Is my PBL faux student-centred learning?

I’ve always suffered from anxiety. The focus of the anxiety slips and shifts but like a Winton shadow it stays lurking even when it’s not seen. Last Thursday was one of those days where ‘IT’ reared its devious head.

Last Thursday afternoon I had the pleasure of running a video conference with a couple of other schools to talk about edmodo. You know already how much I love edmodo and if you don’t check out my posts on the edmodo blog here. These teachers and I ‘met’ via Yammer, which was the networking tool used by NSWDEC (now to be replaced by some other networking tool that isn’t twitter, haha). Each of the teachers are keen to bring edmodo to their schools and I offered to run some video conference just going over how I used edmodo and all of its nifty features I love.

I was particularly excited about this video conference because I could finally (kinda) meet Neil Fara face to face. Neil is a really inspiring HSIE head teacher who is running a really innovative experiment he refers to as Project REAL. You can read a little about it here at the Edmodo Teacher Hub. Anyway, long story short, Neil and I had been chatting via yammer for a few weeks leading up to the VC – Neil is interested in what I do with PBL and I’m interested in what he’s doing in regards to student voice.

So the video conference ran really smoothly … Neil and the other participants let me blabber on for about half an hour about how my students are using edmodo as the hub for their projects (see my post here for more detail) and just showing them around my crazy busy edmodo page. It was nice to have Neil and one of his teachers, Hollie, there to show what I do. They were so lovely it felt a little like a particularly special show and tell – you know the one where you’ve got the cutest little puppy/kitten/guinea pig/gold-fish and the other kids in the class are like ‘wow you’re so lucky and amazing and cool’ … yeah, it was one of those moments. I even had my two boys in the room whilst the VC was going and they were being surprisingly quiet and well-behaved. I have to confess, I was feeling a little like a tech-savvy PBL guru.

And then it hit.


The type of question that inside the classroom you cut down with a wicked glance and a kinda sly put down. (Or is that just evil teacher me?) Neil asked me this:

Do you let your students plan these projects? Do they look at the outcomes? Do they get a say in the products and investigations? (OK – that’s not one question, and to be fair he probably didn’t say it in this way – actually more likely it was an off-handed question that has been multiplied and exaggerated in my ‘I want to be the best teacher doing everything right but I feel like a failure’ kinda anxious twist on things.)

I pretty much stuttered and blundered my answer, something eloquent like ‘Ah, nah. It’s pretty much all me doing that stuff. Yeah. Hmmm…’

My debrief has been slow. I haven’t really shared it with anyone. Here’s the realisation: What I’m doing with ‘PBL’ isn’t really student-centred. Is it? If I’m in control of designing the project – from crafting the question, designing the products and investigations and organising the ‘real world’ audience to present to – then it’s totally teacher-centred. If I’m the one who allocates the points as rewards, then I’m the boss, right?

So I’m kinda sitting under the collapsed ruins of the ‘I am awesome and my PBL is king’ building just not even wanting to get out. I dunno. Maybe the building is still erect with my mind people hurrying to plaster the gaping cracks of reality. Maybe I want to prop it up with massive balustrades and forget I even heard Neil’s question.

Despite the demon anxiety that sits on my shoulder and tells me I’m a fraud, there is a voice somewhere amongst the din that says ‘It’s a continuum. They have un-learned passive learning. They have learnt to plan and reflect. They are excelling at team work. They are more motivated than ever. You now know your students better than you ever have. Next stop is student voice. It takes time.’

I really want to listen to that voice. I do.


31 thoughts on “Is my PBL faux student-centred learning?

  1. Confused, you were amazing last week and your blogs have served as inspiration to Hollie and I (and a justification that IT can be done – whatever it is at a particular time). One thing Bianca, after years of the factory model students do need to ‘learn to learn’. You classroom structure, and ‘thinking zones’ sets the standards for student-centered learning. We arrived at student voice because of our school context, i took over a faculty two years ago close to its lowest ebb (according to some staff and students) and radical solutions were needed to address this. Great teachers know when to own their room and when to let get and everything you talked about was a clear demonstration of this process. We are still assessed in the formal School Certificate exam and as such my crowded syllabus demands a structured approach at times. In fact we are in an identical situation as you discussed where we are still ‘teaching the kids to learn’. Hollie will attempt PBL next year on Year 8 and I have told her to ‘rip apart the syllabus’. We used student voice to get close to where you are! and we are not there yet! In fact we could not have run a VC anything like what took place last week and we learnt so much (which means work for me, because when my team teacher gets excited…something is about to change!).

