a problem around standards; put student in groups; and plan an exhibition. But they left the training believing that the underlying goal is to cover standards by cleverly posing a problem for students that teachers can already answer. They hadn’t been instructed—or inspired—to practice the breakthrough kind of learning that PBL promises—the kind that leads to greater personalization, innovation, design thinking, self-directed learning, and, most critically, the kind of wisdom required in today’s world rather than the 1950’s.

This is no one’s fault. Education continues to operate in a ‘safe’ zone where standards and pre-ordained outcomes predominate. As a result, many teachers practice a problem-based approach to PBL—the academic, teacher-focused method that originated in the 1960s in colleges and schools of medicine. The two approaches appear similar, but there’s a huge, and critical, distinction. PBL is designed to break students out of the box of conventional thinking by having them engage the world, exceed standards, and deliver creative solutions to authentic issues. A simple way to say it is this: Problem based learning teaches to the standards; PBL teaches students to apply the standards.

Why would we not settle for highly constrained problem-based PBL? Isn’t it enough to have a bit more student-oriented problem solving in classrooms than ten years ago? Maybe. But that also means settling for staying inside the lines of the current system of teaching and learning. Continuing the obsessive focus on the ‘right’ standards, accepting vague simulations of critical thinking, and applauding students who deliver a bulleted list of talking points via PowerPoint presentations does not lead to transformation.

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To get at the depth of purpose and engagement necessary for learners today, there’s work to do in PBL. The way out of the box is to encourage teachers to let go, take risks, live with uncertain outcomes—and design projects that matter. Enter the world as it is at this time—as a place of wide open spaces and immense needs. Invent and deliver projects that retain the full power of PBL and, in the process, push education forward to meet its mid-century destiny. How? Here are five big ideas:

See PBL as a mind shift, not a method. PBL offers a great structure for problem solving – it’s a Monday morning solution. But the process of PBL, when done well, takes students deep. It can awaken as well as teach, help students dig into their psyche a bit, and actually mature young people in ways that problem based and front of the room instruction can’t touch. PBL gives us a path forward out of the industrial past and into a world that requires a deep set of attitudes and skills necessary for navigation. But since the future is not fully unveiled, PBL teachers should be mission-driven, fueled by a sense of urgency and contribution.

Put challenge first. Obviously, standards need to be addressed. That’s why starting a project plan by listing standards to be taught has become conventional advice from today’s PBL top trainers. I disagree. Teachers see standards as a helpful guide and organizer, but orienting to standards alone is dispiriting; they are not the grail we seek.

Once the human mind sees a list, it’s in check-off mode. Instead, start with a challenge that excites students. Daydream. Muse. Envision students’ faces at the end of the project. Once the vision and intention is fixed—and a teacher feels the challenge—that’s the time to return to linear mode: What standards will students learn, and how?

Get a lot better at Driving Questions. In general, PBL experts do not show teachers how to write great Driving Questions, nor is it well understood that the question or the problem is the high leverage key to deeper learning. For example, a typical question such as ‘How can we prevent climate change?’ encourages in-the-box thinking and a laundry list of suggestions drawn from the internet. That’s more coverage. Instead, ‘How can we, as 7th graders facing severe climate issues in adulthood, use data to effectively lobby our community about the dangers of climate change?’ forces students to grapple with core, authentic issues around the topic of climate change: Who do we believe? Why? How do we educate ourselves? How do we change attitudes?

Turn skills and content into one conversation. PBL advocates assure doubters that PBL teaches academic content. And it does—but in depth, not quantity. It’s time to own that little sidestep. Also, 21st century skills still feel the tailwind from the past. Generally, skills are taught as an add-on to content. The goal is to define a third way that paints a fully realized, blended picture of knowing and doing. PBL offers a learning experience that seamlessly blends core concepts, key facts, reflective thinking, careful judgment, and skillful application of knowledge—all of which coalesce into a solution to a meaningful problem. In life and learning, skills and strengths now assume a role equal to or paramount to content acquisition. Identifying and verbalizing that new definition of rigor is central to overcoming the argument about lack of ‘wisdom.’

Coach for openness. A skillful PBL teacher does much more than teach, and PBL offers amazing opportunities to go for the real gold in education: Helping young people become open, curious adults. A meaningful project taps into a student’s—and a teacher’s—desire to engage in purposeful work. From shared purpose flows a natural, engaged, caring, relationship where feeling, emotion, and respectful conversation become a central tool for opening the mind to intellectual work and a desire for further inquiry. The brain never works in isolation from the body and the heart, and when the whole child enrolls in the process of learning, the sense of satisfaction translates into a permanent attitude. There’s a shift, most likely in the neuronal pathways, but also in the less understood realms of brightness, a forward-facing personality, and the desire for wisdom. Simply put, good coaching can push the permanent learning button. 

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Thom Markham is a psychologist, educator, CEO of PBL Global, author of leading books on PBL and intelligence, and an internationally-respected consultant on project based learning, 21st century skills, innovation, and high performance cultures. You can find him on Twitter @thommarkham

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