Future Ready PBL: Time to Level Up

project-based-learning-players

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

Image of highway for project based learning

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

Image of compass for project based learning

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.

How PBL Can Fulfill Its Promise to 21st Century Students

Image of Century Students for project based learning

Project based learning, the rising star in the educational firmament, is on the lips of nearly every teacher and district in the U.S. and in many countries abroad. A newly recruited army of PBL experts march to the front of professional development workshops, evangelizing for project-based work and selling the notion that this is what 21st Century education looks like.

But we’re not there yet. PBL has not yet fulfilled its potential to liberate the deep, inventive intelligence inherent in children and crucial to mastering the skills and attitudes that carry an adult through today’s world. In fact, unless we move on, PBL will plateau.

This state of affairs is not due to a shoddy product. In fact, a field-tested, solid set of best methods and teaching practices now inform PBL, and a consensus is forming around ‘high-quality’ PBL. The what of PBL is well-defined.

So, what’s missing? It’s the how of PBL. When done well, PBL is lot like a good novel: It changes a young person’s perspective on life. But the secret sauce is not the method; it’s the set of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that a teacher brings to PBL’s process of investigation, collaboration, and synthesis. To support the relationship driven, personalized, person-focused education necessary to tap the inner life of today’s students, PBL must be rooted in fresh thinking about human performance, design and creativity, collective intelligence, core knowledge, and the symbiosis between innovative schooling and societal needs.

While discarding an industrial-era mindset is critical for all educators, a good PBL teacher inevitably tangles with the assumptions that underlie the entire enterprise of modern education.  PBL teachers guide, not teach. They listen and observe more than they talk. They are extremely curious about their students, and value diverse expression. They plan for outcomes, but approach a project with a flexible touch that allows for unforeseen results. They respect knowledge, but the end goal is not the test; the primary goal is to form the deep intellectual bond with students that leads to a mutual appreciation for learning.

Successful PBL teachers need to build this flexible, innovative mindset into the heart of every project. That’s when the method gets results. A few critical insights can move more PBL teachers in this direction:

Recognize Why PBL ExistsPBL exists because content acquisition and testing, as we have known it, is done. PBL is designed to teach skills and attitude, not content. That’s a bitter pill, because PBL advocates have spent a decade in a rear-guard effort to convince other educators that students can learn important stuff through projects. But PBL helps students learn a new form of content that encompasses core knowledge, appreciation of concepts, skillful application, ability to inquire further, and reflective self-direction. Essentially, PBL is a response to the changed nature of the world.

It’s Not a Thing, It’s a Design Process. “I’m doing a PBL,” say many teachers. No, not really.  PBL may be a noun and projects can be based on a unit of instruction, but it’s a process of discovery driven by design principles. This may seem like a nit-pick, but the mental model matters. Freeing students from the 19th century box of units, linear instruction, and regurgitating known solutions and answers and holding PBL in the mind as a learning experience encourages the kind of openness that spurs the innovative problem solving essential to getting at those deeper levels of mastery to which we give endless lip service: Critical thinking and creativity.

Teach to the Iceberg. PBL will bloom when PBL teachers define intelligence as psychologists do today: As behaviors that matter in today’s world.  Which behaviors matter most? Empathy, curiosity, openness, and resiliency top the list. These behaviors form the foundation for mastering 21st Century skills. They are iceberg traits, hidden from easy view and unreachable through testing, but elicited through well-designed, challenging projects that allow for student expression, offer opportunity for creativity, reward the persistence of deep intellectual work, force critical thinking, and operationalize the growth mindset. This shift includes accepting that intelligence is a whole-body exercise in which emotions and cognition blend into a coherent pattern of behavior, letting go of outdated views on social-emotional learning versus academic learning, and questioning neuromyths such as learning stylesmultiple intelligences, and ‘brain based’ learning.

Stop Thinking of a Teacher as a Teacher. 500 years ago, theologians stood at the lectern and shared ‘nearer to God’ content with neophytes. That stereotype clings to the teaching profession, which still focuses on instructional delivery, classroom management, and pacing guides because that’s what teachers do. There is still room for this approach, but we refuse to see what teaching has become: A facilitative profession in which the skills of mentorship, diagnosis, designing, and assessing the deeper aspects of human performance are critical. This is especially true of PBL, which relies on a culture of care and a sincere bond between teacher and student to fuel and support the personalized process of self-motivation and curious investigation that ignites and excites a student.