    • Thanks for you kind words Neil – it was quite an impromptu presentation, haha. I do hope that my blog is serving some kind of purpose, because I often just dump my thoughts onto the page in a slip-shod manner.
      I agree entirely with the needed to ‘learn to learn’. There have been a variety of initiatives at my school since I have been there (we run ‘Thinking Skills’ classes in Year 7) but none have impacted on the way teachers ‘teach’ and this is the big issue, I think. No good saying to a kid ‘what type of learner are you?’ and then just giving them a bunch of textbooks or worksheets to work on.
      Yes, the type of assessment that we are driven by (high stakes external examinations) runs counter to the learning we are facilitating. It’s a problem I confront daily and I will venture to blog about it soon.
      I do feel though, that student voice is a place I’m heading towards because students will become more engaged in how they learn best … really just wanting to learn and seeing themselves as active learners is my goal.
      Looking forward to reading your blog and following your journey!

      • Hello Bianca, I had a moment like this last week. Actually i woke up in the early morning to the ” Youre a PBL fraud ” call.
        There will always be elements you need to organise or forward plan and elements you can retro plan. I did an experiment to see how much I could get the students to do:
        So I started with nothing and said “were going to do a project. what would you like to do?” . I had ideas, suggestions, some ready made projects but these were to fall back on. “what is a project?”. “what is a project in our context?”. If a project is something which has a product at the end, “what kind of product is it? Is it a written product, a recording, does it anser a question, fulfill a need etc? Who is going to manage it? What are the others going to do? How much time do we have to do it? What materials do we need?”
        this is what I say and the others do the project. Of course as soon as you give any kind of guidance, you are taking away student responsability , i even felt guilty once i revealed to the groups who couldnt be bothered to think of their own project that there were some ideas written down as though i was being sneaky. If you have tests or a syllabus , start with the end goals and then get them to design a project. You just need lots of open questions. The way i do it is get them to think of an idea. if its not 100% suitable then question them as to how its going to get them to the end objective? students are just as smart as us , just keep asking the questions, giving as little guidance as is necessary and they will get there. Yes, Its a scam but the more you get them to do , the better equipped they`ll be.

      • This is such a thoughtful and generous reply to a post I wrote a very long time ago, but which I continue to return to in thought. I wish I was teaching in a context where such flexibility and fluidity of learning was possible, but that’s not my experience right now. Your ideas are great though and o with endeavor to put them into practice when I can! 😊

      • whatever your context, i’m sure theres a way out . decribe your context and i`ll see what i can do.

  2. I don’t think it’s faux student centred learning at all. Edmodo and such does give students more power over their own learning than pretty much most of what is going on in classrooms across the state. They do have the power to communicate, to interact, to be self-directed. These are all excellent achievements and should be celebrated.

    I think the questions – Do you let your students plan these projects? Do they look at the outcomes? Do they get a say in the products and investigations? – while nice to contemplate, are impractical and utopian. Students do not have the training and expertise to fully understand learning outcomes and their place in a scope and sequence. Nor do they understand that faculties do have to have unit goals that need some direction and input from the English HT, and an curriculum co-ordinator – because of BOS requirements.

    The English syllabus had some lovely ideas about students having input into the design of assessment tasks and marking criteria, but they are ultimately ideas, rather than applicable. That is because students respect that there needs to be some direction and control from a teacher and a school. Many also crave that control from the teacher, rather than what would happen when students design their own projects – which is that the brightest students monopolise the discussion of the design and leave the others feeling disempowered and less able.

    So, continue on that road. It’s a good one to follow.

    • You’re right – edmodo certainly is giving my students more control in their learning process. And I don’t for one minute doubt the positive influence that PBL is having on my students’ sense of engagement with the learning process – they’re planning, reflecting, editing, giving each other feedback, working in teams … it’s pretty neat.
      You know I had forgotten a little about that syllabus thing, haha – there is always going to be some measure of teacher control in terms of the implementing a syllabus and assessing whether outcomes have been covered etc. This is the teacher’s ‘expertise’ and PBL encourages the seeking of experts to support learning as well as the developing of expertise in students.
      Thanks heaps for your comment!

