PBL Pep Talk

Project-based learning (PBL) is not a new and revolutionary teaching practice. Students have been identifying problems and conducting research to propose solutions for a long time. Still, beginning PBL is not always easy. Common concerns about implementing PBL are time, resources, school buy-in, and launching the very first project. If you feel overwhelmed with starting PBL in your classroom, I have four words for you: you can do it!

PBL takes commitment and perseverance. It is not something you can plan in one night and print out on sheets of paper. But I promise you, the energy spent planning and implementing PBL are well worth it. You might have doubts now. That’s okay; you are not the only one. I recently gave a survey to a group of educators regarding PBL. Here are a few of their concerns:

  • How do I effectively educate every student when developmental levels and home environments are so diverse?
  • I am interested in knowing how teachers collect grades as students work on the project.
  • How are students with special needs involved in PBL?
  • PBL seems so far out of the realm of possibility for our education system. We are creating future citizens who are so stressed out and anxious, they can't function.

You see, other educators, some with years of experience, also have concerns with implementing PBL. Luckily, there are steps you can take to ease your worry and make PBL a reality.

Listen, Read, and Observe
Take time to discuss with colleagues instructional strategies and emerging educational technologies. This will spark ideas for how you can design a PBL unit. Use social media to connect with people and information that will support your PBL endeavors. There are many helpful Twitter accounts like @PBLforTeachers, @geniushour, @P21Learning, @BIEpbl, and of course @Sam_Northern (sorry for the plug). Check out posts by these organizations and teachers in your online professional network. You don’t have to make sub plans and drive a long distance to see PBL in action. You can observe authentic learning through social media and video chats.

Plan Together
A great way to get your fellow educators aboard the PBL train is to simply ask them to ride. Invite colleagues to collaborate with you on designing PBL activities. What’s great about PBL is that it connects multiple subjects. Other teachers have the opportunity to integrate their disciplines if they participate in the planning process. Working with other educators will optimize PBL as each collaborator shares his or her wisdom and talents. Before long, more teachers in your building will come to you about reserving a seat on the PBL train.

Make it Manageable
PBL can take as much or as little time as you like. Some PBL classrooms spend an entire semester on one project. Others may take three or four weeks exploring and creating. If you are just starting out, I recommend focusing on just a few priority standards. That way, your first project spans a few weeks giving students a taste of personalized learning and giving you the chance to identify areas of improvement. Student voice is a core element of PBL. That is not to say you cannot influence student teams and project ideas. Yes, you need to give more control to your students. But you also want to make the learning experience positive which sometimes means limiting options.

Revise and Reflect
​Students should not be the only ones reflecting during PBL. We are all learners. Record your reflections during and after each lesson. Think about the effectiveness of current resources. Consider the way formative assessments guide your decisions for subsequent lessons. Share your thoughts with fellow teachers and members of your online network. Believe me; your colleagues are eager to help. Take time to reflect, express concerns with others, and revise instruction to improve students’ PBL experience.

​Educators share a similar philosophy. We envision classrooms as beehives where students work in teams to uncover information and solve problems. We want students to seek answers to questions about the world, not just theories. We hope that classroom activities lead students to new understandings that inspire them to take action. I have just described PBL.

Are you ready to reignite your passion for a student-driven classroom that motivates and nurtures? PBL could be your answer. I warn you; there is risk in fostering a PBL classroom. Students might end up revising their own plans; groups could spend a whole class period corresponding with an expert; and some individuals will likely ask if they can work on presentations at home. If these are the kind of “risks” PBL causes, I will take my chances.
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