Edgeucation Blog

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

August 20, 2017

Thom Markham

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.

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