Personalize and Differentiate PBL. Thinking of PBL as a designed learning experience allows us to connect design thinking, maker spaces, inquiry-based learning, personalized learning, and other forward-leaning ideas into the grand unified theory that will serve as the template for 21st Century education. The tenets of PBL—a challenging problem, collaborative inquiry, a design and draft and revise process, and a public sharing of learning—provide a fine structure for any investigative process, whether a project on Shakespeare or an engineering problem. PBL can move forward by becoming a flexible design process applied and personalized for audience and subject, whether a case-based PBL focused on helping students become workforce ready, a science-focused PBL that prepares students for the deep analysis on Advanced Placement exams, or a global studies PBL centered on research and solutions to pressing issues.

Choose Challenge Before Standards. PBL is a powerful educational model that helps young people master problem solving in a global society desperately in need of solutions. But the power drains out of PBL when standards become more important than the challenge of engaging real issues with real conviction with real consequences. That’s the true impetus behind successful projects. A good PBL teacher pays attention to standards, but never lets them decide the project. It’s far more important to reach for the stars.

Treat PBL as a Start Up, Not a Teaching Method

Image of quotes for project based learning

A few years back, I worked with many schools across the country that became enamored with project based learning after site visits to PBL icons such as High Tech High or had sent a team of administrators to a PBL conference—and returned with wide-eyed enthusiasm for reinventing education at their school. Mostly, it didn’t happen. After an initial surge, daily classroom routines returned to normal, with a few projects scattered here and there.

Unfortunately, this pattern continues today—and there is a simple reason behind the failure to thrive: Educators continue to treat PBL as just another teaching strategy. Inoculate teachers with a three day PBL workshop. Show them how PBL works. Send them into the classroom. Celebrate a few projects. Change the culture slightly. Return to home base.

If startup companies adopted this approach, Uber wouldn’t be replacing taxis and Airbnb wouldn’t be threatening the hotel business. Startup companies these days are looking to revolutionize, not incrementalize. They intend to change the paradigm, shift the mindset, or overturn the status quo—whichever metaphor you prefer.

That scope of change demands an innovative, strategic, systemic approach that schools generally lack—and that’s the downfall of PBL. Initiating PBL school-wide or district wide requires starting with a vision and breaking that vision down into a dense, rich conversation about change in virtually every aspect of a school, from the assessment system to the use of time to the kinds of conversations teachers have in the staff room. As a teacher in Maryland once said to me when I pitched the importance of assessing 21st Century skills in a project, “We can’t do that,” she objected sharply, “There’s no place in the grade book for that.”

She was right, and it’s a change that needs to be anticipated. It’s not necessary that these changes have to happen at once, or at the beginning of the journey; it is essential to know that systematic change brings predictable challenges. That’s the purpose of a strategic plan: The challenges don’t surprise and are simply part of the landscape.

How would I start? Based on my experience in helping schools develop successful, sustainable PBL programs, I see the following five steps as critical:

Get help before the journey. A startup sometimes starts in a garage, but more often the founders get advice from experts. Business consultants are a common commodity in the commercial world, but there is no comparable position in education, particularly in PBL. Spend some money on strategic discussions and planning with an expert—and save thousands of dollars and occasionally years of lost time.

Lay out tasks and timelines. The journey to success isn’t a mystery; it just takes time identify the complexity of the change, the necessary steps, the culture and personalities to be affected, and the milestones along the way. Teachers do quite well when they know there is time to make the necessary adjustments in a school. It’s uncertainty that creates resistance to change.

Ramp up the PD time. I once presented a one day PBL workshop in a well-regarded district on the day prior to the opening of a high school that had announced itself to parents and students as a new ‘STEM/PBL school.’ To repeat: One day of training to reinvent a school. The advice here: If you don’t have the time or funds to train, don’t do PBL. Just keep on doing conventional education and make it the best you can.

Make the first month count. When PBL launches, it can’t fall back to ground immediately; it needs to go airborne. A solid start makes teachers and students more enthused, while a poor start reinforces all their fears. This is as true of students as teachers. We may believe PBL is good for students, but they need to be convinced and trained. This where strategic planning enters: For example, if you’re starting PBL with 9th graders, look at their feeder school experience. Are they ready for PBL or more used to listening and taking notes?

