I am about to work in my last co-facilitation with the Buck Institute for Education (BIE.org) doing what they call a PBL 101. A basic, 3-day, course in the planning, managing and assessing of a PBL project.
Within a project most people can agree that there are certain items that make it successful and BIE has narrowed the list down to 8 items that they call the 8 Essential Elements of PBL (see the diagram to the left).
Anyone who has truly done PBL knows that there must some sort of significant content, there must have been a way to establish a desire for inquiry (in this case by having a driving question and by overtly discussing what it is the students will need to know), and there must be a public audience so students feel an added desire to do their best.
Through group work, research, and the inquiry process students end up having to do, what most people call, 21st century skills. These skills include, but are not limited to, collaboration, critical thinking, communication (orally and in writing), and creativity. Finally, there must be a chance for students to have their work assessed. At that point, they must be allowed to revise their work and reflect on their assessment. This ensures the final product is something the students are proud of and the product demonstrates the knowledge that the students have gained during the project.
As I said, most people can agree that these 8 elements are key components of a classroom or school that uses PBL as the primary mode of instruction. But these elements are not as connected as the diagram might suggest. The glue that holds these 8 elements together is the classroom, school, or even district culture. Culture is the 9th Essential Element. Without a proper culture students might not be allowed to have voice and choice in the products they work on. Without a proper culture students might not be willing to do revisions of their work or they may not feel a need to reflect on their learning.
Even the 21st century skills can be restricted when there is not a culture of collaboration; students aren’t encouraged to think critically; student communication is not allowed or shown as unimportant; or when students have no outlet to show their creative side. Each of these issues with students comes directly from the way teachers and administrators interact. If the teachers don’t collaborate, communicate, or get a chance to try creative things in the classroom then there is a shadow upon the entire school culture that can’t be ignored.
So, teachers, as you finish your PBL 101, your New Teacher training with the New Tech Network, or some other PBL training this summer, remember to work hard and stay positive. You can do this. But get your fellow teachers and administrators involved in what you are doing. Get the PTA or other parent organization involved too. It is time to work on the entire educational system so that you and, more importantly, your students can be successful pursuers of inquiry.