Edgeucation Blog

Future Ready PBL: Time to Level Up

September 13, 2017

Thom Markham


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.

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