Trend alert: Project-Based Learning! Who knew?

It wasn’t until Tuesday this week that I realised how trendy PBL is. Someone I follow retweeted a tweet that went something like this ‘when are people going to realise flipping and PBL are not going to revolutionise education’. The tweet freaked me out. I was like, ‘What? The flipped classroom is soo trendy and totes hype, but PBL too? How can this be?’ My surprise stems from my own experience as a classroom teacher in a public school. I hear talk of PBL in my staffroom because almost two years ago Dean Groom came and presented PBL to our faculty. I picked it up straight away and started playing, dipping my toes in, trying my hand at it and all that. Late last year my HT decided he wanted to give it a go too and this year a couple of other teachers are experimenting with PBL as well. But we are not a representative sample. No, not at all. Yes, people have tweeted occasionally about trying PBL and I know that Parramatta Marist has been doing some form of PBL for quite a few years now. But it’s still one tiny, tiny handful of Australian teachers giving it a go.

Or so I thought.

It seems that there has been a tidal wave of PBL enthusiasm (aka ‘hype’) that I have failed to see as a unified ‘movement’. When I was researching for my draft research proposal into PBL and the English classroom last year, I found there weren’t really that many published studies into Project-Based Learning. It seemed like a young field of inquiry. I know PBL is big in some parts of the US and a form of PBL (more problem-based than project-based) is very successful in Singapore. I also know PBL isn’t anything fancy or particularly new. What I didn’t notice was the sharp increase in interest in this approach to education … I certainly wouldn’t have equated it with the ‘flipped classroom’ in terms of its centrality in the eyes of edugeeks.

This afternoon I read a post by Dean Groom about the difficulty of ‘making a PBL teacher‘. It’s a great post, worthy of a read. But you need to know the context of Dean’s post, lest you get put off from trying PBL as a solo teacher. I am a solo PBL teacher with no whole-school support for this style of teaching. That’s not to say they don’t support me, I just mean to say that I’m not teaching at a ‘PBL School’. It is entirely possible to reshape your pedagogy as an individual and be very successful; I feel that I am. What does become problematic is that PBL inspires you to see education in an entirely new light. Once you go PBL, you never go back. You can’t. That can be scary because you start looking at your school and your colleagues in a new way. Not in a judging way, but in a ‘look at all this untapped potential’ kinda way. PBL can make you a frustrated teacher because you begin to see the possibility of what education could look like if all young people were engaged in authentic, meaningful, challenging, inquiry-based, passion-driven learning. The truth is, the world would be a better place. Young people would be much happier.

As part of the twitter conversation about Dean’s post, I realised how many people have been following my PBL journey/adventure/experiments. (Pssst – thanks!) And even more surprising was the number of teachers who had decided to give PBL a go. And a silly tweet about the difficulty of PBL for the solo-teacher (by me) may have set off a change of thoughts, concerns, anxieties, apprehensions in these teachers who trust me. If you trust me, trust me now when I say this: Project-Based Learning is trending because it is powerful and it is important.

Here’s a few examples of this trendy powerful pedagogy making waves on the web:

#PBLchat is a weekly twitter chat started by the New Tech Network

New Tech Network is a collection of public high schools that use PBL and technology to make learning great. One day I’m going to start a public high school like the New Tech High schools. Just saying.

Buck Institute for Education (BIE) – an oldie, but a goodie. The original PBL gurus – still celebrating authentic, project learning.

This year BIE are holding their first ever PBL conference called PBL World. I hope to attend one or two of the days in Napa, CA in July. The interest in this conference has been huge.

BIE also has a PBL edmodo community that has over 3000 members – does that indicate a ‘trend’? I think so.

Edutopia – another oldie but still so amazingly new. Loving the blog posts of Suzie Boss on PBL. Really excited to see the addition of Andrew Miller to the team, his blog posts are inspiring.

