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.

From PBL to PBD: Next Steps for Project Based Learning

image of a classroom learning project based learning skills.

Project Based Learning (PBL) has reached escape velocity. The small movement that began in the U.S. twenty years ago is rapidly becoming the teaching method of choice (and the hot topic of discussion) in virtually every country.

There is a simple reason for the ascendance: In an information-driven world that values an individual’s ability to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and a problem-solving skillset, nothing else works. The ‘doing’ is now the ‘knowing’, and seat time and certificates are fading as a good metric for competency. High-quality PBL, with its active, skill-oriented, problem-focused, and inquiry-based approach, is the answer to the challenge of the day.

But the world isn’t standing still. Two very large trends are becoming visible. First, globalization isn’t happening, it has happened. We’ve reached the point of culminating disruptions and instability in our political, social, environmental, and financial lives. The visible chaos will drive youth toward social entrepreneurship. In the next decade, expect a global youthquake—also known as a rebellion.

Second, events are pushing all of us, youth and adults, to develop deeper personal skills—in the form of empathy, curiosity, persistence, resiliency, and other attributes—critical to navigating the global environment. That’s why social-emotional learning has become as visible as PBL. While SEL needs to be built out into a more powerful strengths-based vision, including more SEL in classrooms is an overdue start on helping every young person develop the emotional capacity necessary for maintaining balance in an unbalanced world.

As a philosophy of inquiry, PBL offers a great framework for meeting these challenges. But the current version of PBL, as practiced in most schools, hasn’t shaken the legacy of the industrial mindset, in which the goal is to meet standards and master content. In the future, knowledge will matter, as it always has, but personal attributes and commitment to social entrepreneurship will matter equally and need to be the foundation for projects. In fact, the 2.0 version of PBL begins to resemble less a method for ‘learning’ than a system of team-based design, exploration, and problem solving—something we might characterize eventually as Project Based Design, or ‘PBD.’

How do we get to PBD? It starts by imagining a future PBL better suited to the issues of the future, and then being willing to follow the general world trend of rethinking best practices. Some possible steps:

  • Replace the Standards-Based Formula with a Human Performance Mindset.

PBL was poorly named from the beginning, causing educators to confuse a method of instruction by teachers with the deeper promise and purpose of PBL: To help students experience personal and intellectual growth as they move through a process of problem solving. Mastery, purpose, and autonomy have been identified as the key factors in human performance. PBL is a perfect system for making these critical elements the foundation for learning. The next step? Always begin project work with an authentic challenge tied to purposeful engagement, not the material to be covered.

  • Merge PBL and Human Centered Design. Many PBL teachers are skilled at establishing a Driving Question and requiring public products – two elements of high quality PBL. But the ‘middle’ of projects is often characterized by traditional teaching methods aimed at spurring ‘critical thinking’—a vague holdover from industrial times. PBL needs to capture a key shift in how the world solves problems by using design thinking. The next step? Incorporate the human centered design process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test – as standard procedure in projects.
  • Shift from Test-Based Thinking to Skills Based Thinking. Educators have concluded that test-based results are a poor metric for the type of ‘rigor’ required in todays’ world. So, why do tests still prevail and predominate? Because we don’t know how to measure skills and personal process. But that is the exact mindshift and leap of faith required. Redefining rigor around skillfulness and ‘doing’, not merely the ‘knowing’, is an essential step forward. How can PBL advocates take that step? Put skill-based performance standards on par with testing outcomes. Use consistent, field-tested, rich rubrics that identify levels of mastery in communication, collaboration, presentation, and design outcomes. 
  • Focus on Deep Collaboration. PBL professes to use teams as part of the process but lags far behind the best thinking in industry on how people function effectively in a team through teamwork or teaming. Using the terminology of ‘groups’ is outdated; the language of teams invokes accountability, purpose, and cohesion. That should be standard practice in PBL.But there is a critical next step: Recognize that personal strengths develop through social-emotional interactions in a team and take time to coach students in the core skills and attitudes required for deep collaboration: Empathy, humility, listening, and assertiveness.
  • Establish PBL Teachers as Co-Creative Intellectual Partners. It’s common now to speak of teachers as a guide on the side, and to refer to student ‘agency’—easy phrases not really backed by deeper introspection about how teachers and students will partner in the future. But the outline is clear: In todays’ creative, constructivist, information rich environment, it’s likely that teachers will know more than students about some things, and students will know more than teachers about other things. The power dynamic thus shifts dramatically and invites us to envision a deep teach/learn and learn/teach relationship between student and teacher. Inevitably, we will move in the direction of deep intellectual collaboration between parties in the learning space. A critical step in this direction: Teachers will no longer be able to rely on a credential or traditional professional development to craft a successful skill set for teaching. The emerging skill set includes personal openness, flexibility, humility, and the ability to listen and observe.

