By Thom Markham

Now that project-based learning (PBL) is becoming more popular, the doubters and haters also have surfaced. The recent anti-PBL message by David Brooks in the New York Times, which was fortunately well rebutted, exemplifies the resistance. Citing High Tech High in San Diego, Brooks’ core message is that PBL is a kind of mindless education dressed up by technology and devoid of the ‘wisdom’ taught in traditional schools. Given that there are probably another thousand-plus schools across the country embracing PBL, this is a serious charge. And it’s false.

But it should also be a warning to PBL advocates. PBL is gaining in popularity, but it’s not being done particularly well in many schools. Early in the school year, I worked with a group of earnest, professionally focused, K-5 teachers who had received three days of PBL training during the summer from a highly reputable PBL organization. They could recite the basics of PBL: Design a problem around standards; put student in groups; and plan an exhibition. But they left the training believing that the underlying goal is to cover standards by cleverly posing a problem for students that teachers can already answer. They hadn’t been instructed—or inspired—to practice the breakthrough kind of learning that PBL promises—the kind that leads to greater personalization, innovation, design thinking, self-directed learning, and, most critically, the kind of wisdom required in today’s world rather than the 1950’s.

This is no one’s fault. Education continues to operate in a ‘safe’ zone where standards and pre-ordained outcomes predominate. As a result, many teachers practice a problem-based approach to PBL—the academic, teacher-focused method that originated in the 1960s in colleges and schools of medicine. The two approaches appear similar, but there’s a huge, and critical, distinction. PBL is designed to break students out of the box of conventional thinking by having them engage the world, exceed standards, and deliver creative solutions to authentic issues. A simple way to say it is this: Problem based learning teaches to the standards; PBL teaches students to apply the standards.

Why would we not settle for highly constrained problem-based PBL? Isn’t it enough to have a bit more student-oriented problem solving in classrooms than ten years ago? Maybe. But that also means settling for staying inside the lines of the current system of teaching and learning. Continuing the obsessive focus on the ‘right’ standards, accepting vague simulations of critical thinking, and applauding students who deliver a bulleted list of talking points via PowerPoint presentations does not lead to transformation.

To get at the depth of purpose and engagement necessary for learners today, there’s work to do in PBL. The way out of the box is to encourage teachers to let go, take risks, live with uncertain outcomes—and design projects that matter. Enter the world as it is at this time—as a place of wide open spaces and immense needs. Invent and deliver projects that retain the full power of PBL and, in the process, push education forward to meet its mid-century destiny. How? Here are five big ideas:

See PBL as a mind shift, not a method. PBL offers a great structure for problem solving – it’s a Monday morning solution. But the process of PBL, when done well, takes students deep. It can awaken as well as teach, help students dig into their psyche a bit, and actually mature young people in ways that problem based and front of the room instruction can’t touch. PBL gives us a path forward out of the industrial past and into a world that requires a deep set of attitudes and skills necessary for navigation. But since the future is not fully unveiled, PBL teachers should be mission-driven, fueled by a sense of urgency and contribution.

Put challenge first. Obviously, standards need to be addressed. That’s why starting a project plan by listing standards to be taught has become conventional advice from today’s PBL top trainers. I disagree. Teachers see standards as a helpful guide and organizer, but orienting to standards alone is dispiriting; they are not the grail we seek.

Once the human mind sees a list, it’s in check-off mode. Instead, start with a challenge that excites students. Daydream. Muse. Envision students’ faces at the end of the project. Once the vision and intention is fixed—and a teacher feels the challenge—that’s the time to return to linear mode: What standards will students learn, and how?

Get a lot better at Driving Questions. In general, PBL experts do not show teachers how to write great Driving Questions, nor is it well understood that the question or the problem is the high leverage key to deeper learning. For example, a typical question such as ‘How can we prevent climate change?’ encourages in-the-box thinking and a laundry list of suggestions drawn from the internet. That’s more coverage. Instead, ‘How can we, as 7th graders facing severe climate issues in adulthood, use data to effectively lobby our community about the dangers of climate change?’ forces students to grapple with core, authentic issues around the topic of climate change: Who do we believe? Why? How do we educate ourselves? How do we change attitudes?

Turn skills and content into one conversation. PBL advocates assure doubters that PBL teaches academic content. And it does—but in depth, not quantity. It’s time to own that little sidestep. Also, 21st century skills still feel the tailwind from the past. Generally, skills are taught as an add-on to content. The goal is to define a third way that paints a fully realized, blended picture of knowing and doing. PBL offers a learning experience that seamlessly blends core concepts, key facts, reflective thinking, careful judgment, and skillful application of knowledge—all of which coalesce into a solution to a meaningful problem. In life and learning, skills and strengths now assume a role equal to or paramount to content acquisition. Identifying and verbalizing that new definition of rigor is central to overcoming the argument about lack of ‘wisdom.’

Coach for openness. A skillful PBL teacher does much more than teach, and PBL offers amazing opportunities to go for the real gold in education: Helping young people become open, curious adults. A meaningful project taps into a student’s—and a teacher’s—desire to engage in purposeful work. From shared purpose flows a natural, engaged, caring, relationship where feeling, emotion, and respectful conversation become a central tool for opening the mind to intellectual work and a desire for further inquiry. The brain never works in isolation from the body and the heart, and when the whole child enrolls in the process of learning, the sense of satisfaction translates into a permanent attitude. There’s a shift, most likely in the neuronal pathways, but also in the less understood realms of brightness, a forward-facing personality, and the desire for wisdom. Simply put, good coaching can push the permanent learning button. 