So it looks like PBL probably is starting to ‘trend’ a bit more than usual. How cool is that? I guess there are some things teachers keen to give PBL a go do need to keep in mind:

– your first project will be so painful to plan that you may want to ditch it before even beginning

– writing a Driving Question is like pulling teeth

– your students will think you have gone made and the ‘bright’ kids will resent it

– you will need to maintain a pretty strict routine of goal-setting and learning reflections for your students

– you will need to smile and laugh and help and shrug your shoulders and ask questions and not give answers

– your second project will be a little bit better

– creating product/presentation rubrics is worse than writing a driving question but equally as important

– don’t give grades; better to give ‘points’ and ‘badges’ or ‘level-ups’ for mastery of content, skills and habits of mind

– your third project will see you giving your students a choice of products, audience and teams

If you wanna see how some Aussie punks are doing PBL, you might wanna sign-up to the PBL course being run by me and mad-man Dean Groom towards the end of April. Add a comment below to register your interest. No time wasters, just people keen to ‘do’ and mess with education as you know it.

trendy, trendy, trendy

I’ve never been trendy: think I’m gonna have to get me a bowl-cut, some horn-rimmed glasses and a Fleet Foxes album. Woot.


18 thoughts on “Trend alert: Project-Based Learning! Who knew?

  1. Enjoyed reading your reflections. Any other details re PBL course? Dates? cost? Venue? I would be interested, depending on dates. I registered for the Marist Brothers one, however forgot about #teachmeet north. Would be great to experience a hands on course.

    • I’m the same – forgot about #teachmeet North. Think I should go to TM instead of the Marist gig cos it’s just a talk BUT wanna meet the New Tech peeps. They are very nice people.
      Looks like our course will be in Lewisham, not sure of cost yet and probably last weekend of the school holidays. Will be entirely hands on with online and f2f component. Small time investment and commitment to project also. Will keep you posted!

  2. Eeek, I’m maybe reacting to the number of requests and then PBL chats I’ve had with schools. New Tech Foundation isn’t a charity. It’s a very wealthy business, and shares almost nothing. New Tech High was funded by Microsoft money and has a backstory which I won’t go into. New Tech High is a program, with propitiatory resources and software (it’s good stuff), but it’s expensive. Do they know their stuff? Absolutely. In addition, there are numerous times I’ve talked about PBL to leadership teams. More often than not the response by the principal is “we are doing that”, to which I bite my tongue. They are either delusional or just decided to waste my time. I’m there because I believe it works – I’ve seen it work. What I passionately believe is that it is the basis for an entirely online high school, for kids who are subjected to these peoples ‘were doing it’ views – who clearly are not – but love to fell like they have a Joan of Arc job role.

    Single teachers can make an epic difference, but as you say tend and hype suit the agenda of some, but have no impact on the majority who don’t even hear it. Look @me is still the dominent use of Twitter (I shamelessly do it to promote Massively Minecraft) – but guess what – we have no money and the game is founded on PBL ideas, lifted into game, not educational culture and it works. That won’t matter though, there is always someone who says ‘we’re doing that’.

    PBL works in schools, but it’s a big job as I wrote. It works in solo-classrooms as long as the teacher is gifted (you). Where I think it works even better is online, in virtual schools yet to be created, as they don’t suffer the legacy of a hundred years of sandstone-wall building.

    PBL, Gamification, Flipped Classroom: all fictions, mostly discussed by people who don’t teach but consult – and even worse report on with little more critical thought or objectivity than a weekly-trash mag.

    I love to show teachers PBL and from that how to use games … but it takes courage. The back story to Parra Marist is that it was Brother Pat who made it happen. He saw it on a sabbatical and thought it ‘might work’ – he too a massive risk – and when he did, he fought tooth and nail to get it working. He was single minded and willing to ‘tank’ the ‘were doing that’ pundits, and in the early days of set up, it was half a dozen teachers making it work and adapting it under some serious passive resistance. Brother Pat made PBL work, not New Tech High or any software. That is tank leadership, as Brother Pat is all about getting things done, with a hammer if needed. Taking hits and tanking for what you believe ‘might’ work – not defending what you have is perhaps the leadership element of successful PBL. In all cases where I see amazing schools using games or PBL, I see someone who’s not theoretica, but hands on digging to get things working better – they never stop, nor see the need to hold vast meetings to debate what others have to to do.

