Master teachers are usually measured by their ability to deliver high quality instruction and manage classrooms so that every child learns. These basics apply to project based learning (PBL) as well, but I have found that successful PBL teachers must possess a more diverse—and demanding—set of skills to make project based work effective.
I call these skills the seven essentials for PBL teachers. The skills can be parsed separately, as I’m going to do, but they only work synergistically. Designing and executing engaging projects that move students to a new level of learning and self-awareness—which should be the goal of every project—derives from seeing PBL as a set of moving parts that mesh to create a powerful experience for students. Partly, PBL is an instructional process powered by teacher knowledge; partly, it’s a facilitated process that draws heavily on people management skills; and partly, it’s an intuitive process that relies on open communication between students and teachers.
Some of the essential PBL skills can be taught or learned, and some, frankly, are more personality driven. But every PBL teacher should think about becoming skillful in these seven areas:
- Know world-class PBL methodology. Project based learning and ‘projects’ are two different worlds. Over the last decade, PBL teachers in many countries have developed high quality methods that work. The methods begin with organizing a project around a central, vital, and engaging question, moving students through a deliberate process that requires them to think, inquire, share, reflect, and perfect their products and reasoning, and concluding with a meaningful demonstration of their learning that surfaces content acquisition, conceptual understanding, and application of 21st century skills. Getting results from PBL is not serendipitous; it comes from using thoughtful, replicable methods.
- Create a culture of care. You might prefer to call this a ‘student-centered’ culture, but I believe that the underlying dynamic that drives better performance in PBL is a personalized classroom culture in which every student feels known, respected, and communicated with. This isn’t just a nice thing to do; it’s the known result of years of youth development research that demonstrates that a culture of care allows you, as the teacher, to assume a mentor role. The mentor role allows you to both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ students through the ups and downs of the PBL process. If you’re not in that role, you will find it difficult to move from a classroom manager to a project manager, a crucial shift for successful PBL.
- Shift from teacher to coach. In a traditional classroom, human variation is muted by rows, a standardized lesson, and the teacher’s ability to keep an eye on every student. In PBL, personalities bloom, tendencies—good or disruptive—emerge, and students often confuse the freedom to inquire with the license to mess around. The messiness can be cured only by coaching individual students to perform better—by speaking to their strengths, helping them see their challenges, and returning at all times to the standards and norms for top performance. In a traditional classroom, the end product is paramount. In PBL, the process of learning assumes equal weight as an outcome. Success on the journey often entails what I term the art of ‘ruthless compassion.’ Give every student maximum support; require every student to perform at their best.
- Use the tools of people management. Like the methods for world class PBL, a set of tools has been developed, largely in industries outside of education, that help people stay on task, achieve goals, and work harmoniously. In PBL, nearly everything you do has people management ramifications. This begins with norms and performance expectations, agreements on behavior, and clear directions. But other elements contribute just as much: (1) A clearly stated Driving Question that captures imagination and starts the project in the right direction; (2) a consistent explanation of the why behind the project; (3) an air of experiment, problem solving, and discovery; and (4) a promise that, at the end of the project, the results will matter to someone besides the teacher or the test designers.
- Make teamwork productive. PBL is a group based form of learning. But an essential step is to move from the language of groups to the more powerful vocabulary of teamwork and to teach team members to think deeply together. To achieve high quality work in PBL, there can be no, “Well, she’s sick today and she has all the stuff and we don’t know what to do.” Or, “I did all the work and I got a ‘C’ because my group slacked off?” In teams, everyone is committed to each other’s success and everyone assumes accountability. PBL teachers have developed tools to spur this process, including work ethic and collaboration rubrics, contracts, and bonus point systems to reward initiative and empathetic behavior. If you’re not using these tools, you’re not taking advantage of methods that work. And, most important, if your teams don’t work, neither will your projects.
- Know how to teach and assess 21st century skills. PBL is the best method we have for teaching students how to solve complex problems. But to get to a meaningful solution, students need to master the skills of collaboration and self-management. And, to show us how they arrived at a conclusion or created a product, they need to communicate effectively. That’s a short version of why PBL is central to teaching 21st century skills. But PBL teachers face a challenge: Nothing has been standardized in regard to teaching or assessing these skills. Solid performance rubrics have been developed, but are rarely used school wide. I urge PBL teachers at every school to band together and agree on rubrics and methods for assessing 21st century skills (this is a prime topic for PLC work), as well as sharing ideas on how to teach these skills.
- Value reflection and revision. Finally, educators can learn from the slow food movement. High quality PBL requires a different time frame and expectation, primarily because problem solving is not a linear, 50-minute period experience. This means not just being flexible (one of the prime qualities of the successful PBL teacher), but also making reflection and revision, in pursuit of excellence, central to the process of learning. This takes several forms. First, during a project, encourage drafts and prototypes, then structure time for peer debriefs, jig saws, or other disciplined ways for students to share and exchange ideas. At the end of a project, reflect and debrief thoroughly. Make excellence a standard for your projects.
Thom Markham is a psychologist and school redesign consultant. He is the principal author of the Handbook for Project Based Learning, published by the Buck Institute for Education, and the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators. Download the Top Ten Tools for PBL on his website, www.thommarkham.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.