What PBL Can Do For Your School–And What It Can’t

What PBL Can Do For Your School--And What It Can't

What PBL Can & Cannot Do For Your School

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought Professional Development

Project-Based Learning is a great way to reach and teach students, but what is often overlooked is what high quality PBL can do for a school and district–and what it can’t.

As Project-Based Learning gains traction and momentum as a framework for planning student learning, it’s important to be clear about what PBL is and is not.  The two short and artful videos in this playlist by High Tech High teacher Jeff Robin do a good job of illustrating those differences. It’s important, though, to understand that for PBL to really take hold and have long lasting effects you’ll need to engage in the shift over a period of years, not just a one time workshop and revisiting it a couple times during the school year. Ultimately project-based learning is about two things:

1. learners making/creating/producing something meaningful

2. Using rich inquiry to get there.

What this means for students is powerful, but developing a PBL mindset at your school or district is an opportunity to shift teaching and leadership practices. Further, it can shift school culture from one of ” achievement, to one of authentic teaching and learning.

Engaging in this mindset requires a commitment to inquiry and encourages democratization by empowering learners at all levels to engage in seeking ‘A More Beautiful Question.’

Project-Based Learning Helps Leadership

As leaders, the PBL process allows you to empower your staff by giving them voice and choice in the decision making for your school.

In my work with Round Rock ISD as part of my former role as a Buck Institute National Faculty member, I saw evidence of the Old Town Elementary leadership and staff using a Driving Question and Need to Know process to wrestle with school challenges. Just as teachers shift to facilitators in a PBL classroom, so does leadership in a PBL school. By doing so you help make your school or district a better place to work because your staff feels empowered, truly valuing their thinking and making it visible in meaningful ways helps move them from compliance to commitment.

PBL also helps leadership support and coach teachers in a continuous growth model by shifting the heavy load of being the “evaluator,” to the use of effective peer critique processes that professionalize teachers and help elevate the working norms and language of collaboration. I can tell you from experience that when teachers engage in quality peer critique, getting the opportunity to really talk about their work they come away elated. No longer are “PLC” type meetings met with “how long will this take and what do I have to turn in” comments. Instead the expectations of great teaching and learning are elevated, as is the synergy that comes from high-quality collaboration.

Project-Based Learning Helps Teachers

What are some examples of how PBL can help teachers on a daily basis? PBL can:

  • increase the authenticity of learning because it asks them to put learning in context by asking questions that are important to their students, not just teachers
  • improve their use of formative assessment in a way that results in more responsive teaching
  • deepen learning and connect their content standards (and/or skills) to the work their students are doing as scaffolds and checkpoints in the process
  • improve the quality of student work because instead of “playing school” or doing work for points and grades, they’re pursuing craftsmanship by engaging in constant loops of critique and revision because they have an authentic and meaningful purpose to do so
  • teach content literacy as students read, write, speak and listen as and with content area experts like this student
  • make interdisciplinary connections as they creatively combine content like Art and Politics
  • become better at classroom management as students use contracts to become better collaborators and removes the tension between adults and students around the struggle of compliance.
  • become better communicators and collaborators through intentional processes like Critical Friends Protocol looking at student and teacher work and thinking

Project-Based Learning Helps Students

And what about students? PBL can help students…

  • become lifelong and more self-directed learners as they do intellectually and emotionally engaging work that leaves them asking more questions and wanting to learn more
  • become better at asking questions as they engage in the Inquiry List as a living, breathing document fleshing out and learning the things they Need to Know in order to answer the Driving Question
  • engage in a growth mindset as they refine their work and learn leadership skills
  • become more prepared for life beyond school as they are taking part in adult-like thinking
  • add value to the world and community
  • learn content more deeply as it is necessary for the overall challenge
  • become more confident and better communicators
  • enjoy school!

Project-Based Learning Helps Schools

What about schools? PBL helps schools improve the culture and yes, according to research, test scores.

A quality PBL culture leads to exciting innovation and creativity by using a “Yes, and…” approach where ensembles or teams effectively collaborate to build upon one another’s thinking. This applies to adults and students as we employ divergent and convergent thinking to build and question. While the above lists are in no way comprehensive or exhaustive (what would you add?), they do outline many of the things that making the PBL shift can do to improve your school or district.

What PBL Won’t Do

Project-Based Learning won’t solve all of your problems, however.

Poverty, lack of funding, the effects of high stakes accountability or other obstacles can all both challenge and necessitate diverse approaches to school improvement. But PBL certainly can help you move towards a more positive learning culture given any set of circumstances.

Another challenge? PBL can be detrimental to test scores and teacher morale when engaged in poorly or as a short term fix. As teachers make this often difficult shift to a completely new way of teaching and learning, they sometimes experience an implementation dip–a short dip in achievement while internalizing new ideas, and streamlining new processes. However, without adequate support, the dip may become a downward spiral.

It’s also important to realize that if PBL isn’t given time and attention to take hold, it will result in teacher frustration as they chalk it up to just another initiative come and gone. With that in mind we strongly suggest building in a robust partnership/support plan that includes frequent contact with a PBL coach/specialist. In addition to an initial workshop, regular (at least monthly) check-ins to refine and tune projects, observe and provide feedback, reflect and revise and even some co-planning and co-teaching are all great support possibilities.

As this work unfolds, building internal capacity in leadership, teachers and building/district coaches to carry the PBL mindset forward with other district initiatives is essential. PBL without this type of thoughtful support won’t do much for your school other than perhaps ignite the passions of a few teachers who will end up trying to implement a more progressive approach in a mostly traditional setting, another cause of friction in a school.

Implementing Project-Based Learning is tough but worthwhile and rewarding work. And while it often requires a learning curve for teachers, leaders and students, the payoff can be authentic and sustained school and student success.

TeachThought PBL Model

What PBL Can Do For Your School–And What It Can’t; image attribution flickeringbrad