  3. Bianca
    I could copy & paste some mindless (un)inspirational from Leonardo DiVinci about failure but I know as much as you that won’t help you and makes me look like a nooff.

    What I can tell you from my many errors is:

    1. this road is much longer than we think (this is why so many refuse to even step foot on the road).
    2. no one is perfect & until we acknowledge that we never can be (becareful of those who claim to be)
    3. being a reflective practitioner means giving honest feedback to ourselves, exposing us to who we realy are and demands we take responsibility for who we are (a challange much easier avoided)

    so walk on…

    • Point One Ben is perfectly written….so many will never consider stepping foot on it, while others will stand at the edge claiming it cannot be done….some watch others cross before deciding to do so themselves, others take their peers by the hand and cross together…., personally i am for the latter, a shared journey of discovery. Wish my room was big enough for a wishing well Bianca!

    • I know you’re right … I really do. But it is so hard to think this way when you’re trying something new in your classroom and feel the pressure to go with the ‘known’ – make sense? No one wants to get so far with something, having put hours and hours into planning, having convinced your students to trust you, only to discover that the results aren’t what you had hoped. Not saying AT ALL that this is my experience with PBL at this stage, it really is doing what I had hoped it would – it’s got my kids ‘doing with understanding’.
      My mantra has always been that you can never ‘be’ a teacher … you’re always ‘becoming’ a teacher.
      At the moment it is all so experimental for me even though I know that it isn’t still at that stage in many schools. Technology has played a part in my PBL, but such a small part … I dunno. Maybe it’s not small, maybe it’s just not ‘central’ and that’s the biggest surprise!

  4. I’m in much the same place facing the School Certificate. The electives in HSIE that aren’t subjected to an external assessment, like Commerce, allow for a lot more freedom.

    My students are also using edmodo as the “hub for their projects”, and I too am challenged by questions like “Do you let your students plan these projects?” I’d answer, yes some of the time. It’s more of a negotiation and it’s at an early stage.

    My students look at outcomes, increasingly. Sometimes we discuss them. If I’m posting a Laptop Wrap that I’ve built, on edmodo, then I list the outcomes within it. This is often a point for opening discussions.

    I usually suggest the type of product that I’m expecting but I’m open to negotiation and that often happens. Just today, as an example, some of my students were presenting short case studies on the UDHR. I’d suggested that a page would be appropriate. In my mind this was more of a guideline as to how much I wanted them to put into it. One student posted a PowerPoint. When it came time to present the work, some students pulled her up saying that I’d specified a page of writing. This gave me an opportunity to introduce the idea of the page being an indicator.

    So it’s an ongoing conversation.

    • Great to hear that you’re using edmodo in a way that facilitates your PBL-style classroom – it makes sense, huh?

      That’s awesome that you’re having your students look at outcomes … I wonder if they’re more student-friendly than the English outcomes … ours are shocking! I find that they have been written in such a way that impedes meaning. Such a shame!

      I think the idea of the interplay between the teacher and the students – you know, a really open discussion about the project right before it begins – is great. That’s where I’m planning on heading … maybe next term? I think you really need a couple of terms just to get them to ‘unlearn’ the passive learning style they’re used to.

  5. Hi Bianca,
    I have have gained so much inspiration from your blogs and video conference last week. I found it so refreshing and inspiring to watch someone so honest and comfortable in their self let us into their world of teaching and learning. I admire all of your bravery actually, to be so self-reflective and honest. I want to implement a project based learning approach with my year 7 and year 8 classes, and have gained so much from seeing how you have done this is your class room. I think that student voice is already throughout your classes, through their task choices, goal setting etc on Edmodo, just not in a formal reflective way, as it was with Project REAL. However’s Neil’s right in that the power of student voice arose in our faculty as a result of a REAL NEED for it to be heard! Our faculty needed a major shift from being outdated, text book driven and authoritarian model, to engaging in a student centred digital age. I came on board as I too was disengaged with this way of teaching and learning. so, I guess what Im trying to say is that I admire your journey, and appreciate that you are sharing it with the rest of us!