Thom Markham is a psychologist, educator, CEO of PBL Global, author of leading books on PBL and intelligence, and an internationally-respected consultant on project based learning, 21st century skills, innovation, and high performance cultures. You can find him on Twitter @thommarkham

  • Our school worked on creating a continuum of PBL. The discussion more than the finished product was worthwhile. http://balancedtech.wikispaces.com/Project+Based+Learning+Continuum

  • Lynne

    My son is a recent grad from a high school that was virtually all PBL. Like most things in life, PBL has pros and cons. One of the biggest things I stressed (based on my many years of leading projects for tech firms) is that everyone involved needs to be a contributor. No one wants to be on a project team with slackers, and I never wanted my son to be anything but 100% “all in”. I’d tell him, “you don’t want to be that slacker because you’ll develop a reputation and no one will want you on their team”. As I was singing that song, I was in my own class, a MOOC (most of which are PBL structure), and experiencing my own version of that tune. I was on a team where members were spread across the world and time zones were a challenge to “real time” collaboration. Still, we had our slackers on the team and a few of us basically did all the heavy lifting to complete the team’s assignment. We had to, if we wanted a passing grade, since the course structure was “all or nothing” in terms of completing the assignment and earning that grade. Thus, in some PBL programs, you’ll find some over-achievers working to deliver a quality end product while others who are just along for the ride end up with a passing grade because others actually did the work. I suppose that’s just like “real life” and the experience certainly delivers a lesson!

  • Kris Williams

    Let me start by saying that I think the definition given here for problem-based learning (PrBL) is a tad bit antiquated. If we instead think of PrBL as a focused and powerful inquiry-based approach that targets a smaller set of objectives, through application, could you not imagine it as also being transformative? In fact, some of the most compelling and transformative classrooms I’ve been in lately have been self-labeled as PrBL classrooms that base the core of student discourse and application in rigorous yet open-ended “What if?” applications and not at all in the development of bulleted PowerPoints. Contact me or anyone else at http://www.newtechnetwork.org and I’d be happy to point you in the direction of classrooms and schools that are making this happen on a regular basis.

    Overall, though, I think what you’re arguing here is for teachers to constantly strive for the ideal and that to fall short is perhaps putting the bigger movement at risk. That’s a big ask of teachers, especially if they aren’t being provided with the right kind of on-going support and if there aren’t simultaneous efforts afoot to change the surrounding systems that work to keep the so-called “save zone” in place. I worry that setting these expectations up for what PBL should ALWAYS look like, especially for teachers in their first semester of implementation after training, is unfair and unrealistic given the time and support needed for teachers that are essentially crafting their own curriculum and assessments. Perhaps, instead, we should argue for ways in which we can change the conditions that teachers and leaders are fighting against in their efforts to make this ideal form of deep learning a reality for all kids. What might those changes look like? Let’s start by defining a common school purpose of creating world-ready students, provide regular coaching support for teachers and leaders, work to create a school culture of professional learning for students and adults, develop/adopt a set of agreed-upon school-wide outcomes (integrating content and skills), build an intentional structural design of the school day and calendar to support both student and adult learning, and create district-level ownership around supporting the successful achievement of these common outcomes. Perhaps, then, we can take some of the pressure off of teachers to create these conditions for powerful student learning all on their own.

  • Jill Geiser

    Good points here regarding PBL. One part of PBL that rarely makes it into any PBL discussion is the planning process that goes into developing a quality PBL. I have run PBL workshops with a colleague and we emphasize that planning is an interative process. Some teachers start with standards, some with the project idea, some with the driving question and they go back to revise after moving through other elements of PBL planning. Like you do here, we too emphasize the importance of a good driving question and highlight that it takes time and reworking of the question to get it to where a teacher wants it to be to truly “drive” the work. There is also a strategic and artful component to planning PBL that aligns with content being taught across disciplines. This video is an attempt to bring out these ideas around planning PBL.

    PBL does require a mindshift but I think that mindshift applies not only to PBL but to teaching and learning in general.

  • David

    I’m so disappointed that NPR would publish an ‘advertisement’ from a company that is part of the rush to make a profit off our “broken” educational system. Everyone has a magic program that cure our schools, and make a tidy sum in the process. PBL is a tool that should be a piece of education and good teachers have been using it for a long time.

  • Jeffrey Archer

    Needless to explain why teachers ought to inspire, and neither put knowledge in heads nor force to swot. My professor taught me how to think and this is really important. PBL is not a bad method. To my mind it is perfect for thesis writing, because you have time to make research, to read almost half of a library and solve the question completely. PBL provides real-world relevance for learning. Moreover with all edtech tools we have now, it can not be difficult! For instance, my teacher recommended to check every page of the course paper by plagiarism detection tool https://unplag.com/ and then I sent him a report with percentage of similarity, honestly, I had plagiarized some text (this killing tool can identify the resource as soon as it appears on the Internet), and no wonder that my teacher made me to rewrite everything. So to say, I was working on my research a long time, but such way of learning helped to become a specialist of stylistics.

  • Laura Thomas

    PBL is complex, like all good teaching methods. We’ve been working with it for 35 years at Antioch University New England (antiochne.edu/acsr/criticalskills), doing the complicated work described in this great piece. I particularly like that you recognize that it’s not just a method, it’s a whole new way of thinking about teaching and learning. As one of our school coaches (and middle school teacher) put it, “If a ‘model’ is like the box of Legos with the directions to make it just like the picture on the box…(what we do) is more like the random box of Legos. You get to find out about all the pieces and how they work and what they do but then you are creating the end result that may look different from you neighbors’ but with all the same elements.” Thanks for a great piece!

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