I have been on Twitter since just a few months after they announced who they were at SXSW in 2007. And I have been following the #pblchat on Twitter since, well, I was one of the folks who talked about creating it. So I’ve been there since the beginning.

As pbl (project based learning) becomes the “cool” thing to do in education, I see more and more references to “great projects,” and “awesome student presentations,” in #pblchat.  But are these projects really pbl? Do they meet the 8 “Essential Elements of PBL” that most practitioners require in their projects? Sometimes the answer is yes. But more and more the answer is no.

I do see a lot of projects with evidence of student-led deeper learning. But I also see cute project presentations that make me wonder if there was any learning going on during the course of the project.

Twitter isn’t the only place this is happening. At the last 2 edcamps I attended there were several people talking about the great things they were doing in their classrooms with pbl. At ISTE, last Summer, and at TCEA last month, there were people talking about the great things they were doing in their classrooms with pbl.  At SXSWedu there were not many sessions with pbl in the title but the term was used by presenters in many sessions that I attended.

It seems that everyone gets excited about doing pbl and a lot of people want to share what they are doing in their classrooms. All I ask is that we hold these people to high standards. If they are just doing projects and NOT doing pbl, then they need to hear that from people who know a thing or two about the process – because it is a process.

The other side of this argument are the independent schools and schools that have unique circumstances that allow teachers and students to have access to community members and academicians who create opportunities for exceptional projects. I worry that too many of the “regular” teachers in small town America will say that they could “never do that in our town.” These projects and their products not only meet all of the 8 Essential Elements but their student “voice and choice,” is seen as being something “my students” would never be able to obtain.

If you are in this last category, all I can say is get over it! You have to make connections in YOUR community. There are people out there who would love to be part of your students’ learning experience. Take the time, now, for next year making connections. Start right now and look back at projects you have done this year. Where could you have given your students more choice in how they attacked the driving question? What projects didn’t start with enough student inquiry? How might you change that for next time.

Most importantly, what project wasn’t a PBL project at all? Look at each of your projects and examine them next to the 8 elements:

  1. Did you have enough (or too much) content?
  2.  (and 3) Did you have a great driving question, and, did it create enough need to knows?
  3.  What voice and choice did you give your students?
  4. Did you teach and assess 21st century skills?
  5. Did you give your students a chance to be innovative?
  6. Did you allow for revision and reflection?
  7. Were the products shown/demonstrated to a public audience?
There are so many places in a project for improvements. That is where the “real” pbl teacher and the teacher who assigns projects diverge. PBL teachers are rarely 100% happy at the end of the project. There are multiple places where improvement can happen. February and March are the perfect time to take a reflective look at the year and see where changes can happen for next year. 
Take an honest look at all of your projects. Do they meet the eye-test? Look at projects you may still plan on doing this Spring. Do they meet the eye-test? Why not pick a project you have planned for this Spring and tweak it a little. 
Sit down with friends and/or co-teachers and see if you can improve the driving question. See if you might have a connection in your town that could be a natural for the information yours students are expected to learn in this project. Select a 21st century skill and break it down to skills you want to have your students learn. Then assess those students on the skills. 
What part of project management could you improve? Ask your students? They know what works and what really sucks.  Have them design a better group contract for next year. Have them design your classroom for better collaboration. Have them design a project that helps them review for the final exam or for that state test. Do something. Change something. But when you change something, take time to determine whether the change was constructive or destructive and then change it again. 
I want to hear all about your successful project in the twitter stream with the hashtag #pblchat. But when you do, don’t be surprised if one of us asks a tough question. We want to know if it really meets the eye-test. And, sometimes, that is hard to do in 140 characters.

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