Reinventing PBL to Focus on Human Performance

image of a project based learning iceberg

Watching fourth graders working in a team on a creative PBL science project (Their problem to solve: Educate parents and community about how common devices like TV’s and phones rely on wave technology.) reminded me that great project based learning aims to produce brightness. That’s a non-evidence-based term unrelated to the repetitive mantra of more rigor.

Brightness is hard to define, but certain markers identify it: Big eyes, with greater than usual sparkle; wide grins; lots of excited chatter; deep concentration; and body language that signals increased confidence and maturity—exactly what those 4th graders were demonstrating.

The underlying cause of brightness is no mystery. It’s a natural byproduct of exceptional human performance driven by the opportunity to thrive and shine, and a state of being reached by learners of all ages when they accept a challenge, engage in creative work, experience intellectual mastery, trade ideas, find joy in trying and persisting, craft an acceptable solution, discover new facets about themselves, sense their growth, and share the whole process with someone who cares.

Do educators like brightness? Of course. It’s a fuzzy outcome, but it warms the heart of every teacher because it’s direct evidence of internal awakening. ‘Iceberg’ traits such as curiosity, creativity, and openness have been stirred. Visible joy equals meaningful learning, and often leads to higher test scores. And, as most educators sense, the tide of history is flowing toward fuzzy outcomes. At some point, they will be considered primary outcomes rather than chance byproducts of an academic system.

Here’s the argument: We’ve hit that point. Brightness now matters more than test scores. The globalized, networked, just in time world invaded classrooms a decade ago, but has finally forced upon education the Great Shift: People’s strengths count more than credentials. Many hard truths emerge from this new reality. Knowledge without application has less value. Attitude matters. Openness and flexibility determine success. Skillfulness, discernment, engagement, and creative impulse become the rulers of the land. And, the final fact: Today’s system, with its focus on content rather than human performance, will be tested until it breaks.

There’s a lot of noise in education right now, but only one signal: The need to invent a system designed for brightness so that inner strengths routinely surface in children. Can it be done? Yes, if we weave together three dominant trends in schooling today—the rise of PBL, our growing commitment to social emotional competency, and the refocus on student agency and inquiry—into a coherent human performance system.

Transforming PBL: From High Quality to High Performance

Advocates for ‘high quality’ PBL push teachers to adopt best practices that go beyond traditional ‘projects’ and engage students in authentic inquiry, deeper problem solving, and applying core skills such as teamwork and communication. This is good work, but slow—and there’s a reason: PBL relies on an outdated platform. It’s built on teacher methodology, tying it to a behavioral worldview which presumes that standards-based thinking and ‘strategies’ provoke deeper student awareness and problem-solving. While a great deal of lip service is paid to authenticity and student-driven work, most PBL doesn’t really begin with the student. It’s seen as an educational method, not a system to support human growth.

This was not always the case. In fact, PBL is a method for brightness. That’s what it’s intended to do. PBL began as ‘problem based learning’ in Canadian and Dutch medical schools in the 1960’s. Not coincidentally, this was the exact dawn of the human potential movement, in which pioneers like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers began developing a humanistic approach to psychology that emphasized self-aspiration, inner reflection, and a ‘person-centered’ approach to life. This cultural shift influenced early adherents of PBL, who wanted to move prospective doctors in the direction of deeper learning through less textbook diagnosis and more communication with patients.

If we want a replicable model of PBL that incorporates standards and knowledge, but also reliably yields successful fuzzy outcomes, the first step is to reclaim the belief that PBL is designed to facilitate personal growth and uncork human potential. It’s a psychological process as well as an educational tool.