Build in continuous learning. The strategic plan always anticipates failure and rough periods—and they will happen in PBL. The good news is that poorly designed projects still work to some degree; often, students enjoy them, even if the learning is uneven. But the key is planning to get better. Have teachers practice protocols and learn to analyze projects from a design standpoint. Require grade level or staff debriefs of projects. Bring in students to staff meetings to describe their project experience. Use staff-wide observation and expertise to help each individual teacher get better. That’s how to build a PBL PLC that, in time, takes on a life of its own and embeds PBL in your school.

Teacher Robots Show Promise for Education

Image of robot for project based learning

By Thom Markham

FN News Group

In a move cheered by education advocates for standardized learning, education officials somewhere announced today that the robotics revolution has finally reached the classroom. In numerous districts across the U.S., teachers will be replaced by highly programmed robots capable of delivering core content and dense packets of fact-based information to inquisitive students.

“Today we are finally unleashing the power of technology to prepare the next generation of Americans for work and life in the 21st Century,” said one expert, citing other experts. “Our country is dependent on the ability of our young people to regurgitate information that allows them to excel on tests. Robots are the perfect vehicle to deliver a seamless, question less curriculum that maximizes short term retention.”

Experts reviewing the work of other experts agreed. “Eventually, students will be able to link their smart devices to robots through summer vacation,” one remarked, “This should completely alleviate the problem of summer learning loss.”

Not all educators agree with this approach. Arguing that robotic teaching ignores the need for inquiry and project based learning to meet the needs of diverse learners and stimulate critical thinking, many critics point to key areas in which robots cannot match the skills of a human teacher. “How can a robot soothe a 2nd grader who’s having a bad day?” asked one veteran elementary teacher. During layoff meetings and at staff meetings that have turned angry and bitter at times, technologists have responded that logarithms are improving at exponential speed. “I am confident that by next year, we will have a functional robot capable of identifying with 100% accuracy students with hoodies over their head who are asleep in the back row,” said one spokesperson from EyesAtTheBackOfMyHead, one of many startup firms anxious to enter the growing EdTech market.

The critical area of concern for human teachers is the ability of robotic teachers to respond to student questions. Early robot prototypes lent weight to this argument, as robots proved unable to answer simple questions like, “Is this fake news or true?” Long considered a staple of quality education, many human teachers have pushed for more questions, not fewer, in 21st Century classrooms. “How will kids know the motivation of Atticus Finch if they can’t ask?” complained one union representative, citing a character in To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel read in every 9th grade English classroom in America for the last 50 years. The founder of PBL Global, a strong supporter of project based learning, supported this view. “We need a curriculum designed around questions,” he said, “Even if we have to make fun of education to accomplish it.”

The debate is not likely to be settled soon. Detractors have launched a new advocacy group, Let Us Teach!, while venture capital continues to flow to the teacher robot industry, whose leaders are confident that technology will win the day. “Okay, so we won’t be able to design robots that can lead a Socratic Seminar,” admitted one CEO, who just turned 23 and claims himself as a proud product of standardized testing, “But we’ll save taxpayers a lot of money.”

What is ‘High Quality’ PBL?

Image of HIGH quality for project based learning

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

–        Friedrich Nietzsche

This may be the first time in history that Nietzsche’s philosophy has been applied to Project Based Learning (PBL), but it’s a perfect starting point for discussing a topic on the minds of educational leaders and PBL practitioners these days: How do we define ‘high quality’ PBL?

There’s a sense of desperation around this task. The 500-year old model of learning is burned into our DNA by now, and it’s easy to picture rows of students taking notes, listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, and bending over an exam with furrowed brow and pencil in hand. But as PBL has grown in popularity and emerged as the chief learning mode for 21st century education, no similar shared mental model has emerged that can easily be translated into instruction, training, and teacher evaluation. As one Principal noted, “I have no idea what to look for when I come into a classroom where a project is happening. It just looks like chaos.”

In that statement lies the first clue to the challenge of defining high quality PBL: Every project looks slightly different. Precisely because PBL mirrors the chaos inherent in open-ended decision making and problem solving around authentic issues across a vast terrain of potential subjects, it’s hard to categorize and the process is inherently messy.

Because of a deep need to train more PBL teachers, replicate good projects, and advance PBL as a coherent teaching practice, the untidiness does not satisfy educators. It’s definitely time to move forward on developing a shared mental model and set of best practices that distinguish quality PBL from old-style projects or much of the sub-standard PBL taking place in classrooms today.