In Our Connected World, What If Empathy is Learning?

Image of student for project based learning.

Observing a group of students conversing deeply as a team, checking resources on a Chromebook, presenting solutions to a problem in a project, or responding to open ended questions, you might ask yourself: What the heck is going on? Is this learning?

In times past, this was an easy question to answer. Traditional, recognizable elements of education, such as lectures, worksheets, spelling tests, writing, and standardized tests were prominent. There was also a shared mental model of what learning meant. It was assumed that individuals operate as a unit separate from each other and the environment, which enabled the transmission version of learning—the input-output model in which packets of information enter the brain, form building blocks of knowledge, rewire circuits, stimulate executive function, and thinking happens… (The conversation trails off a bit at this point because the whole process gets mysterious, especially the thinking part.)

But what now? Information is everywhere, making it impossible to package. Collaboration and networking underpin life, and constant communication is the norm, even for plants. Each time you check your smart phone you tap into a global brain. And when you finally put down the phone, you shake your head: So much going on. In fact, the tightening weave in the global network means that never has there been an era in human history in which so many people learn together.

Education has noticed, driving the move to personalized, learner-centered, teacher facilitated, applied skills approaches to schooling, with increased emphasis on teamwork and collaborative project-based work in school, accompanied by a sharp necessity to tap deep student attributes such as engagement, motivation, openness, and curiosity.

That the transmission model has collapsed is clear. But it’s now time to take the more difficult step: To acknowledge that living a densely linked life and operating in a non-linear, intimately connected, globally diverse, culturally conflicted world with 16 million text messages exchanged every minute and knowledge itself becoming a social construct mediated by the whole requires entirely new thinking about learning itself.

What will replace the old model? There are three important clues—three sets of data from emerging science—that point us in the direction of a radically new notion of learning in the remainder of the 21st century and beyond.

First, consider that conventional evolutionary theory is being challenged by complexity, which assumes the primary unit of evolution is the organic whole, not the individual. This theory follows the rule of dynamic systems, in which chaotic patterns (and we have plenty now) accelerate until crisis reaches a penultimate stage and chaos resolves itself into a new order. In other words, the entire ‘building block’ notion of life, with a long evolutionary timeline and subtle changes in individual genes over many lifetimes, may be replaced by the notion of collective intelligence and evolution of the whole.

Second, there is increasing evidence that in our highly connected world the social environment interacts with human consciousness to create a social field of information. Like fish trying to see water, the field is invisible to us, but we learn from the field. It’s now our chief source of curriculum.

Third, experts in the field of social neuroscience assert that our relationship to the field can be mediated through an expression of empathy and openness. That may be why empathy has suddenly morphed beyond a narrow definition as a tolerant attitude into a deep interpersonal skill necessary for effective teaming, customer design, and other aspects of life that require openness to the flow of information.

What does this mean for education? In my view, it’s time to match the emerging science with the tempo of the times and upend established ‘truths’ around learning. It’s time to act on the assumption that knowledge is flowing through students, not being delivered to them, and that the chief skill is openness. That means, for the foreseeable future, empathy is learning. This is the game-changer. Anything less is a slow dance solution in a rock and roll world.

This may seem theoretical and far away from present school practices. But recall the complexity approach to evolution: More chaos indicates the problem is intensifying to the point of a sudden shift. We are not as far from a 21st century model of learning as we might believe. In fact, there are at least six ways that schools can get out in front of the shift:

Promote a Holistic, Non-Brain Centric View of Learning. Empathy be a behavior, but it has a physiological underpinning. In an empathetic state, the body relaxes and brain activity shifts to the higher centers. To an extent larger than generally realized, this shift is mediated by the heart. Further, the physiology of the heart—in the form of heart rate variability, which affects the messaging to the brain—is influenced by emotions. All the emotions associated with empathy, such as openness, humility, gratitude, and compassion, affect the heart positively.