With that mindset, PBL takes on a different hue. The principles of high quality project design are familiar to well-trained PBL teachers, and a reinvented PBL retains those principles. But each can be infused with a higher purpose by intentionally eliciting social emotional strengths and supporting growth while learning takes place. This requires systematic design, not lesson planning. The principles function as parts of the whole, creating a continuous set of Petri-like conditions that work synergistically to shift a student’s awareness in the direction of openness, curiosity, flexibility, perseverance, discernment, deeper engagement, mastery of content and—eventually—wisdom. Consider a transformed PBL process that can be put in place right now:

From standards to purposeful challenge. Every great project begins with a ‘why’ that starts the engines of the inner life and spurs openness. Preparing for a test is not a ‘why’ nor do standards stir the soul. Begin with powerful, meaningful ideas that invoke meaning, purpose, and service. Go deep, then import standards into the project. The times demand it.

From a Driving Question to a ‘wicked’ problem. The true test of the quality of a Driving Question is whether it forces discernment and flexibility. A wicked problem with multiple solutions and clear constraints—the kind that dominates life today—invites powerful critical thinking that invokes deep inner resources. PBL is NOT a brain-based exercise; it’s whole body learning experience that yields appreciation for the richness and complexity of knowledge and lingers throughout a lifetime as curiosity.

From fast to slow learning. PBL oriented to human performance requires abandoning the folk myth that fast learners are smarter and that coverage equals learning. The quality of the work should include attention to detailperseverancereflection, and creative effort. The underlying change is from a ‘hand it in’ classroom culture to a design, draft, fail and perform culture that values depth over coverage.

From groups to intentional collaboration. Group work inspires chat, but when interacting in well-organized teams or cohorts students must stretch communication skills. Those skills manifest as good listening or visible support of teammates. But ultimately, communication succeeds in the presence of empathytolerancekindness, and self-awareness. Since working in teams brings out individual personality, teamwork gives teachers a grand opportunity to observe students and coach them on behavior and self-restraint.

From educational rubrics to human performance measures. PBL has birthed a set of excellent performance rubrics that describe skills as well as content, but the new generation of rubrics must add measures that focus on the strengths underlying the skills, such as confidenceresiliency, and other factors that support the growth mindset. It will not be enough to hope that students develop strengths; the next generation of rubrics must show and tell.

From teacher to co-creator. Differentiating ‘teacher centered’ from ‘student centered’ is no longer useful. In the system to come, everyone plays a role as a learning partner holding respect for each other. In PBL, the teacher designs, guides, mentors, teaches, and evaluates—but also incorporates creative insights, student wisdom, and opportunities to produce new knowledge. All this cannot happen unless teachers take a similar journey as students: Toward more depth of awareness, acceptance of multiple talents, deeper empathy, a never-satisfied curiosity, and the experience of the joy of work well done and knowledge well applied. The goal for both teacher and student? Brightness.

Why a 21st Century Teacher Isn’t Just a ‘Guide on the Side’

The great fiction that a teacher today has become a ‘guide on the side’ is now hardwired into nearly every conversation about the future of teaching and learning. Teachers don’t deliver information any longer; they act as co-constructivists and facilitators, sitting shoulder to shoulder with students.

Why raise objections to this new narrative? First, it’s disingenuous. Teachers still stand at the front of the room. They teach, using traditional tools and tapping their repository of information to share with students. They lecture. Yes, sometimes too long, but a competent teacher knows when to sit down or ask questions.

The second objection is aimed at education’s habit of settling for shiny new terms when the facts demand a deeper commitment to truth telling. The truth is that in the emerging  era of project based learning, personalization, 21st century skills training, commitment to social emotional growth, and attention to equity and social challenges, the complexities of teaching can’t be captured by a simple ‘You’re now a guide on the side’ mandate. Teaching in this ecosystem calls upon a rich, demanding skill set that has transformed the profession into one of the most complex, creative, and (potentially) rewarding jobs on the planet.

Given the numbers of teachers expressing dissatisfaction with their jobs, leaving the profession, or reporting burnout, one might conclude the opposite. But the turmoil can be traced to the system of pacing guides and testing that forces compliance. Educators are tired of teaching inside the lines. In schools focused on innovation, the job may be challenging, but it’s also energizing precisely because it invokes deep purpose and reward.