    PBL and GBL have nothing more to prove – they work, people know it works – the fact they don’t know how to implement and maintain a team that can says more about problems in management than the classroom. Sorry for the long back-story, but putting leadership courage into the picture is important – and I think Brother Pat’s story is one often not told – as would be his way.

    • Thanks for the epic comment, Dean.
      OK, so there’s a few things I want to reply to, but the first one is the obvious.
      New Tech Network.
      It says on their website that they are a ‘non-profit’ organisation and that they establish ‘public high schools’. How can this be so misleading? I don’t understand how they make money, an a lot from what you indicate, when they claim to be not for profit? I thought the ethos of non-profit was that the money you made went back into the social venture you have created. These guys are profiting from ‘selling’ PBL to schools and running courses and things? I’m fine with people making money from something they feel passionate about, as long as it is not a product or service that hinders the freedom or well-being of others. I’m fine with New Tech Network making money from selling PBL to schools, if that’s outlined
      clearly on their webpage. Otherwise I feel a bit cheated.
      To be honest I don’t want to see schools with a ‘New Tech’ brand on them – or any other brand on them. I want to see teachers thinking differently about education and giving PBL type learning a go to see how it may impacts their school community (parents, kids, teacher-types) and the local community. I don’t want a production-line of PBL schools. How gross! When I said I wanna build a public school like New Tech schools, I meant I wanna build a non-traditional school where project-learning is the norm and there are no bells, no timetables, no subjects, no teachers, no students, no uniform, no committees, no red tape. maybe I shoulda said that in the post 😛 I also love the story of Brother Pat (I have my own Brother Pat at mys school but with no power and no money he has become disillusioned.)
      OK, one more thing – you wanna make an online school using the principals of PBL/GBL? I see the Massively experiment and it is rich with possibilities – my favourite being the omission of a divide between adult and child. There are no categories in your ‘school’. I love this. I would argue, however, that the face to face stuff is essential to a community. Because for me, that’s what a school is. It’s a place we all love to be and we come together with the sole purpose of learning together to enrich ourselves and the world. Yup, I’m a massive hippy who pretends to be a punk – cos really I’m not either, I’m a DIYer.
      Thanks for your comment – I’m going to go and tweet New Tech peeps and get the full story about their non-profit status. Ta.


  3. Thanks Bianca for your great post on PBL. I especially appreciate the “keep in mind” section. I am a new primary school teacher and one reason I chose primary is so that I can use PBL and integrate all strands in an authentic way. I also know that PBL is a huge workload and there is no way I can do everything right the first time (or second or third), so I’ll be taking small bites each year to implement projects in my classroom, in the hope that each year I will improve. Any advice on the first few bites to take would be much appreciated, I’m still delving into all the info on BIE and Edutopia and getting my mind around the concept and it’s applications. I love the direction education is heading, the snowball is getting bigger (unless global warming gets in the way ;-).

    • Hi Steve 🙂

      I appreciate you taking the time to add a comment to this post! It is so exciting to hear of new teachers trying out PBL – I really do think the experience will continue to inform your practice in years to come! I am yet to experience a cross-curricula project but really hope to run one soon – I think primary school is PERFECT for PBL because it is a much more natural way of learning … bringing it all together!
      Please keep me posted on how you’re going – maybe you could write a guest post for my blog about your first project when you give PBL a go?! 🙂

  4. What a great post, Bianca. I have been looking at ways of implementing PBL in my own classroom in response to the ‘hype’ that I’ve been reading – I check out Edutopia regularly! I think that your summary of the stages of PBL is wonderfully accurate. I can see the value of PBL in the classroom, allowing students to discover, develop and refine the skills they will need later on. The biggest stumbling block I have come across is how to develop PBL within certain areas of English – Shakespeare, for example. I know this is due to my newbie teacher status, but still, I think there are so many questions to ask!!! Would love to see more PBL in action so that I could get a better understanding of it. There will certainly be a lot of trial and error with anything new and different in the classroom, we just have to make the time to figure out what works best! I would love any advice you could give, very interested in your course!