Partly, this task is well underway through organizations like the Buck Institute for Education or PBL Global, which feature a field-tested set of tools and design principles that lead to quality projects. The principles outline a planning and design sequence that enables teachers to put together a coherent plan for a project, including setting an authentic challenge, crafting a driving question, forming student teams, encouraging student voice, inserting peer collaboration and design thinking into the process, requiring public products or an exhibition of learning, and building solid formative and summative assessments into the project design.

There is good news on this front. Compared to a short five years ago, many more teachers are familiar with PBL best practices. That’s led to better quality projects. But many of those projects still do not lead to deeper learning. To achieve that goal, the real work lies ahead, and involves a more difficult mind shift. For a very long time, it’s been assumed that any teacher can be given a curriculum, a set of materials, a pacing guide, and enough training—and succeed. In a traditional classroom focused on content delivery, this was possible. But we’re no longer dealing with a linear environment and straightforward delivery and recall.

The great realization is this: PBL is not Geometry. PBL relies on a design process, which can’t be captured in the same concrete way that a traditional lesson plan can be described. The best design leads to a learning experience in which students draw upon knowledge, skills, and strengths to navigate a through a problem, decide a course of action, and offer evidence for their conclusion. Content is vital, but thinking is the ultimate objective.

This is the second clue to defining high quality PBL. Providing a list of PBL methods and best practices, no matter how clever the graphics or inventive the terms or high-sounding the label, will never suffice for training teachers to create a powerful project experience for students. No teacher can take the list of methods off the shelf and put them to work across the curriculum. Designing a project is an interpretative act filtered through the sensibility, knowledge, and experience of the teacher. In fact, turning a teacher into a designer, as PBL requires, inevitably places the teacher back at the center of learning. The ability to deliver content is replaced by a teacher’s professional, and even personal, ability to assemble the many moving parts of PBL into a coherent, deeper learning experience.

This is not an entirely happy situation because it disrupts well entrenched ideas about how teachers become trained and ready for a 21st Century classroom. Just as PBL and inquiry has begun to affect traditional notions of ‘academic rigor’ for students, it does the same for defining a teacher’s ‘rigorous’ skill set. Teachers have already begun to respond to this new reality by rejecting traditional professional development and embracing more peer-driven, personalized, just-in-time learning through personal learning networks, social media, or on demand courses.

Thus, the final clue: The approach to high quality PBL must be asymmetric, blending methods, personal skill set, authentic experience and feedback from the classroom, and a strategic sense of design and judgment into a holistic vision of the capable PBL teacher. Teaching PBL methods is the starting point, but more critical is the underlying skill set that drives the process and makes the methods come alive, such as mastering the fundamental techniques of an inquiry-based classroom, knowing how to redefine rigor by integrating inquiry, standards, and student voice, learning to coach and mentor, tracking and supporting social-emotional strengths, knowing how to teach and assess 21st Century skills, teaching design thinking and encouraging innovation, and knowing how to meld a formal curriculum with authentic tasks and assessment.

None of these sub skills come easily, by the way, and all require a highly professional, mature personality that can handle complexity, choice, and collaborative growth. That’s the real challenge for high quality PBL. Can we recruit and train enough teachers of this caliber to take us successfully through the 21st Century?

How to Coach PBL Teachers to Succeed

As PBL continues its trajectory toward becoming the majority method of instruction, another job not yet invented will come to the fore: The PBL Coach.

In some form, this job exists now.  But the position is filled primarily by teachers who succeeded at PBL in their classroom or instructional coaches recruited from traditional classrooms who lack experience with PBL itself. Both approaches are largely ineffective. Grafting traditional lesson planning onto the PBL design process is impossible, and creating successful projects as a teacher requires skills of analysis quite different from coaching novice teachers to do the same.

In effect, schools generally lack a team of middle managers with an identified skill set to provide solid coaching to PBL teachers. As PBL moves forward, this gap will become more noticeable. Rather than fill the gap by offering more workshops for teachers, a more efficient and affordable route is to develop a trained cadre of coaches.