View Empathy as the Foundation. Old schemata for learning, such as Bloom’s Taxonomy, need to be replaced by iceberg models that give us better insight into behaviors that matter in the world, including social awareness, self-awareness, and attitudes that lead to connection with others. This includes replacing the term ‘social-emotional’ learning, an industrial hangover from a time in which academic and social skills could be distinguished, with a strengths-based focus that binds intellect, passion, and skillfulness into a whole. Teaching SEL skills is on the rise, but teaching the core strength—openness, curiosity, and empathy—and acknowledging empathy’s   fundamental role in cognition and achievement is the next step.

Turn Empathy into an Outcome. Empathy can be learned, demonstrated, and evaluated, but it needs to be defined in terms deeper than ‘I like others.’ Empathy is the first step in the design process. Empathetic behavior makes teams function better and can be identified in teamwork rubrics as active listening, open body posture, kind critique, and similar behaviors that can be assessed. Learning to be empathetic, however, does require the right conditions–sitting in a row of desks and answering teacher questions doesn’t do it. Empathy is best learned through service or teams in a project-based environment.

Continue to Personalize Learning. The exact definition of personalized learning is a work in progress, but is a visible response to our intuition that the old model of learning no longer holds. The more that an individual is not confined to chapters in a text book or a set of lecture notes, and has 24/7 access to a broader field of knowledge, the more that learning becomes personal as well as collectivized. Many choices equal many paths equal multiple ways to become educated. This is a huge challenge for formal education, but unavoidable.

Recognize Teachers as Co-creators. With the learner at the center, the teacher is the facilitator. But education requires a serious build-out of this concept. In the new model, the real teacher is not a single person, but the social field, which leads to learning, but also awakens deeper levels of creativity and a desire for service. In the transmission model, learning is very much geared toward self-fulfillment; in the new model, we can expect empathy to shift the focus to the common good. Teachers will inevitably begin to apply their subject expertise to real-world demands for solutions, innovation, and problem solving. That’s really the outgrowth of an empathic model of learning: To make a positive difference in the world.

Get Students Out of the Classroom and into the World. In a world of collective ‘learning’, the standards-based approach will inevitably fail or undergo severe modification to focus on skillfulness rather than content. The replacement is ‘learning while doing’, hopefully in service to the greater good. Expect to see service learning, out of school social good projects, and opportunities for students to share their collaborative knowledge to explode over the next few years.

Future Ready PBL: Time to Level Up


Rolling out project based learning in the classroom can be compared to the game of golf. It’s possible to duffer around the greens, shoot over 100, and still have a great time. The players enjoy the recreation and everyone feels successful at the end.

It’s also possible to play tournament golf, where every stroke matters. Players also enjoy themselves, but pride, mastery, accomplishment, and excellence become magnified. Focus, practice, experience, discipline, awareness, and skill matter more, and are reinforced with each outing. In a sense, players ˜level up”, just as they do in a video game.

At present, there’s too much recreational PBL, while the times demand the tournament experience for students. Like the strokes and clubs in golf, the methods for both kinds of PBL are identical. But execution differs, and that’s the key for PBL to move past its fun phase into a ‘future-ready’ form that keeps pace with a global society’s need for deep learning. Leveling up requires PBL teachers to approach the core principles of project design with a deeper level of seriousness. Like tournament golf, they can’t afford to lose a single stroke.

How do teachers level up and charge their project design with deeper meaning and purpose? Here are six recommendations for future-ready PBL:

Align PBL with a Strengths-Based World. PBL suffers from an industrial hangover, meaning most teachers focus on content outcomes, while attributes such as resiliency, grit, curiosity, empathy, and curiosity are distinguished from academics as ˜social-emotional learning” and remain hopeful byproducts of instruction. The world no longer recognizes this distinction, and neither should PBL teachers. Future-ready PBL teachers plan for a different experience: Projects are strengths-based, skills-heavy, and content-rich–in that order.

Use PBL to Blend Content with Student Agency. Education faces a singular design challenge at this historical moment: It’s imperative to solve the age-old debate between advocates of personalized, interest-based learning versus expecting every child to learn a standardized core of knowledge. PBL is inherently constructivist, but core knowledge matters. The problem? We have not yet decided the right balance. But PBL, when done well, allows teachers the flexibility to move back and forth between prescribed content and student agency. Future-ready PBL teachers can help clarify this dilemma by taking a 30,000-foot view of standards and extracting critical concepts, but also incorporating granular concerns such as facts and vocabulary into projects, offering students a seamless, coherent experience.

