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PBL Must Haves

Why is PBL the hot ticket right now? We see Project Based Learning all over social media. Everyone seems to be throwing the term around like confetti, and schools are reorganizing to become PBL-focused institutions. Part of the discussion is over the vision of what it looks like, because PBL means different things depending on who you talk to. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps worthwhile to at least agree on what we are talking about. When I discuss PBL, I’m referring to what the world-famous Buck Institute for Education (now called PBLWorks) calls “a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.” I think that’s a broad enough definition for everyone who is interested in PBL to get behind. It is the definition I use in my new book. Project Based Learning Anywhere.

Given what a hot topic PBL is right now, it might surprise you to learn that the concept is not new. Teachers for decades have understood that hands-on experiences accompanied by critical thinking can lead to greater understanding and academic success. There have been various rounds of popularity of PBL since the early 1900s, when educational reformer John Dewey proposed we “give students something to do instead of something to learn.” However, this current round of PBL is more focused and refined. We understand better the importance of standards, assessment, and authenticity than perhaps we did in the early 1990s, when thematic teaching and PBL began resurfacing. After teaching in a stifling era of accountability in the early 2000s, with mandates such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, educators are searching for something more engaging and relevant. PBL seems to be where many are landing.

As much as I love it, I would encourage teachers to proceed with caution. It is very easy to water down the power of PBL with shortcuts and missing pieces of the instructional puzzle. Let’s not let that happen. I want to clarify the essence and elements of true Project Based Learning. This is based on my own experiences and the research of many other highly qualified educators. If we say we are doing PBL, what does that really mean?

How about we check out a PBL example and notice the key elements of instruction? For many years I challenged my students to open businesses to learn economics, math, science, and communication arts standards. Opening a restaurant was a favorite with students and over the years we opened Mexican, BBQ, 50’s Diner, Soup/Sandwich Shop, and other themed establishments. The food was great. The price was right and the service was priceless!

But here is the deal. The business or restaurant had to belong to the kids in order to really work. I served as the facilitator, but they had to figure out the theme, menu, pricing, recipes, marketing, cooking, serving, calculating, and reflecting. I would kick off the unit with a yummy cooking lesson,  or an interesting guest speaker from the restaurant world. (A field trip would have been even better, but funds were tight… you know how that goes.)  I provided the students with the big question and challenge they would address during the unit, “How can we open a successful restaurant?” Then students would help decide what we needed to do and know in order to open a restaurant to the public. They applied for jobs, developed marketing materials and menus, raised funds to open the business, invited guests, worked their jobs in the restaurant will full effort, and celebrated their success.

The restaurant was not about just having fun, although we had a blast! The purpose was to learn required standards while putting them into action. We learned as we worked. This developed such a deeper understanding of the content. No worksheets can match this type of learning.

So what? What does this reveal about the elements of true PBL? Hang here with me. I don’t know about you, but when I reflect on that quick snapshot of this unit I notice the following:

  1. Standards and Objectives: We do PBL in order to teach what we have to teach, but in a much more real way. (In this example, we were addressing math and economic standards; as well as a few others.)
  1. Big Question or Essential Question: This is the goal of the unit. This question guides our learning and keeps us on track. It may be based on a problem, challenge, simulation, or role students are playing. (Remember this? …“How can we open a successful restaurant?”)
  1. Challenge: The challenge provides the real-world authenticity to the project. (Students were encouraged to create a successful business and determine what was to be done with any profits earned.)
  1. Launch: We kick off a PBL unit with gusto! We find ways to hook kids in the challenge and get them excited about the project ahead. (Guest speakers, cooking experiences, a fun book….. all got everyone excited about this notion of opening a restaurant.)
  1. Students in Action: Students DO the questioning, research, creating, and sharing. They provide the voice and have lots of choice in how they go about their work. Here is a little secret: If all the projects look the same, it is not PBL. Just sayin’. (In this example notice the market surveys for the restaurant theme and menu, figuring pricing, creating marketing materials, applying for jobs, etc.)
  1. Real, Public Audience: This is the key to the whole thing, I do believe! There must be a real audience for the work. I always ask myself when thinking about the audience, “Who really cares about what we are doing?” Those are the people I need to involve as the audience. (We needed customers! Parents, school employees, community members, etc. visited our restaurant.)
  1. Teacher Scaffolding & Conferring: My absolute favorite thing in the world is to be in the middle of a PBL unit and in constant dialogue with students. We model, guide, confer, and question students as they work. (I had to teach lessons about creating surveys, analyzing data, figuring pricing, making change, etc. I also needed to chat with each group of students daily as we worked to assess how they were doing and usher them in the right direction. )
  1. Ongoing Assessment: One critically important thing I learned over the years was to assess as we went along. It is not enough to have one grade at the end of a project. I made that mistake early on. Not a good move.  I learned the value of checkpoints, quizzes, journaling, etc. (In this unit students took quizzes, kept a business portfolio, and wrote reflections; in addition to checklists and rubrics for products created.)
  1. Critique and Reflection: Truth be told, these are the hardest things to remember to do when you’re busy with the unit. We need to build time for students to reflect on their own work, learning, and final products. We must secure feedback and critiques from others in order to improve the products and presentations. ( We role played the restaurant and reflected on how to improve things. We wrote about our experiences and even took quizzes and tests over the standards.)

There you have it. After years of what seems like zillions of PBL units, I have noted in every highly successful project, these key elements were evident. Having said all of this, please note that if a project or unit doesn’t necessarily have all these elements, it doesn’t mean those learning experiences are wrong. I do believe there is a time and place for different learning experiences. Some will not be full blown PBL and that is ok. However, the goal is to provide students with learning that matters and impacts them in a positive way. Everything doesn’t have to be PBL, but when we invest our time and energy in a PBL unit, we want to do it with intention and excellence!

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