A decade ago, project based learning was popular in a few schools and with a few teachers, but hardly widespread. And the movement was growing very slowly. At that time, education was caught up by standards and high stakes testing, a focus that discouraged teachers and schools from implementing inquiry-based learning.
Not so now. With the rise of 21st century skills instruction, the advent of career and college readiness goals, and the arrival of Common Core Standards, which emphasize inquiry, the game has changed. PBL is popular.
Perhaps the intervening years between 2000 and the present was a good thing. Many of us could foresee that PBL’s popularity would grow exponentially at some point, but practitioners also recognized that PBL needed improvement. Foremost, PBL needed to blend the best of discovery learning from the 90’s with the core content requirements of standards-based education. This took time, experience, and the development of tools and methods for what I term high quality PBL.
Fortunately, the timing is right. In 2012, education is in desperate need of more inquiry-based education—and PBL is available as a replicable, reliable method for teachers.
The most visible evidence of PBL’s new level of acceptance is a phenomenon I rarely encountered in prior years: Districts have begun to see PBL as the primary method for teaching and learning in all grade levels, and are backing up their decision by offering in-depth PBL professional development and coaching to teachers.
For any District, this is a brave step into the unknown. There is a dramatic difference between conventional instruction and a student-focused, inquiry-based approach. Often, this can show up in poorly planned projects that leave students, teachers, and administrative staff dissatisfied with results. PBL is a sophisticated methodology, with many moving parts, and teachers and staff developers may not recognize how challenging it is to implement—or how difficult to train for.
But it can be done right. In my experience, Districts benefit when they take a careful step-by-step approach that allows sufficient time and opportunity for PBL to take root and flourish, as well as avoiding a “one size fits all” approach to PBL:
- Prepare the Ground. Most teachers understand the rationale for PBL, but remain skeptical until they are reassured on several fronts. First, they need to know that PBL will help them meet their core content objectives. Second, they need to be shown how PBL differs from ‘projects,’ which they often equate with off task work, disorganized groups, or fuzzy outcomes. Once reassured, the discussion can broaden out to focus on the rationale for PBL (more engagement and deeper learning), the outcomes (skills and content), and the rationale behind the world-wide movement toward inquiry-based methods. The bottom line during this introductory period? Start with questions, discussion, and plenty of time to surface and explore objections.
- Differentiate the Task. Unseasoned advocates for PBL have a habit of treating PBL like other reforms: Everyone will do it, in exactly the same way. In fact, experience with PBL shows that implementation varies across grade levels, subjects, and teachers. There is no one ‘PBL’; it is a process and philosophy that must be adapted to each teacher’s situation. For example, algebra teachers will often design shorter, problem-oriented projects, while a World History teacher may have a much longer project in mind. The goal is to help teachers see the commonalities in the process, yet still leave room for common sense applications. It’s also important to recognize one of the chief commonalities: All teachers can teach 21st century skills, and thus link to a PBL philosophy. Case in point: An AP Calculus teacher may not use PBL, but can group students into a team and assess them using the same teamwork rubric used by the World History teacher.
- Offer Methods and Tools. I leave teachers with a sophisticated set of tools for planning and assessing projects, as well as outlining a step by step method for high quality PBL. It’s important for teachers to understand that PBL uses a codified method that is rapidly being adopted in the U.S. and in many other high performing countries. The tools include showing teachers how to access the growing number of project examples on the internet. One important note, however: The project examples provide plenty of ideas, but rarely can be used off the shelf without revision and replanning.
- Plan for Coaching. Whole group instruction about PBL gets the conversation going and anchors the methods and objectives. But individual conferencing and coaching with teachers about their particular project is critical. Each teacher (or team of teachers) needs to develop a driving question, project plan, and assessment plan, including the sometimes unfamiliar task of deciding how students will exhibit results and deliver public products. In general, every teacher will need about 45 minutes of coaching to turn a preliminary design into a solid plan.
- Debrief and Replan. First year projects in a District usually yield mixed results. But positive results are often visible. In one District, I heard repeatedly that students who were previously disengaged or very quiet were now speaking out and contributing. This surprised and pleased teachers—and indicated a culture shift, one of the objectives of PBL. Beyond that, however, teachers will struggle with identifiable barriers in the first year, including teaching and assessing 21st century skills and managing teams of students. They also need to learn to avoid default mode, which is to use PBL to cover a unit, and instead look for ideas that really challenge and engage students in a new way. The best way to handle this change process is to anticipate the gaps and address them by scheduling teams of teachers to discuss, replan, and revise projects, using protocols or the norms of a professional learning community.
- Have a vision for getting better. Implementing PBL on a large scale is much like a business start-up. Expect that it will take three years of consistent effort before the norms, methods, expectations, expertise, and results come together to achieve results. And, to progress from the start-up year through year three, each year requires a separate strategy. In the first year, the goal is to establish a PBL culture by aligning the 21st skills assessments, training students to work in effective teams, and building a consensus on project quality. In the second year, the objective is to bring more power to the thinking and inquiry process within projects, and to ensure that the performance of students rises significantly. In year three, Districts should expect a noticeably higher level of student engagement (often with a spike in test scores), outstanding projects, and a consensus culture among teachers that denotes that PBL is widely accepted.