Move from Tepid Driving Questions to ‘Wicked’ Problems. The great gap in present PBL is that it has lost contact with its roots: It is a problem-solving process. The True North for any project is a challenging, authentic problem captured by a compelling Driving Question that contains constraints. Any meaningful problem in the world requires choices and trade-offs, and students should grapple with these. That is the secret sauce for critical thinking.

Be a True Coach. Lip service to 21st skills or the skills and themes in the p21 Framework is no longer an option. These performance skills will alter the life path of a young person; they need to be taught, assessed, and graded. Every project plan should begin with deciding thoughtful outcomes for these skills, backed by solid, detailed performance rubrics. But then the harder task begins: Coaching students to improve skills through detailed, informed feedback based on. A PBL teacher levels up to this challenge by becoming a competent presenter and collaborator.

Turn Collaboration into Design. PBL still relies on ‘groups,’ not teams. Future-ready PBL teachers insist on industry-standard norms for teams, including accountability, participation, and opportunity for deep exchange. Most important, they can use collaboration for its highest purpose: Innovation. The design process–empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test–requires training in listening, protocols, feedback, and observation. Build this into teamwork. Coach for success. Grade the performance.

Build Personalized SEL Pathways into PBL. Openness to experience and engagement in the process of learning matter more than test scores or any other metric. This is where personalization begins. Each student is working through a set of unique strengths and challenges. Capture these through discussion, reflection, journaling, or any other means that starts the meta-reflection process and ends in self-report. Help students think like a psychologist. What growth opportunities are available through this project? What challenges will arise? Which elements of my personality need attention? Use the PBL design process to spur self-awareness: A wicked problem invites curiosity; collaboration tests empathy; design requires persistence; skills invoke mastery and goals; public deliverables increase self-confidence.

The PBL Global Mission: Higher, Deeper, and More Meaningful PBL

Image of hands for project based learning

In very personal terms, I would like to describe why I started life as a PBL pioneer and founded PBL Global, a very small company focused on a very large task: To offer to teachers in every country an inspired vision and a set of concrete tools for awakening the 1.3 billion children on the planet who will decide the fate of the 22nd century.

Yes, it’s big. But if there ever were a time to dream, invent, question, and reinvent, the time is now. I love children and liked teaching, but my mission in education was clear when I began my journey. I wanted to make a heart to heart connection with teachers and experience the joyful energy of co-creating learning experiences that change the lives of both teacher and student.

Great PBL can change lives, which is why I was fortunate to discover project based learning. There are many views on what PBL is–or isn’t–but for me it is less an educational method than a human performance tool. Done well, it digs deep into a young psyche and leaves a lasting mark through the process of challenge and mastery guided by a caring mentor. It satisfies the soul’s desire for growth. And fortunately–for teachers and myself–it comes wrapped in a doable, manageable package of educational best practices that can be shared and enables teachers to set forth on Monday morning with a degree of confidence that what they do will work and matter.

As society evolves, that package is changing. The simplest way to say it, although not everyone understands the terms, is that the global society has birthed a nonlinear world. Events scatter themselves across the landscape without warning; the unpredictability leads to a sense of chaos; and the chaos forces us as educators to help young people discover deeper reserves than even they may know they have. PBL is a wonderful method for helping students solve important problems, think with discernment, and find reasons to learn. But PBL needs to go deeper, and that is one of my goals at PBL Global.

In my view, the Great Shift in education is to move from content to the person. Adding social emotional learning to academic teaching will not suffice. We need to re-architecture the student as an individual with a unique signature. There is no such thing as average; each person, even those of young age, carries an exceptional blend of experience, motivation, impulses, strengths, and growth challenges. At the same time, individual perspectives limit our collective wisdom. Each person intermingles their signature with others and lives in today’s constant information flow. This means we need powerful ways to craft a common global vision with a foundation of shared knowledge.

Each of the above points impacts project based learning. It cannot continue as a clever way to ‘cover’ material; it cannot settle for a ‘project approach’ that values ‘hands on’ activities over deep engagement; it cannot pretend to teach skills without mentoring, coaching, and feedback; it cannot ignore the psychology underlying collaboration and innovation; it cannot be focused solely on meeting state standards; it cannot be done as one thing that fits every classroom, subject, and teacher.

