In defence of PBL …

Over the last month or so, I’ve felt increasingly like I’m on the defensive when it comes to project-based learning. I guess the fact that it is starting to become more well-known and teachers outside of the online clique are starting to get interested is turning some people off. No one wants to get caught out supporting a ‘hip’ edu fad, right?

But I’m stoked that it’s coming to the attention of more teachers, and even better that it’s coming to the attention of teachers not in the ‘clique’ of online edtech peeps. That means it’s actually going to move from being something people talk about to each other in online spaces, to something that real, working teachers actually do in their classrooms. I am just one parent who has already seen the change that PBL can make to her child’s learning and attitude towards school. Why would anyone want to bag out a pedagogy that has this effect?

So what are some of these criticisms I’m hearing? The two main ones seem to be about the level of control the teacher has over the direction of the project and the depth of inquiry that is facilitated. I guess they are legitimate concerns, but as I have said in a recent post, and as I will continue to say in many more posts I am sure, PBL is just one approach amongst many that is encouraging teachers to look at their role a little bit differently. If doing a ‘project’ means that a student is freed up from a few dozen worksheets and a few hours staring into space whilst the teacher talks, well it can’t be all bad, can it?

Having been in the classroom now for nearly eight years (and actually using a project-learning approach to teach English for nearly three of those years) I think I have a place in saying that PBL really can transform how a teacher sees her role in the classroom. It can transform how she approaches learning, how she views her students and how she designs learning experiences. Yeah, they may not meet the ‘ideals’ set by so called ‘experts’ who speak from outside of the classroom (i.e. they are not in front of 20-30 teenagers for 50 minutes, up to 6 times a day) but so what? Sometimes the standards and the ideals need to come from within the four walls of learning – the classroom – and not from people outside.

So my defence of PBL is not eloquent, nor is it backed up with research (not yet anyway, but neither are the ‘expert’ arguments from what I’ve seen) but it is honest and supported with almost three years of classroom experience. If it wasn’t for PBL, I wouldn’t be a teacher today. I would have quit in a rage of paper worksheets and pre-planned lessons. Yes, there are some ways to go when it comes to every project that is implemented into every classroom … but then that’s progress and that’s learning, right?

I truly believe that project-learning has helped my students to develop thinking habits and organisational skills they wouldn’t have had the chance to in a ‘normal’ classroom. I think it’s brought them into contact with amazing people from outside of their traditional learning environment. It certainly has pushed them to create amazing new texts and work with peers who they would normally ignore or avoid.

I can’t fault the ‘eight essential elements of PBL’ that are outlined by the Buck Institute for Education or the whole range of amazing resources shared by them on their website (super useful and important for teachers starting out, but definitely requiring modifying to meet the needs of your students)!

No, PBL isn’t the only model of learning that encourages and supports students to learn in new ways, but it is one that is VERY accessible to the real classroom teacher. It is a model that makes teaching enjoyable … it’s one that I’ve had heaps of success with and I’ve tried heaps of different approached with my classes over the years. I just don’t understand why people would go around smashing PBL down because it doesn’t meet their criteria of excellence, or even suggesting that one ‘model’ or PBL is superior to another. I hope in the next ten years there is more research into PBL – especially in Australia – I guess then we can all start taking a superior tone and denigrating PBL as an inferior model of learning. Peace.


7 thoughts on “In defence of PBL …

  1. I’m getting ready to leave for school, so II’ll be brief.

    All that you’ve written rings true for me and parallels my own experience. More opportunities for one to one teaching is a prominent benefit of PBL, in that experience. PBL also facilitates differentiation and encourages students to take greater responsibility for their own learning. It certainly lifts the entire process out of a transmission based pedagogy towards constructionism and connectivism, and permits the development of a flipped classroom approach, as well.

    It helps if several colleagues are also attempting PBL. In a 1:1 high school setting it also helps if colleagues are doing more than using laptops as electronic notebooks and attempting to develop digital literacies.

    A word on worksheets.
    It seems they work if the subsequent tests are based largely on the worksheets. I’m sceptical about their effectiveness as a day to day strategy in education. My own view is that they are at a quite a low order in developing deep knowledge but can be useful in specific drills and in some skill development. What I’ve been doing is using them in a digital form at the stage of concept development in a project. I do this using Edmodo and Hot Potatoes. Beyond this they have little purpose in digital PBL.

  2. At first I felt a little sad that you may have been ‘attacked’ over your persausive promotion of alternative ways to develop knowledge and understanding, but reading the whole post made me think a lot about some of my failed attempts to engage others in PBL…I would never attack another teacher for their methods, particularly as the push and pull presures of external examinations might be evidence that their methods ‘work’, however, what gives those same teachers the right to attack someone who tries the PBL method?

  3. Pingback: In defence of PBL … | | Problem-based learning |

  4. Great post, Bianca. Recently, have had some similar chats with classroom teachers, others in same role as mine in ‘leader of pedagogy’, and an external school consultant… All with similar thoughts. If we are to be responsive to our students, and promote inquiry and real world learning opportunities, if we are to engage our students in a meaningful manner, develop their communication and creativity and collaboration skills, there is no ‘one right way’. Because kids are at different levels of learning and readiness, teachers too. Even with pbl as a term, there is no ‘one right way’, but essential elements exist in terms of student ownership, etc…. And as educators, we need to develop the confidence in ourselves to modify our approaches to suit the needs of students, and topics, and yes, curriculum. Sometimes it will be ink with a bit of design thinking mixed in, sometimes, UbD with a bit of pbl, in a sense. But like you, I abhor the idea of teachers using pbl being made to feel their practice is inadequate. Anyone taking such a departure from ‘traditional’ teaching is already on a journey to improve learning for themselves and their students… And it’s an evolutionary process. The classroom is a complex place, and teachers need to be empowered to use research, then tailor their approaches to suit the students in their care. To me, pbl as a framework, not a prescriptive method, ticks all the boxes! Thank you!

  5. Pingback: PBL | Pearltrees

  6. I think you should take it as a genuine compliment that you have become a bit of lightning rod for PBL advocacy. If nobody saw your stuff, no one would care. So bully…

    The organic wave born of the effectiveness of PBL in meeting student learning needs is evidenced by a discovery we made in my district recently. Edmodo is being adopted informally in my district as we work out the policy wrinkles, and I set up a district Edmodo subdomain to casually herd cats into a professional relationship so we (a district librarian and I) could advise and support teachers where needed.

    We stopped paying close attention, and thought we might have some of our teachers get on board over time.

    Preparing for a district-level Edmodo policy meeting, we checked into our analytics to discover 115 teachers, more than 25% of our staff, had created or transferred their Edmodo accounts into our subdomain, with already many thousands of student visits per week! The uses of Edmodo are quite variable, but it’s clear that the need for PBL tools is calling teachers to find learning solutions without much encouragement at all.

    There is no single superior flavor of PBL or anything else, and the tools will keep evolving just as our kids are. As the academics argue over the efficacy of X, teachers will be experimenting with Y only to find that Z is the answer for today’s lesson.

    So hang in there, Bianca. We’re with ya!

  7. Pingback: In defence of PBL … | | AC Library News |

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