    • Thank Hollie – that’s really sweet! It really does surprise me when I hear that people are reading my blog and getting some kind of inspiration for their own classroom – it’s really such a cool feeling. Teaching is such a hard profession and full of critics from all angles – kinda like being a new mum when everyone you meet seems to have their ideas on how to be a good mum!
      I am really stoked to hear that you’re planning to do PBL with Yr 7&8 – I think they’re the best group to target because you really help them to reshape the way they learn (or more importantly how they see themselves as learners in relation to ‘school’) … shame the kids don’t get laptops in Year 7!
      It’s so brave of you to undertake such a big task – PBL is massive and hard to implement. That doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing and really worth it!
      Good luck … hope we can keep in touch. You’re kind words make me want to blog more frequently in the hope that my future posts help you or others thinking about challenging the education status quo.

  6. Hi Bianca

    When you recall some of the ways that your students must have shifted their perception of what a learning environment and activity should and could look like; from last century to this, as a result of your human disruption and scaffolding; then you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself. Yet, as the beautiful picture you have included shows: this is often one of the more difficult tracts of the long trip Ben has alluded too..and where the ‘imposter syndrome’ can turn our reflective mirrors a little concave. Listen to those voices, and thanks for the passion you model for all of us.

  7. Faux? I don’t think so. You have to remember that the kids are learning about this as much as you – and probably going to other classes which are quite different. Courage and confidence come with mastery. All PBL is adapted in my experience, and it’s pretty clear that you’ve got layers of differentiation going on that makes a real difference to kids well-being. Over time, you can include them, they can design their own assessments – but you’ll probably find they are already – they will be pulling their work apart and re-making it, asking questions and getting frustrated. The fact they are not writing 7/10 on it has no relevance to assessment – unless you’re one of those people who get hung up on how many band 6s you churn out.

    I guess the real question is, do you listen to the voices and go back to doing what ever it was before, and would that make them go away. I think you’ve done an amazing job here. The question what is everyone else doing that’s better?

    Make sure you seek out Suzie and Jane at ISTE … check out the Birds of a Feather sessions around PBL. The thing is, you’ve got a system thats working for you and going well with it. You own it, get to shape it – and that’s far braver that most of the sheeple who stand up the front everyday talking.

    I figure, if in doubt take the braver option. Being different, isn’t less.

    • You’re so right Dean – I always forget that there are other teachers, classes, learning experiences for the students before and after mine. It must be so weird for them. I might be making it hard for the other teachers … luckily I haven’t had any complaints from teachers or parents!

      Mastery … I dunno if I’ll get there – I am determined to get better at this crazy thing I’m doing that sometimes is called teaching … haha!

      I do actually ‘write’ 7/10 on student work … is that a bad thing? This is on the products that students complete throughout the project … I’m finding that quite motivating for my students … but in regards to classwork, habits of mind etc – all of that is recognised with team points … they love this too!

      Birds of a Feather sessions … can I get a link to that? I will be searching for Suzie and Jane most definitely … might not return from the US. *jokes*

      Ta again for your inspiration … gee the road is long … hope you’re proud of me!

  8. I think Dean has hit the nail on the head with: “You have to remember that the kids are learning about this as much as you – and probably going to other classes which are quite different… it’s pretty clear that you’ve got layers of differentiation going on that makes a real difference to kids well-being.”

    I would add to this, that the fact you are prepared to question the validity of what you have been doing, implies that you are ready to reflect, listen to the voices and adapt your work accordingly. This is a natural process – you can’t expect for it to be perfect from beginning to end because you can’t expect it to ever be perfect. You could have taken the approach you seem to aspire to, which is for the students to lead each and every stage of their learning. However, you may find yourself equally as distraught; questioning weather their learning, without more input from yourself, is rigorous enough or if they are learning all that you want them to.

    The fact is that your students have been getting a fabulous and engaging learning experience and that you have the opportunity to improve on that with your next group of students, and so on and so on. This is how we all become better learners/educators.

    • Hello stranger :0) I didn’t know you read my blog! Or did the title just grab your attention? Gee it seems like years ago we were chatting about revitalising my school’s bookroom – it still hasn’t happened which really is a shame … literature circles are still going strong at my school though! And overall kids are reading a LOT more than what they have in the past!

      Thanks for your comment, it is so cool to have you say those things about my teaching … I think teaching is really one of those professions where what we do can be so ‘hidden’ from the world … it’s nice to share with people what I’m doing and what I;m thinking!