The starting point is to view PBL as a flexible set of design principles rather than a cookie cutter method. It must support deep inquiry, intellectual collaboration, personal strengths, purposeful work preparation, service-oriented learning, and a co-creative process between teacher and students. PBL practices can help every teacher do better work in the classroom, but the methodology must be infused with a deeper purpose and a vision of contribution to the future.

I don’t have all answers to how to do this, and there is no such entity as a ‘PBL Guru.’ But if you’re interested in working together to take PBL in your school or district deeper into the depths of our emerging world, please get in touch. I love to bring my experience with nearly 400 schools and my unique background as an educator with a doctorate in psychology to work with school leaders to revision PBL, and with teachers who are anxious to put into practice their deepest aspirations as educators.

Alternatively, go online. It is time now to democratize PBL and put best practices in the hands of every teacher, at an affordable cost. PBL Global’s online courses spur a “professional and personal breakthrough,” in the words of one teacher-leader. And that’s good, because I believe that chaos will give way to a new order, but only when everyone participates and solves together.

Note to School Leaders: Three Trends that Will Define the PBL Revolution

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To paraphrase from another source, it can be said that there are two kinds of educators: Those who are behind the curve and those who know they are behind the curve. That’s not a knock on anybody. Society is reinventing itself so quickly that education cannot possibly keep up.

For those Superintendents, Principals, and others who work overtime to keep pace, there’s an immediate, critical goal: Create a high skills culture with a teaching force adept at PBL, inquiry-based instruction, and personalized, student-focused facilitation. At a time of momentous shifts, the only way forward is regime change in the direction of a process-focused approach to learning that yields good problem solvers, questioners, and critical thinkers. Thus armed, the next generation will figure out education’s path into the 22nd Century.

But how do leaders proceed intelligently now? What trends are affecting the PBL revolution? Based on 15 years of experience establishing PBL in close to 400 schools, I’ve come to believe the following:

Personalization: It won’t happen from the top down. Sending a team to a summer conference and having them report back, or offering a PBL workshop to 50 teachers may be a good start, but it’s expensive and ineffective. More important, it ignores the primary trend in the world: The vast democratization of information and skills training available on demand. As personalization empowers more learners to self-improve, it’s time to bring those same opportunities to teachers by flooding the airwaves with low cost access to high quality PBL methods and practices. Give every teacher a foundation in 21st Century inquiry methods and equal opportunity to build their inquiry skill set. Infuse every school and district with the PBL conversation. Trust teachers to move the conversation forward and adapt it to their practices through sharing experiences with peers, PLC’s, and interaction with other teachers on social media. The lesson: Build the culture and expertise from the ground up.

Design: PBL is a philosophy, not a method. For complex skill sets, training does not bring competency, which is built after training through application, feedback, reflection, and field-tested experience in the classroom. As a highly complex task, PBL falls into this category. A one-off workshop without continuous coaching and support will fail, a fact now widely acknowledged in professional development circles. But a greater danger lurks: Viewing PBL as a cookie-cutter method based on strict adherence to a step by step plan. PBL is really a flexible design process that incorporates challenge, student agency, problem solving, teamwork, inquiry, core knowledge, draft and critique, grounded creativity, and public presentation into a satisfying learning experience. To succeed, teachers must step back from the routine of lesson planning, see the whole of the experience, and take on the role of designer–a  high art but a necessary one. Presenting PBL as a breakthrough, coherent philosophy of teaching and learning rather than a clever way to cover academic material and meet standards makes this transition much easier for teachers. The lesson: Define PBL as an umbrella philosophy inclusive of design thinking, maker spaces, passion-based learning, and other inquiry initiatives.

The Iceberg Model: ˜High quality” is not enough. Many educators who claim PBL expertise have not truly transitioned from “projects” to PBL, prompting the present (and necessary) movement to define “high quality” PBL. But consider a statement that employees now routinely tell prospective hires: “I don’t care what you know. I want to know if you are trainable.” There is worldwide demand for talented people who can use templates of knowledge and methods to build and deepen the work of any enterprise through activating their own personal skill set. These are the familiar, invisible “iceberg” qualities that every employer seeks, such as flexibility, empathy, curiosity, creativity, and the ability to navigate chaos. As classroom walls fall, AI increases, curriculum devolves, testing diminishes, college requirements shift, and a hundred other disruptive forces drive change in the present structure, teachers will need to become ˜high quality” learners, imagineers, and co-creators of knowledge who grasp PBL methods and principles at a depth sufficient to adapt practices to a changing environment. The lesson: Think of high quality in terms of personal skill set, not just as a one-size-fits all ability to follow a set formula.  

