Edgeucation Blog

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

July 26, 2017

Thom Markham

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.  

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