Acknowledging the new state of the profession is critical. With standards obsessed systems backed by high stakes testing wilting under the increasing pressure of on demand, self-directed learning, schools will yield to more flexible curriculum, online options, and strengths/skills outcomes supporting the journey of learning, not the final degree.

As systems change, inevitably a teacher’s role will have to be reconceptualized as a new mental model evolves around what it means to ‘teach.’ Evidence shows how difficult this mindshift will be. Despite the decades-old ‘guide on the side’ conversation, no corresponding attention is paid yet to developing the facilitation skills and coaching protocols that teachers need for effective people management. The focus instead remains on classroom management and traditional behavioral tools.

Preparing teachers for this new role amplifies the challenge. Under industrial rules, a teacher is trained (‘prepared’) to implement a skill—to follow a pacing guide, roll out a reading program, deliver content, and ‘manage’ a classroom. But already complex professions operating in dynamic environments foresee ‘training’ as obsolete. There is an increasing demand for the ‘T-shaped person’, who has both the breadth and depth to respond to variety and novelty.

The observational and relational skills necessary for deep facilitation and mentoring in inquiry environments meet this standard of complexity. Rather than being preparedteachers will need to prepare themselves. Techniques will matter, but true competency will derive from experience, practice, and agile learning within an ecosystem of constant growth.

This sounds a bit theoretical compared to the seat time and one size fits all approach to teacher preparation. But transforming our mental model of a teacher is not really that difficult. First, stop relying on the one stop category of ‘guide on the side’ and start identifying the skill sets necessary to be a ‘future ready’ teacher. Undoubtedly the nomenclature will change over the next decade, but projections on digital learningpersonalizationcreativity, and contribution indicate at least five categories of teacher skillfulness:

  • Practitioner. No matter how much Google or AI invades the classroom, teachers will still deliver knowledge. But in inquiry classrooms, teachers mainly deliver on the fly with ‘just in time’ information in response to student questions and wonders. Since knowledge can’t be easily scripted, prepackaged, or confined to shopworn lessons, teachers will need to do a deep dive into their subjects and know not just the subject, but the field. More important, they will need to master a new skill set focused on project based learning and inquiry practices.
  • Facilitator. Threshing out the true roles of the guide on the guide is the next step. A facilitator’s prime job is to set up the conditions for optimal learning by building safety, community, and relationships into the environment. Setting challenges, building successful teams, monitoring deeper learning, and combining design thinking with high quality PBL practices come next. In many ways, the required skill set is to know how to put all the pieces in place for deeper learning—and then getting out of the way.
  • Coach. In a world with infinite paths to success, personalization is inevitable. Each student will start at a different place and end in a different place; each will bring unique talents and perspectives to the journey. A coach teaches and models skills, listens deeply enough to know individual needs, and realizes that coaching is not just conversation but an exchange that succeeds through respectful protocols. The skill set? Teachers will need explicit skills in offering feedback and techniques across thinking, creating, designing, collaborating, and communicating domains.
  • Mentor. The Mentor shares the skill set of the therapist. However daunting, teachers will need to expand their comfort zone and be willing to teach, assess, highlight, value, and offer support for empathy, curiosity, perseverance, and the range of positive strengths identified as successful behaviors in today’s world. This extends the Coach’s role into a much more personal and engaged relationship with students, requiring deep observational skills backed by empathy, deep listening, attentive presence, and an attitude of openness and nonjudgment.
  • Changemaker. Students will not remain silent or standards compliant as the globe contends with climate change, inequality, or migration. As the innovation meme intensifies, they will want to find purpose, put the sustainable goals into action, and in general move way beyond the four walls of school. For teachers, resistance will be futile. Rather, the new skill set of the future-ready teacher is become a co-learner and co-creator, working with students on service learning projects or finding ways to apply classroom knowledge to authentic issues. This trend is already visible; expect it to accelerate.