In PBL, the Problem is the Project

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When I worked for the Buck Institute for Education in the early 2000’s, we held endless staff meetings probing the distinction between project based learning and problem based learning. It was a necessary discussion at that point in the evolution of PBL. Many of BIE’s early offerings centered around problem based units in Economics, and no adequate definition of PBL itself had emerged.

That debate has faded into history because BIE offered a settled definition of PBL that has stuck. It’s a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

But the debate also lost steam because the staff ended up dancing on the head of a pin. Making a distinction between a project-based approach and problem based methods proved impossible. Basically, the process is identical in practice, but different in scope. Problem-based work tends to be more scenario-driven, shorter in length, and offers a more contained learning experience. But either way, students work through a problem to solve it.

And yet, somewhere in the intervening years, PBL has begun to lose the problem-solving focus. Partly, this can be attributed to the relief and pleasure that both students and teachers experience as kids get out of their seats, work in groups, examine some issue or topic that has relevance to their life or to understanding the curriculum, and then present their findings. It’s a welcome, long-overdue antidote to the front of the room lecture. So, we tend now to applaud every project regardless of depth.

Advocates of high quality PBL should hold their applause, however. Constructing a challenging problem or question that anchors the project and causes students to break a sweat as they critically inquire into the nature of the problem requires hard intellectual work on the part of the teacher. But without that effort, and the subsequent settling on a lazy Driving Question, there are consequences: Losing the problem-solving focus in PBL drains the process of its most vital ingredient, and without a meaningful problem, a project is headed down the track to mediocrity.

That’s a danger for PBL–and teachers know it. Though they love the enthusiasm, many feel uncertain about the learning that has taken place. That’s the core issue around problem solving. If we intend to succeed at offering learning experiences that engage young people at deeper depths than the industrial system promised–and in the process, extend and broaden human capacity–then we need to get better at setting the table with good problems.

PBL relies on the Driving Question for this task. But while the Driving Question is an amazingly potent tool for capturing a problem, it doesn’t  emerge spontaneously. It requires a process in which teachers probe their own thinking, ask questions of themselves, and move their focus to the minds of students rather than the objectives of the curriculum. Five tips for doing this effectively at the start of the design process:

Don’t start with standards. For some PBL practitioners, this is heresy. But my experience is that deep, meaningful projects begin with a vision and a challenge. I urge teachers to visualize how students will feel and behave at the completion of the project. What kind of project will elicit that joyful engagement? What themes will motivate students to tap into the best in themselves? Deeper learning requires emotional engagement, not merely cognitive inquiry. Once the vision and outline of the project is established, then it’s time to work appropriate standards into the project design.

Muse on the challenge. As education redefines the notion of rigor away from traditional metrics of academic accomplishment and more in the direction of successful skills and behaviors, PBL teachers need to think in terms of challenge. Meeting a challenge is a satisfying, even joyful, experience that lights up the body and brain, inspires focus and concentration, and marshals whole body resources in a search of figuring out an answer. Whether it’s a service theme for the project or an academic theme doesn’t matter. The why must be clear.

Test and retest the Driving Question. The first draft of the Driving Question never meets the standard. Too often, PBL teachers settle for the first iteration rather than probing the question. Is it authentic or does it sound like a question from a textbook? Does it really capture the challenge for students, or is it just a way to cover information that the teacher wants covered? Is it a compact, understandable, and impactful question that can be realistically answered by students, or is it a global question about the world that students can’t really address?

Think like an engineer. In any design process, parameters exist that impose constraints on the designers. These are the real-world limitations that require critical thinking to solve or overcome. The Driving Question benefits mightily from this approach, and often one word inserted into the question can make it more powerful. For example, in a 5th grade project, students designed a menu for a new, healthy choices, farm to table restaurant. The Driving Question: How can we design an appealing menu for a new farm to table restaurant? Why add the word appealing? Because that’s a constraint that every new restaurant owner has to consider.

Ask yourself: What is the problem to be solved? Once the Driving Question has been settled, ask one more time: What is the problem to be solved? If the problem can’t be articulated cleanly, it’s back to the drawing board for one more round on the Driving Question.

