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Project Based Learning in Action

6 questions (and answers!) to ask before moving to PBL

How you prepare for your jump into project-based learning (PBL) depends on who you are

Don’t jump into project-based learning (PBL) too quickly. But at some point you’ve got to just jump. Does that sound like conflicting advice? Let me explain.

Some teachers jump on the PBL bandwagon—and these days it’s a loud, expanding bandwagon—because they’ve read persuasive articles, seen cool videos, heard inspiring presentations, or been swept up by enthusiastic colleagues. To these folks I’d say, don’t try PBL until you’ve done a bit more reading, gotten some training, or planned your jump with colleagues.

Pulling off a successful project is not easy for most teachers new to the methodology, except for a few “naturals,” so launching your first one without proper preparation is risky. A project that fails epically might permanently scare off teachers and scar students, who would remember that time they wasted two weeks floundering in class, when their group let them down and they worked late putting together that embarrassing presentation or building that stupid diorama, but what did they really learn?

Who are you?
How you prepare for your jump into PBL depends on who you are. If you’re considering PBL, you’re probably an “early adopter,” as explained in diffusion of innovation theory. (If you’re an “innovator” you’re probably not reading this article because you’ve already been doing PBL. If you’re in the “early majority” you might be reading this article but might prefer to wait for the early adopters in your school to show you that PBL works and how to do it. I assume people in the “late majority” or “laggard” end of the scale are not reading this either.)

Here are some questions to consider about yourself as an early adopter, or bold member of the early majority:

1. Are you comfortable with being the kind of teacher PBL requires?

You have to be willing to take a risk. In a project-based environment, you need to let go of some control and trust in your students. You don’t know the answer to the project’s driving question, so you have to be open to learning alongside students, hearing their voices, and letting them make their own choices.

2. Are you already familiar with some aspects of PBL teaching?

You’ll be more prepared for PBL if you have used inquiry in your classroom—for example, by framing a unit with a driving question or asking students to do research assignments on topics of their choice—and know how to coach students to ask questions and dig for answers. Same goes for managing group work or facilitating student presentations. (See this post and this post for more on incorporating features of PBL into your “regular” teaching.)

Where are you?
Preparing for PBL also depends on where you are. If you’re alone in “hostile environment,” it’s very different compared to how it would be if your whole school or district is starting a PBL initiative.

Here are some questions to consider about where you teach:

3. Are you the only one at your school who’s interested in PBL?

If you’re on your own, I’d suggest reading a book or two about PBL, attending a workshop, and/or going online to find project examples and guidance. Then decide if you want to keep it on the down-low and implement a project without making a big announcement, or if you need to clear it with your department head or principal.

4. Are some colleagues exploring PBL with you?

This is a much better situation. You can do all of the above together to lighten the load, as well as plan projects you can share and give each other feedback about.

5. How supportive are your colleagues and school principal?

What’s your school culture like? If some teachers are using PBL and others are not, will that cause tension? If students in your classroom are a little noisy sometimes, not sitting in desks in neat rows, or venturing off campus, will that be an issue? Is your principal willing to let you take a risk and deviate from the curriculum, pacing guide, and textbook? Talk with colleagues and the principal if need be.

6. Are the conditions in your school or district PBL-friendly?

Ditto all of the comments above about culture, but also: If you’re in a middle or high school, do you have a bell schedule with seven 50-minute periods a day? PBL works better with longer, more flexible blocks of time. Is planning time available during the week and school year, and is it collaborative? Does the assessment and grading system allow for PBL or put barriers on it? Not that you can’t do PBL without perfect conditions, but you’ll need to plan your projects accordingly.

Now, about that “just jump” part…
Sometimes I hear this from teachers: “I attended a workshop/read a book/went online for support, and designed a project I thought was OK… and still didn’t implement it.” So what happened? Sometimes it’s because the school/district conditions made it too difficult. Or the teacher needed just a bit more support. But often, it’s because the teacher got cold feet, couldn’t pull the trigger, went weak in the knees, pick your metaphor… and couldn’t make the jump.

I know that, as teachers, you feel an enormous sense of responsibility to your students and don’t want to do them a disservice. But I’d encourage you to take the risk and launch that project! At some point you’ve just got to try it and see what happens. Chances are it will work well enough—and be a welcome contrast to less engaging, less effective traditional teaching—to convince you and your students that PBL is well worth pursuing.

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