      The most stressful thing is the fear that I might ultimately be disadvantaging my students in regards to uni admissions etc … but them I remember that uni is so much harder if you’re not an independent and reflective learner … hmmm.

      Do you build student/teacher evaluation into your programs?

      SO good to hear from you … made my day!! :0)

  9. Hi, I too suffer from anxiety. I know what you mean every single word and I’ve had the same questions from myself to myself as currently we are still struggling with the ‘factory model students do need to ‘learn to learn’’. I wish my colleagues were challenging themselves and my ideas with questions like that. Instead a quiet classroom and copy and complete is top practice.

    • That question doesn’t come from a colleague in the traditional sense, Troy. I think my colleagues aren’t quite ready for PBL … maybe they’re not even interested in it. I think elements of it are seeping into the more traditional classrooms – the novel matrix (student voice), classroom furniture arranged in bunches, more creative assessment tasks … I freak out every day that it’s all a waste of time and I’m leading us all astray … can only try though and turn back if the shit hits the fan, huh?

  10. Hi Bianca,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to come out and visit our school today. I really do apologize for being under the weather 😦 – I’m going to take tomorrow off!

    Hope to continue to share ideas with you – and am sure that you’re doing amazing PBL things. Also hope that research masters is what you’re looking for and would be very happy to trade papers and further ideas down the track.


    • Hi Michael :0)

      It was SUCH a pleasure to visit your school and see what you’re doing! I LOVE the idea of a MAXI classroom and hope to implement something similar in my school very soon. I have just been given a day with 10 other staff to really ‘shake things up’ when it comes to using the laptops … I’ll be dipping into your bag of tricks for inspiration!

      So excited about keeping in touch … most definitely interested in swapping readings etc for the masters!

  11. I just want to say a big congrats to you Bianca for putting yourself consistently ‘out there’ in terms of opening up your classroom practice and your mind to the world. As you can see from all the comments you’ve had, you ARE making a difference, not only in your own classroom but in the classrooms of all of us who read your blog. For me you are a pioneer in making classrooms better and, as an English teacher myself, I couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgable, sharing and open “mentor” in re-shaping my practice as a teacher.
    In the end the important point is not whether you are giving students ENOUGH say in PBL, just giving them SOME say in their education is undoubtedly much more than they are getting elsewhere in their academic lives and, I daresay, in other parts of their lives too. How much say will always be dependent on many factors such as assessment pressures, their age, ability,etc. but that they have a teacher who ‘works with them’ in their learning rather than ‘doing to them’ is the essential quality that you bring to your students: it is what they will remember you for many years down the track… I only wish I were as far down that pioneering path as you. I, I fear, am one of those standing with one foot ready to step onto the path but just waiting for something (what???) before I make those first steps.

    • Wow … thanks so much for your kind words :0) I hope my students remember me for the work I put in, haha – but mostly they’ll just remember me for being silly in the classroom 😛

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  14. Hi Bianca,

    I am a creator of learning experiences. Or more specifically, a pre-service Primary teacher, current VET trainer and I’m also implementing a PBL project with some adult learners in my Toastmasters club later this year.

    As someone who has driven a lot of experimentation and change, here is what I’ve learnt: it makes you emotionally vulnerable! When you care, when you put in the time and effort, and when you’re uncertain because it’s new, it can be hard going.

    I was actually in the unfortunate position where my inner critic throughout a lot of the adult learning experiences I’ve created over the last year took a backseat to another critic who doesn’t ‘get’ learning (thinks that talking at people is training), who relentlessly criticised everything I did. So I completely get where you’re coming from with this blog post, and I think you’re amazing 🙂

    Unfortunately, part of being reflective is going through hard times like this, but it always helps us grow (Dontcha just hate that?) THANK YOU for having the bravery to share this. I have been reading through your posts and you’re an absolute inspiration to me.


    • Awww! Thanks so much, Kat! I’m so pleased to hear that you’re working on PBL in your training! I bet it’s awesome, but there’s inevitable difficulties and doubts. It’s hardest to convince others that it’s a worthwhile, effective approach. Change is just painful for many, hey? Thanks heaps for your kind words. After years of doing PBL, I’ve seen it have a massive impact on my learners. Keep at it!

      • you know what.? never justify yourself, youre the expert not the student. student expects us to give direction so….

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