Why Genius is in High Demand—and How PBL Can Deliver

Image of modern day thought for project based learning

Often the history of words reveal long-forgotten truths by harkening us back to a deep past before experts parsed the world into small bits, built the complex industry called ‘modern day thought,’ and excluded those aspects of human experience that remain beyond the reach of scientific validation or explanation. The history of words reminds us that our forefathers may have lacked technological prowess, but knew very well the literacy of human behavior.

One such word is joy. In itself, the word carries a kind of archaic energy since joy implies an emotional state beyond the reach of brain scans, psychometric evaluation, or hormone analysis. When we feel joyful, something big happens. We just don’t know what.

Another word is genius. In some deep past, as language gained traction, the bulk of people believed genius to be the mysterious elation that welled up internally. They equated it to an outbound flow of wisdom, deep learning, and creative insight. In fact, they defined genius as “giving birth to joy.”

Thus, the truth of our history: Many centuries ago wise people figured out that lighting the fire within is more important than stuffing the mind from without, and that meaningful learning does not occur primarily through a cognitive input-out system in which packets of information run neuron routes like a rat through a maze until the packets dead end in an aha! We may believe the ancients were primitive, but they would have thought crazy the fact that an industrial system of education ignores the mysterious roots of joy and genius.

Education has added punctuation to this narrow point of view by inventing every conceivable method, curriculum, and delivery system to create a conduit for input into waiting brains. Once facts are inputted, results can be tabulated; once tabulated, they fulfill the prophecy that learning has occurred. Under this pretense, we then rank the learners.

Why care about this? Because if we don’t return to the ancestral view, educating young people for the life they will live as the world turns toward the 22nd Century is impossible. The input and ranking system worked fine when we didn’t need to know much about learners. Teachers delivered the appropriate packets, and learners regurgitated them. If students flashed signs of joy and genius, all to the good. But inspiration was not required, and joy was not an indicator.

But let’s consider what every thoughtful educator knows and what every social or business institution is telling us: To survive or thrive, young people must demonstrate emotional capacity, whether we identify it as resiliency, empathy, curiosity, or learnability. Yes, knowledge and mastery matter—the packets have their place. But using emotional capacity to navigate, apply, sort, filter, and persist with knowledge is the new normal.

Beyond that, the emergency lights are flashing: Global society needs more genius. Insights and breakthroughs, not deeper grooves in well-worn pathways, are in urgent demand, and the times require a quantum leap in human capacity. That’s a good metaphor, because a quantum shift results in a wholly different atomic structure, yet takes place at a level that can’t be observed—exactly the region of humans where joy and genius reside.

That’s why we’re headed in reverse, back to an originalist view of learning. The outlines of this are not entirely clear, but the direction is apparent: Life is driving learning inward, back toward mystery. That’s why testing fails now – it doesn’t tell us anything about the interior, about joy, and certainly not about genius.

If one is truthful, educators deal daily with many mysteries. No one really knows how to ‘instill love of learning.’ No one, including psychologists, can define intelligence adequately. No one can explain why learners are different. No one understands the roots of motivation, let alone understanding why we’re conscious. The new curriculum itself is fuzzy: The four C’s of 21st century learning lend themselves to fine posters and appealing mission statements, but no one would put critical thinking and creativity in the same category as spelling, writing a grammatically correct sentence, or solving for x. You can’t collaborate well unless you feel empathy, but what is that? You can’t communicate well without sensitivity to others, but where does that come from?

There’s a simple solution to all of this: Go back to joy and genius. See learning as a mystery that needs to be accepted, not understood. Appreciate the well spring, even if the source of the headwaters has not been identified and tested for purity. And then: Design education around that reality.

There are trends every educator should support. Train teachers to value, mentor, and facilitate social-emotional development. Personalize learning, so children discover inner joy. Teach less, but teach deeper, so the joy of mastery emerges. Engage social, community, and global issues with abandon, so students experience the joy of service. Employ as much project based learning as possible, so the joy of intellectual engagement emerges. Reward the whole child, selfless behavior, and evidence of reflective action aimed at more joy and genius. That is the only path forward.

It doesn’t matter whether this sounds radical, undoable, incompatible with present testing goals, or utopian. Because it is happening. Because it has exponential power. Because students are demanding it. Because the brain is a quantum-driven, survival-focused organ, operating as a system, not a bunch of modules, and it takes notice of deep changes in its surroundings. Our ancestors may have not known the wiring scheme, but they knew that the inner life, whatever that may be, programmed the brain, not the other way around. And speaking of that, what goes around, comes around.