Edgeucation Blog

From PBL to PBD: Next Steps for Project Based Learning

March 10, 2018

Thom Markham

image of a classroom learning project based learning skills.

Project Based Learning (PBL) has reached escape velocity. The small movement that began in the U.S. twenty years ago is rapidly becoming the teaching method of choice (and the hot topic of discussion) in virtually every country.

There is a simple reason for the ascendance: In an information-driven world that values an individual’s ability to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and a problem-solving skillset, nothing else works. The ‘doing’ is now the ‘knowing’, and seat time and certificates are fading as a good metric for competency. High-quality PBL, with its active, skill-oriented, problem-focused, and inquiry-based approach, is the answer to the challenge of the day.

But the world isn’t standing still. Two very large trends are becoming visible. First, globalization isn’t happening, it has happened. We’ve reached the point of culminating disruptions and instability in our political, social, environmental, and financial lives. The visible chaos will drive youth toward social entrepreneurship. In the next decade, expect a global youthquake—also known as a rebellion.

Second, events are pushing all of us, youth and adults, to develop deeper personal skills—in the form of empathy, curiosity, persistence, resiliency, and other attributes—critical to navigating the global environment. That’s why social-emotional learning has become as visible as PBL. While SEL needs to be built out into a more powerful strengths-based vision, including more SEL in classrooms is an overdue start on helping every young person develop the emotional capacity necessary for maintaining balance in an unbalanced world.

As a philosophy of inquiry, PBL offers a great framework for meeting these challenges. But the current version of PBL, as practiced in most schools, hasn’t shaken the legacy of the industrial mindset, in which the goal is to meet standards and master content. In the future, knowledge will matter, as it always has, but personal attributes and commitment to social entrepreneurship will matter equally and need to be the foundation for projects. In fact, the 2.0 version of PBL begins to resemble less a method for ‘learning’ than a system of team-based design, exploration, and problem solving—something we might characterize eventually as Project Based Design, or ‘PBD.’

How do we get to PBD? It starts by imagining a future PBL better suited to the issues of the future, and then being willing to follow the general world trend of rethinking best practices. Some possible steps:

  • Replace the Standards-Based Formula with a Human Performance Mindset.

PBL was poorly named from the beginning, causing educators to confuse a method of instruction by teachers with the deeper promise and purpose of PBL: To help students experience personal and intellectual growth as they move through a process of problem solving. Mastery, purpose, and autonomy have been identified as the key factors in human performance. PBL is a perfect system for making these critical elements the foundation for learning. The next step? Always begin project work with an authentic challenge tied to purposeful engagement, not the material to be covered.

  • Merge PBL and Human Centered Design. Many PBL teachers are skilled at establishing a Driving Question and requiring public products – two elements of high quality PBL. But the ‘middle’ of projects is often characterized by traditional teaching methods aimed at spurring ‘critical thinking’—a vague holdover from industrial times. PBL needs to capture a key shift in how the world solves problems by using design thinking. The next step? Incorporate the human centered design process – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test – as standard procedure in projects.
  • Shift from Test-Based Thinking to Skills Based Thinking. Educators have concluded that test-based results are a poor metric for the type of ‘rigor’ required in todays’ world. So, why do tests still prevail and predominate? Because we don’t know how to measure skills and personal process. But that is the exact mindshift and leap of faith required. Redefining rigor around skillfulness and ‘doing’, not merely the ‘knowing’, is an essential step forward. How can PBL advocates take that step? Put skill-based performance standards on par with testing outcomes. Use consistent, field-tested, rich rubrics that identify levels of mastery in communication, collaboration, presentation, and design outcomes. 
  • Focus on Deep Collaboration. PBL professes to use teams as part of the process but lags far behind the best thinking in industry on how people function effectively in a team through teamwork or teaming. Using the terminology of ‘groups’ is outdated; the language of teams invokes accountability, purpose, and cohesion. That should be standard practice in PBL.But there is a critical next step: Recognize that personal strengths develop through social-emotional interactions in a team and take time to coach students in the core skills and attitudes required for deep collaboration: Empathy, humility, listening, and assertiveness.
  • Establish PBL Teachers as Co-Creative Intellectual Partners. It’s common now to speak of teachers as a guide on the side, and to refer to student ‘agency’—easy phrases not really backed by deeper introspection about how teachers and students will partner in the future. But the outline is clear: In todays’ creative, constructivist, information rich environment, it’s likely that teachers will know more than students about some things, and students will know more than teachers about other things. The power dynamic thus shifts dramatically and invites us to envision a deep teach/learn and learn/teach relationship between student and teacher. Inevitably, we will move in the direction of deep intellectual collaboration between parties in the learning space. A critical step in this direction: Teachers will no longer be able to rely on a credential or traditional professional development to craft a successful skill set for teaching. The emerging skill set includes personal openness, flexibility, humility, and the ability to listen and observe.

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