Edgeucation Blog

How PBL Educates the Whole Child

August 29, 2016

Thom Markham

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve seen how well executed project based learning (PBL) can provide a joyful learning experience for students. Joy is not our number one standard, I realize, but when projects offer the right mix of challenge, engagement, and personalized support, blended with a motivating, meaningful learning experience that reaches deep into the soul, joy is the outcome. You can see it bubble up in the animated faces, big smiles, body language, and open-hearted response of students at the end of a good project. In other words, we’ve reached the whole child.

This outcome, in my view, can be explained by a little observed fact: PBL is built on the same foundation as whole child education. Inquiry into adolescent mental health, youth development, and developmental psychology has revealed the three core conditions required for young people to develop a ‘drive and thrive’ outlook that leads to successful adulthood: Experiencing mastery; finding meaning and fulfillment; and having a constructive relationship to a caring adult mentor. These are the exact three factors critical to effective PBL, which cannot succeed without a strong teacher-student relationship, a challenging, meaningful problem to be solved, and broad-based assessments that emphasize mastery and growth over time.

The importance of aligning teaching with the fundamentals of whole child education can’t overstated. First, having an educational system disconnected from what we know about healthy adolescent development is unsustainable. And second, educating the whole child is now a national, as well as planet-wide, necessity if we are serious about helping students become skillful, resilient, collaborative, creative, and self aware. The dilemma is that the whole child can’t be educated through the transmission model, and it is impossible to graft a holistic version of human beings onto a framework founded on industrial objectives, punishment and reward, and the achievements of the left brain. We try, but everything turns out to be a work around. PBL offers a way forward.

A quick disclaimer: Right now, not all PBL is equal, and we’re not to the point in which all PBL supports the whole child. Too often, the goal is to cover standards under the guise of ‘student-centered instruction.’ Ultimately, however, I foresee that PBL, supported by initiatives such as Common Core Standards, will continue to evolve and become a consensus teaching philosophy designed to implement whole child objectives.

If you’re a PBL educator, attaining this goal begins with careful design. High quality PBL uses proven methods for planning a project that challenges students, stimulates deep inquiry, and requires them to demonstrate their mastery of skills and applied knowledge. This is the planner’s function—and it’s critical for setting up a thoughtful, scaffolded process that balances problem solving and mastery of core knowledge and concepts relevant to the lives of students.

The second aspect determines the internal assets students will bring to the project. I call this building a ‘PBL-friendly culture’. Driven by intangibles—the personality and style of the teacher, a sincere regard for students, and openness to the failure and success cycle of discovery among them—the culture directly affects the quality of thinking and engagement during the project, and thus the level of mastery at the end, by establishing the positive relationship with students necessary to effective personalization, differentiation, and individual feedback.

This may sound daunting, but the good news is that PBL is in the midst of a rapid improvement process, and experienced PBL teachers are developing student-friendly tools and teaching styles that aim for this more holistic approach. I see progress on at least four fronts:

Teachers as skillful mentors. A mentor relationship is the key to having conversations with students about the meaning and fulfillment they seek in life (what are their interests?) and about their performance (I’m going to tell you how well you are doing and you trust me enough to listen.) PBL led by teachers who talk at, rather than talk with, generally fails. But good facilitation yields amazing results.

Know the why. Very recent research reveals that even ‘rigorous’ standards have little impact on test scores. Rather than focus so tightly on standards, good PBL teachers envision a powerful challenge, invite students into the planning process, and then incorporate key standards and concepts that support the learning goals of the project. This shift—from coverage to questions—by itself addresses many whole child issues in schools today.

Redefine rigor. Both whole child learning and good PBL demand a broader view of human functioning and new standards for performance. Outdated notions of rigor as a tensile measure (How hard can I make this test?) or quantity (How much homework can I give them?) don’t tap the depths of motivation necessary to foster self-determination and awareness. Instead, detailed rubrics that describe world class skillfulness, work ethic, habits of mind, craftsmanship, and deep thinking help students develop from within.

Allow the ‘wow.’ The whole child is a creativity machine that can be turned on—and effective PBL teachers know how to reward innovative thinking, as well as honor divergent solutions that adults haven’t yet discovered. The best PBL employs creativity rubrics, ‘breakthrough’ columns on rubrics, brainstorming, peer protocols, and formal reflection as core tools. It is quite possible to activate the inner resources of children by simply following two guidelines—one, that today’s young people want to reinvent, not reenact, the world; and two, that ‘genius’ is derived from the same root word as joy.

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