The next step? Let go of seat time metrics to certify teachers. Instead, focus on the professional journey and full immersion in a digital and face to face ecosystem that invites deep collaboration, on demand knowledge, shared practices, high quality feedback, and teacher-led systems leadership. In other words, start a rich conversation and keep it going through every means possible. That’s the way forward for teaching in the 21st century.

Why Teachers Need to Become Radicals

Image of flags for project based learning.

I’ll start with two stories that tell us what we need to know about the future of education.

First, Greta Thunberg, climate activist, potential Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and 16-year-old Swedish student, went viral with these words: “What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

As expected, some of her teachers took issue with this. Like most educators, they hope a solid education leads to informed citizenship, but they’re focused on Algebra and History now, not activism.

But Ms. Thunberg wasn’t having it. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she looked the audience in the eye and knifed them with this rebuttal: “I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic. I want you to feel fear every day and then I want you to act.”

The second story was different in tone, but quite ordinary in content: Another grumbling complaint from a high school teacher, just published in 2019 in a high profile internet journal designed for a millennial audience. We need to change education. I’m tired of teaching verb conjugation and boring my students!

Well, I’m going with Greta—all the way. As educators, we should panic, not whine.

Why? Because climate change is only a third of the trifecta hurtling toward us. Add in artificial intelligence, with estimates of 30% unemployment with a decade and a half. Brew in growing inequality worldwide. Then imagine exponential social disruption and mull the prospect of a miseducated population lacking the core personal knowledge, resiliency, and empathetic and collaborative skills required to regroup as a global society and solve problems that—for the first time in human history—could lead to extinction.

The last point—miseducation—is why educators should stop complaining and start acting. Talking about the future, even fluently, is fine. But it’s not fine to continue teaching to an outdated paradigm, using tools honed decades ago, relying on credentials that won’t truly matter, and reinforcing the oblivious belief that if schools deliver high test scores, students meet standards, and every student attends university, all will be fine. Particularly, it won’t be fine because most teachers secretly know the truth. Yes, it should change. Yes, testing really doesn’t work. Yes, our subjects are outdated. Yes, students are bored. Yes, we know…

Okay, if we know, let’s band together and exercise the incredible power held by the 15 million teachers worldwide, who teach 1.5 billion students and who are uniquely positioned to help youth create a positive future. Action driven by fear is required. It’s time for teachers to become radicals, to panic, to step up and disrupt, to be part of the solution.

Too radical? No, it can be done without endangering the monthly paycheck. It’s about mindset, vision, and attitude, not about barricades.

Mostly, it’s about individual teachers freeing themselves from the tentacles of a system designed for a fading world and becoming innovative risktakers unafraid to speak truth to power:

Take back your power. It starts here. In a highly regulated system with bells and periods and units, your brain adapts to the cultural surround. The rules manifest as neuronal pathways, and those tracks harden over time into an attitude of compliance, acceptance, or resignation. But the structures of thought around us are breaking down, and schools are no exception. Freedom and experimentation are in the air, and you are not a cog in the system; you are the system. Schooling doesn’t happen without you and you can’t be easily replaced (robots will be helpless when dealing with adolescents.) So, know your value.

Treat your Superintendent or Principal as a colleague. Taking back your power requires asserting your place in the hierarchy, meaning all those ‘above’ you, including principals, headmasters, and bigwigs at the state or national level, are just colleagues. Respect everyone, but remember in these days of massive, exponential change, you know as much or more about teaching and learning as anyone. Teachers in too many schools get talked down to. No more. Present at workshops. Speak at conferences. Be vocal on policies. Insist.

Recognize the dynamic nature of knowledge. In a non-standardized, personalized world, standards as the basis for education are failing. Virtually every teacher I have ever met does not truly believe in standards as their north star for learning. They see the child, not the information. So, act accordingly. Lobby hard. Make noise. Object. Argue in favor of bringing back the creative resources of the individual teacher to determine how to teach and what to teach. Tell the suits—relentlessly—to reduce standards to minimums and turn them into guidelines rather than rules.