    • Hey Maddie :o)

      Thanks for your comment – PBL really is buzzing at the moment, as it should be! Yes, you’re right about English being a tough on to implement PBL but I have found it rich with possibilities, just got to think outside of the box a little. Last year I did Macbeth using a PBL/GBL style and it was really fun – I’m looking forward to doing it again with Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Reading the play becomes a bit of a precursor to the project – make it clear that knowledge of the text is assumed knowledge (‘need to know’) before the project gets under way and spend a couple of weeks doing a close read with some fun activities worked in – all part of the project outline.
      If you want to see what i did with Macbeth, just search ‘Macbeth’ in the search bar at the top of this page – good luck!

    • Hi Mary!

      How exciting – I really, really want to try cross-curricula PBL. One day soon, I hope! No going back now – keep me posted on your projects, would love to know how you brought English and Biology together :o)

  5. Pingback: PBL Wrap-Up | Chemistry Chris

  6. How do you do it?!?

    “What does become problematic is that PBL inspires you to see education in an entirely new light. Once you go PBL, you never go back. You can’t. That can be scary because you start looking at your school and your colleagues in a new way. Not in a judging way, but in a ‘look at all this untapped potential’ kinda way. PBL can make you a frustrated teacher because you begin to see the possibility of what education could look like if all young people were engaged in authentic, meaningful, challenging, inquiry-based, passion-driven learning. The truth is, the world would be a better place. Young people would be much happier.”

    That’s me. Right there. Only you’re more eloquent!

    Thanks for the inspiration, and the back-up. Knowing that someone else on the other side of the world is able to do this in her classroom is sometimes what I need to keep doing it in mine.

  7. Hey Bianca,
    Thanks for all your posts about PBL! I’ve enjoyed following your journey (I think I came in somewhere around the beginning of the Macbeth unit and have been following ever since!). At our school, we’re currently piloting a cross-curricular PBL program with a year 7 class – English, History, Textiles and Maths all looking at the same driving questions – “To what extent has Ancient Greek Society influenced the modern western world?”. My classroom is noisy, busy, kids are talking about TV advertisements they saw that referenced Ancient Greek stuff or how the Percy Jackson series is straight out Ancient Greek mythology whilst they work on their group projects. They are blogging about their experiences and genuinely having fun. I’m not convinced that I’m executing it particularly well, and I’ve already made tonnes of mistakes (I think especially with scaffolding) but I have a long list of refinements that I’m working on for next year and I’m really enjoying being in my year 7 class.

    Another teacher in my staffroom and I are planning to create a Macbeth PBL unit for year 10 next term. We’re excited about it. Thanks for writing about your experiences and for linking to all those PBL sites.


  8. Pingback: Project Based Learning: share your story with us … | Bianca Hewes

  9. Hey Bianca,
    Great Blog post. I was really wondering how it all works. Do you have a chat night for PBL or is there only a US one? I think it’s fantastic. I would love to learn more. Enjoyed reading everyone’s comments too. So inspiring.

  10. Steve, Bianca,
    I am also starting a grad dip in primary school teaching for similar reasons. I have used project based learning at home since my daughters were very young. I have seen them blossom and would love to use it on a larger scale.

  11. Pingback: Trend alert: Project-Based Learning! Who knew? | Bianca Hewes | 21st Century skills of critical and creative thinking |

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