Edgeucation Blog

Ten steps to establishing a PBL-friendly culture

August 29, 2016

Thom Markham

To experts in the field of human performance, there is no mystery as to why PBL succeeds—or doesn’t. Three decades of research has established the factors that maximize individual effort and the desire to achieve:

  • Caring relationships. Whether growing up in a household, studying in school, or working in a job, people perform better when they feel cared for and attended to. A caring relationship begins with recognizing and respecting the autonomy of the individual.
  • The desire for meaning and purpose. Human beings work harder when they have a goal and purpose. The goal must be relevant to the person’s needs and desires.
  • The power of mastery. Achievement is a natural state of being. People enjoy doing tasks well, and feel intrinsic rewards that sustain more effort.

Carefully-designed projects tap into these intangibles. That is the core strength of PBL; it can inspire drive, passion, and purpose in students.

  • Trust. Trust encourages peak cognition and intelligent behavior. Successful PBL depends very much on your belief that young people desire to learn and will perform well when respected by an adult and guided appropriately.
  • Use the language of peak performance. IQ is malleable and performance is driven by self-fulfilling belief systems. Students who move from a ‘fixed mindset’ to a ‘growth mindset’ will believe in themselves, and in their creative potential. Your language will shape their beliefs.
  • Treat ‘soft’ skills as ‘hard’ skills. Writing an essay or solving a math problem is traditionally regarded as a ‘hard’ skill, while communicating with someone who disagrees with you is a ‘soft’ skill. The reverse is actually true: Communication and collaboration are the most difficult of human skills—and need to be taught and practiced relentlessly.
  • Expect mastery. Setting high expectations for academic performance is usual in good teaching. But setting high expectations for performance is crucial in PBL. Expect students to communicate and collaborate according to the standards of high performing industries.
  • Train the imagination. Teaching innovation, problem solving, and creativity to the global generation is now a primary goal. Creativity will soon be valued as a basic skill and has been identified as the number one leadership competency of the future. Use creativity exercises, encourage brainstorming and—most important—design projects that challenge the imagination.
  • Encourage peak performance. Currently, we have no measure for peak performance in schools. But you can design rubrics with a ‘breakthrough’ category—a blank column that invites students to deliver a product that cannot be anticipated or easily defined in words. The breakthrough column goes beyond the A, rewarding innovation, creativity, and unusual performance—a kind of ‘wow’ column.
  • Pass along the 10,000 hour rule. Mastering a skill at a high level takes 10,000 hours of practice. Your students aren’t likely to put that many hours into Algebra 1. But let them know that practice works—and the more they practice, the better they will be. Most important, let them know that achievement comes from hard work, not a special gene for brilliance.
  • Teach to the iceberg. Remember that the deeper self—the domain of creativity and motivation—is not immediately accessible or public. Think in terms of an iceberg. Below the tip of the iceberg is 90% of the human being. If we want skillful, motivated creators, we need to pay attention to empathy, bias, and all the normal variations in a young person’s emotional makeup. Take time and care to surface the deeper aspects of learning.
  • Be aware of your ‘emotional content.’ PBL involves ‘up close and personal’ teaching. As you work side by side with students, they will closely observe your own attitude toward skills, lifelong learning, and emotional balance. Be aware. Be positive.
  • Do the small things. Small acts of kindness and respect can leverage larger shifts in your classroom culture. Stand at the door and greet students at the beginning of the period. Wish them well as they exit. Reward them with unexpected five-minute breaks when they perform well. Celebrate on occasion.

And let’s add an eleventh step for good measure:

  • No ‘teacher’ talk. Sarcasm and put-downs by teachers are all too common in classrooms. Be firm when necessary—but don’t question character or use a tone of voice that a respected friend would find offensive. This violates the first rule of performance: care.

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