Teach to the present world: I spoke not long ago with a Lower School Director at a prestigious independent school. He wants to bring project based learning to his school, but the teachers “will fight me tooth and nail.” Why? “They are very academic oriented,” he told me. No, they are not academic -oriented; they are oriented to a paradigm that is over and gone. Traditional instruction designed to increase college acceptance rates, and then release graduates into the VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—is a dead end. Embrace PBL, Maker Spaces, inquiry, design challenges, and any similar innovation that give us hope that we can prepare young people for an unrecognizable, unpredictable future. Step out of the box. Dive into the new.

Take the challenge to the planet seriously: In Australia, where I often work, upper elementary teachers spend several weeks on the Australian Gold Rush, similar to learning about the California Gold Rush in my part of the U.S. Then students learn about the Euphrates before moving along the supply chain and mastering the intricacies of the Glorious Revolution in England. I’m not just picking on social studies or history; it happens in every subject. Teachers are so focused on a stale curriculum that they cannot find time or space to study imminent threats to life on earth. Why? Doesn’t fit the pacing guide, adhere to the curriculum frameworks, or teach to the standards. How will this turn out? Without a future, the past won’t mean much.

Share the dream: A global phenomenon is underway that has gone completely unreported: Teachers across the planet are speaking out, sharing ideas, and beginning to form a global coalition. If you don’t believe this, join Twitter. There’s a simple reason for the alliance: Every teacher, everywhere, faces the same challenges. Bored students. Outdated curriculum. Resistance to new ideas. Too much focus on subjects and testing. Too little focus on emotional competency. Solution? Join the global conversation, make your views known, and contribute your story.

Oppose hate: Educators form the essential bulwark against injustice, prejudice, intolerance, and the slow diminishing of kindness and empathy in our global society. It is not overstating your role to see yourself as a noble warrior for light and goodness. Yes, teach your students, fulfill your responsibilities, and correct them when necessary. But while doing so, be a model for an enlightened, tolerant human being. Be Gandhi. Be anyone who inspires you. Be the change you wish to see. That’s radical.

Don’t settle for the ‘21st century’ meme: In 2000, introducing ‘21st century skills’ was a good idea. Education needed a refresh and a new direction. And, nothing sinister about the 4 C’s: Communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. But the 5th ‘C’ now matters most. Without Character, all else becomes a cognitive task unrelated to purpose, meaning, and commitment to a positive future. However challenging, the great undertaking before us as educators is to graduate better human beings. We don’t have good methods or metrics for this, I know. Nevertheless, a radical teacher takes on this challenge and is constantly coaching, mentoring, and inspiring the inner life of students. One little catch here: Teachers also need to be better human beings. Think of the new mantra for educators: Reflection, reflection, reflection.

Present reality to your students: 1.5 billion students are enrolled in schools around the earth. Exactly this number is going to be deeply and—in many cases, negatively—impacted by artificial intelligence, robotics, and inequality. I’m not suggesting scaring students with this formidable reality; I do believe that combining a sober look at the future with a belief in young people’s extraordinary capacities for innovation and problem solving is necessary. Students face an uphill climb to managing the planet to success—and they will do better if they can assess the risks, realize the seriousness, and prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for the future. A radical teacher can guide this process by being candid, optimistic, and a capable intellectual leader.

Honor many paths to learning. The system of learning is breaking down. You may have noticed. Universities may not be able to support brick and mortar classrooms in 20 years. High schools devolve into charter schools, academies, personalized pathways, alternative schooling, home schooling, and unschooling. Young people around the world learn advanced math on the internet, not in class. Flex replaces classroom routines. All these trends will continue and accelerate; traditional, institutionalized forms of instruction cannot withstand the onslaught of Google, 24-hour media, devices, and—more than anything—the push for personalized pathways to growth, learning, and lifestyle everywhere. People do their own thing these days; youth will also, meaning education will have to seek out and identify new core principles for what it means to be an educated person, not just a certificated one. This will test us as educators. So, the final suggestion? Remember Greta’s advice: Stay fearless.