Edgeucation Blog

What is ‘High Quality’ PBL?

March 31, 2017

Thom Markham

Image of HIGH quality for project based learning

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

–        Friedrich Nietzsche

This may be the first time in history that Nietzsche’s philosophy has been applied to Project Based Learning (PBL), but it’s a perfect starting point for discussing a topic on the minds of educational leaders and PBL practitioners these days: How do we define ‘high quality’ PBL?

There’s a sense of desperation around this task. The 500-year old model of learning is burned into our DNA by now, and it’s easy to picture rows of students taking notes, listening to a lecture, reading a textbook, and bending over an exam with furrowed brow and pencil in hand. But as PBL has grown in popularity and emerged as the chief learning mode for 21st century education, no similar shared mental model has emerged that can easily be translated into instruction, training, and teacher evaluation. As one Principal noted, “I have no idea what to look for when I come into a classroom where a project is happening. It just looks like chaos.”

In that statement lies the first clue to the challenge of defining high quality PBL: Every project looks slightly different. Precisely because PBL mirrors the chaos inherent in open-ended decision making and problem solving around authentic issues across a vast terrain of potential subjects, it’s hard to categorize and the process is inherently messy.

Because of a deep need to train more PBL teachers, replicate good projects, and advance PBL as a coherent teaching practice, the untidiness does not satisfy educators. It’s definitely time to move forward on developing a shared mental model and set of best practices that distinguish quality PBL from old-style projects or much of the sub-standard PBL taking place in classrooms today.

Partly, this task is well underway through organizations like the Buck Institute for Education or PBL Global, which feature a field-tested set of tools and design principles that lead to quality projects. The principles outline a planning and design sequence that enables teachers to put together a coherent plan for a project, including setting an authentic challenge, crafting a driving question, forming student teams, encouraging student voice, inserting peer collaboration and design thinking into the process, requiring public products or an exhibition of learning, and building solid formative and summative assessments into the project design.

There is good news on this front. Compared to a short five years ago, many more teachers are familiar with PBL best practices. That’s led to better quality projects. But many of those projects still do not lead to deeper learning. To achieve that goal, the real work lies ahead, and involves a more difficult mind shift. For a very long time, it’s been assumed that any teacher can be given a curriculum, a set of materials, a pacing guide, and enough training—and succeed. In a traditional classroom focused on content delivery, this was possible. But we’re no longer dealing with a linear environment and straightforward delivery and recall.

The great realization is this: PBL is not Geometry. PBL relies on a design process, which can’t be captured in the same concrete way that a traditional lesson plan can be described. The best design leads to a learning experience in which students draw upon knowledge, skills, and strengths to navigate a through a problem, decide a course of action, and offer evidence for their conclusion. Content is vital, but thinking is the ultimate objective.

This is the second clue to defining high quality PBL. Providing a list of PBL methods and best practices, no matter how clever the graphics or inventive the terms or high-sounding the label, will never suffice for training teachers to create a powerful project experience for students. No teacher can take the list of methods off the shelf and put them to work across the curriculum. Designing a project is an interpretative act filtered through the sensibility, knowledge, and experience of the teacher. In fact, turning a teacher into a designer, as PBL requires, inevitably places the teacher back at the center of learning. The ability to deliver content is replaced by a teacher’s professional, and even personal, ability to assemble the many moving parts of PBL into a coherent, deeper learning experience.

This is not an entirely happy situation because it disrupts well entrenched ideas about how teachers become trained and ready for a 21st Century classroom. Just as PBL and inquiry has begun to affect traditional notions of ‘academic rigor’ for students, it does the same for defining a teacher’s ‘rigorous’ skill set. Teachers have already begun to respond to this new reality by rejecting traditional professional development and embracing more peer-driven, personalized, just-in-time learning through personal learning networks, social media, or on demand courses.

Thus, the final clue: The approach to high quality PBL must be asymmetric, blending methods, personal skill set, authentic experience and feedback from the classroom, and a strategic sense of design and judgment into a holistic vision of the capable PBL teacher. Teaching PBL methods is the starting point, but more critical is the underlying skill set that drives the process and makes the methods come alive, such as mastering the fundamental techniques of an inquiry-based classroom, knowing how to redefine rigor by integrating inquiry, standards, and student voice, learning to coach and mentor, tracking and supporting social-emotional strengths, knowing how to teach and assess 21st Century skills, teaching design thinking and encouraging innovation, and knowing how to meld a formal curriculum with authentic tasks and assessment.

None of these sub skills come easily, by the way, and all require a highly professional, mature personality that can handle complexity, choice, and collaborative growth. That’s the real challenge for high quality PBL. Can we recruit and train enough teachers of this caliber to take us successfully through the 21st Century?

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