What basic requirements enable a coach to do the job well? Most fundamental for any PBL coach is to ‘think like a designer.’ A project is an extended learning experience planned through a process of vision, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Rather than a linear exercise, PBL relies on a holistic design process in which many variables mesh to create the authentic, unique flavor of a project. Unlike lesson plans, finding exact exemplars to copy is near impossible. Plus, the metrics and outcomes are different, and knowing if the project will ‘succeed’ is difficult. With that mindset established, coaches can maximize their impact by using a nine-step coaching protocol to help co-create powerful, high quality projects:

Start with empathy. Effective coaching always begins with empathy, but it’s critical for the mind meld necessary for collegial project design. First, every project is new and different—and it simply takes time to get traction on the planning process. The early stages of planning can drag, stall, and take wrong turns, making principals and coaches often feel impatient about wasted time. Second, it is empathy that fuels the design process itself. Unless coaches approach teachers with the respect, humility, and open mind that establishes the trustful relationship and deep conversation necessary for the project to unfold through ‘uncovering’ and thoughtful probing, teachers end up rushing the design process and planning mediocre projects.

Be a great listener. Again, a trained coach follows proven protocols: Good eye contact, sincere listening, and a willingness to engage in appreciative inquiry into a challenging task. In the beginning stages, true listening rather than ‘waiting to respond’ is key. It is amazing how many teachers harbor deep ideas than can be turned into terrific projects. But it’s not easy to articulate these ideas; it takes a sharp listener to recognize and surface good ideas. One key is to trust that this vision exists somewhere in the planner’s mind—and the coach’s job is to help discover it.

Seek the True North. As the conversation proceeds, eventually teachers will reveal not only the clues to their deeper intentions, but the core idea that is driving them in the project. A good coach probes for this. I call this the true north, the one or two sentence descriptor that captures what a teacher wants students to appreciate and learn by the end of the project. Surfacing the true north comes through asking reflective questions as the vision emerges. How will your students act at the end of the project? What will they realize? How will it change them? What do you really want them to know and do?

Crystallize the idea. Once the true north comes clear, it’s time to shape the project by honing in on the exact goal. I’ll offer a recent example: A teacher wanted to design a science project around waves of energy, and her true north was clear: She wanted students to appreciate the fact that energy waves drive modern technology, and she expected them to learn the basic science of waves. But beyond that point the project was unclear. For a coach, that’s the perfect time to jump to the end of the project and discuss potential student products. A museum exhibit? A future product that uses wave technology? A marketing and information piece that educates the public about the science of waves?

Refine the DQ. Unfortunately, many projects hang on a mediocre Driving Question that does not drive deeper learning or capture the authentic challenge. For example, in the above project on energy waves, the teacher suggested this question: “How can we learn about the importance of energy waves?” The answer is simple: Read books, listen to a lecture, or watch a You Tube video. Why so simple? Because it’s not the real question to be answered, which in the end was: “How do we, as fourth graders, educate an adult audience about the science that makes our modern devices work?” That’s the authentic, demanding challenge, not the least because few adults know how their devices work. A tip for coaches: To test the Driving Question, ask What is the problem to be solved?

Require PBL best practices. High quality PBL distinguishes projects from project based learning, meaning the design always includes a Driving Question, public sharing of products, teamwork and collaboration (whether teams or cohorts), iterative design and draft opportunities, and performance rubrics for 21st century skills. These are not optional; they are proven pieces of the process that work together to bring coherence and clarity to a project. A good coach does not let a PBL project backslide into an ordinary project by omitting key best practices.

Add power to the project. Once the framework is established, a coach should focus on the middle of a project. Many PBL teachers default to traditional teaching practices (which may be fine – see the comments below). But coaches should insist on student-focused processes here. When and how will student teams share drafts and prototypes? How will they learn feedback protocols? How will they improve their products so the teachers see the best work at the end? A key guideline here: Think engineering process, even if it’s a social studies project.

Be flexible about PBL. A team of coaches asked me recently: How do we help K -3 teachers design projects so that students learn basic math and reading skills? A good coaching response: Teach math and reading. Knowing when to include direct instruction and traditional teaching methods is a necessary part of the designer’s role. Teachers know how to teach certain skills and knowledge necessary for students—and PBL is not the answer to every learning need. Also, if teachers are besieged by testing and need to include content-based instruction as part of PBL, give them permission. We do not yet have the luxury of purity.

Use a Solid Planning Form or Design Guide. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the plan must be committed to paper or captured digitally. The advantage of a comprehensive design form is that it forces a teacher-designer to examine all aspects of the design, including remembering to address key standards. So, the main tip for coaches: Don’t settle for a simple project ‘capture’ form to provide a thumbnail of a project. That’s a recipe for a project with a lot of holes.