Too often I hear “Can you teach me how to do PBL?” Or, “I would love to be in a school like your school.” But PBL is not the same in every school. It’s not even the same in every classroom in my school. PBL is a way of teaching that should, no must, be taught by a teacher who is willing to put their own stamp on what is being done in the classroom.
Now, can PBL be done wrong? Absolutely. As a matter of fact it is that fact that lead me to write this post. Whenever I see a group of teachers learning the basics of PBL I see some who are frustrated and confused. I feel that many teachers would just like a recipe for success that they can take into their classroom and, poof, they have a PBL environment. It just isn’t that easy. I would venture to say that all of our teachers are struggling with how they are doing PBL in their classroom. Some of them are teaching in their 5th year of PBL and came to the school with instruction on how to plan and lead a PBL classroom. But they are still tweaking their presentation. They are creating new projects every year. And they continue to request Professional Development by others, outside of our school, on how to be a better PBL teacher.
So, getting back to the original question, yes I can teach you how to do PBL. As a matter of fact I plan on doing that in about an hour during my Conversation at Educon 2.4 next month in Philadelphia. If you, or your school district, wanted to pay the money you could attend our district’s Think Forward Institute which gives you 4 days of intense PBL training. Or you could talk with a representative of the Buck Institute to get instruction. They can point you to some wonderful training. But I’m here to tell you that the training is just the beginning.
To be an effective PBL teacher you must hone your skills each year. You need to be a reflective teacher. You should be willing to have an outside observer critique your teaching and ask you tough questions. As a matter of fact if you take PBL out of the first sentence then the rest of this paragraph would just be telling you what you need to do to be a good teacher. And that’s my underlying theme – you need to be a good teacher first. Incorporating PBL is just another tool in your tool belt.
PBL is about getting students fired up about their learning. PBL is about students wanting to delve deeper into a subject. PBL is about students being able to unlock their creative juices. And, PBl is a chance for teachers to lead their classes to a place that no one anticipated when they set out on the journey. It is NOT a culminating “project” where students get to take what they’ve learned and create something related to that learning.
PBL is like a recipe that mixes a question to be answered with a set of standards. The amount of standards that gets mixed may end up being different than what you anticipated when you started “cooking.” You may have been able to make a dense, rich concoction with more standards than you thought could fit into the recipe. Or, you may have had to cut down on the standards because you realized that the original recipe called for too much of that ingredient. If that is the case then you will need to incorporate the unused standards into a later recipe.
It really is just like cooking. The best cooks know the recipe but are willing to change amounts based upon how things are mixing. And, you must always be looking at the batter to understand how the end-product will turn out. This leads to one of the best parts of PBL. On each day I get to observe learning going on. Is it going the way I anticipated? Maybe not. If things aren’t going well then I need to redirect the students in a new direction. But sometimes they are heading in a direction that will force them to ask to be taught something new. Even better, the students might learn something that they can teach me. Now, we are all learning.
Can I teach you how to do PBL? That’s like asking can I teach you how to bake cookies. I can give you recipes. I can show you where the measuring cups and spoons are and where all of the ingredients are located. But until you step into the kitchen and put that apron on you can never really start cooking. When you take out that first batch you are going to taste them. Is there something you could have added to make them better? Could you have cooked them longer or shorter? Could you have adjusted the temperature because your oven is a bit hotter than average? These are all questions that you will have to answer the NEXT time you cook. But next time you may be working with a recipe for a cake. How will these very similar ingredients react to the way you mix them and cook them?
You should stop trying to be like us and try to be the best you can be. That may end up being much, much better than us. And, more importantly you will be like – YOU.