How do make a PBL teacher

I am often left wondering about how much real interest there is about project based learning. There is constant web-chatter around how out-moded Skinnerist approaches are in today’s classroom, how the tried and tested linear approach to classrooms (and learning spaces) cannot be shifted due to time and examination demands. This isn’t new, it’s not even interesting, but around we go almost daily. I think teacher get this, however teachers are not the issue, and for the most part not even consulted. The 0.01% on Twitter are not the vanguard, nor representative of ‘teachers’, something I like to remind myself of, as I certainly don’t think I’m representative nor do I represent.

I’ve seen PBL work in the classroom and online in Australia, and I know from experience how PBL-AU is very different from the American model and method, not least as the two systems are fundamentally different core designs with very different non-negotiable and negotiable facets. Making a PBL teacher is an investment in cultural acceptance, change to process, power structures, funding, classroom organisation and technology. It’s crazy to think you can go to a lecture, hear someone talk about PBL in emotional ways and not leave thinking differently.

The problem is that while PBL as an ethos, and even a model has abundant examples, template and frameworks to copy from, no single teacher can influence anything more than their classrooms without a massive shift in leadership and funding. It is a commitment of several years, not several months or even several powerpoints.

At the core is that PBL rejects much of how most people imagine learning and teaching to take place. It’s not an add, on or an alternative to tinker with, it’s a radical change.

It requires the re-development of whole-school policy, creating challenging curriculum and educational programs, new tools for identifying success and problems, new methods of assessment and entire new programs of work. Management need to define, agree and implement a new process for analyzing the data collected from student work, be assured analysis is accurate and be continually pro-active and prepared to modify learning patterns. Finally, after perhaps years, the school will have a chassis from which to tackle the needs of diverse learners (everyone is this) rather than dumb down the curriculum or seek ‘averaging’ methods or locking down technology. The G&T student learns along side those with Special Needs and the English teacher develops curriculum along side the Maths teacher and the curriculum people carry an actual, not a theoretical load.

It’s complex and takes system wide courage. So as people leave the lecture or go and download the BIE manual following an almost certainly impressive glimpse of PBL success, it would be very foolish to think this is a solution to a current set of perceived problems. A PBL teacher is made from many things, but it is not the person that makes it work, the teacher is only one part of the solution. The danger is that when the teacher takes on the whole, or doesn’t trust the system, PBL is very unstable and often individual teachers ‘burn out’ trying to maintain it.


8 thoughts on “How do make a PBL teacher

  1. Not many address the obvious about PBL, as was done here. And as mentioned, it’s difficult to establish as a single teacher the authentic atmosphere that is required to implement PBL in a public school that believes “what was good enough for me is just as good for them”, using direct instructional methods. I probably became one of those burned out teachers.

    Another point concerning PBL is that its all a matter of degree, in that, teachers have wide latitude at how much PBL happens in the classroom. From an occasional project that complements a unit of instruction, or to the degree that EdVisions, in Minn, USA, immerses students in a world of PBL (I have to visit them some day). Most of what I hear from BIE and fellow PBL chatter-heads falls on the lower end of the PBL spectrum – nothing like what you’re suggesting.

    As a methodology for learning, PBL is tops. Yet as you are suggesting, public schools, (US) are not aware of or willing to make the investment. Its used more as an educational condiment.

  2. As always yours is a voice that is compelling and can’t be ignored. As someone whose interest in PBL has been piqued, I agree with your assertion that there needs to be systemwide change to make it successful. Does this stop me from wanting to use PBL? No. I believe strongly in the need for change and any success in my classroom, I hope, will influence its adoption. Let’s keep talking about it , maybe the fact that it is being talked about will help to bring it about. Maybe I am just an optimist.

    • I am saying that systems can’t make PBL teachers and leave the pressure on teachers to maintain it. Any teacher can decide, as you say, to head in this direction – as long as they are prepared to do the hard yards – and often deal with the professional flack, suspicion and at times jealous culture as they get better at it. I cannot for the life of me see why people cling to the methods of BF Skinner, and yet whine on about Piaget. Just do it. PBL allows the model, and we are now at a point in time, where what Piaget in the non-tech classroom would have been hard – is not very easy. It’s a waste of time (to me) to debate this with people, as we’re not debating anything other than their belief. If they want to carry on dumping content, giving tests and coaching the exam – that’s fine, but why they believe they are more correct or the ones to decide is brain missing.

      • I can see why people cling to the old model: fear. Fear of learning to do something new, fear of giving up power, fear of…etc. it is funny that I was taught about Piaget & Vyogtsky at uni 10 years ago then was told, once I got into schools, to forget all that stuff they taught you at uni and do it this way, meaning the old way. So I know why people do it, but doesn’t mean I agree with them. And I certainly agree with you when you say there is no time like now to pursue a new model like PBL. Wish me luck as I head along the long, hard road…;-)

      • the PR says one thing, the reality is quite another. For me, creating things that kids can learn, away from power-mungers and bullying is worth my time. I don’t expect anyone to do the same, but let’s not use the Mary Poppins hypothesis that a spoon full of sugar will make the medicine go down. The problem is the sickness, not singing a jolly song to cover it up.

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  4. I can see what you’re getting at here. Certainly I agree with the point that whole school change takes years, about 7 years in fact, says the research.

    But the things you are saying about teachers taking up PBL are a bit of a downer bro. I mean, the ideas aren’t way off, but the way you put them is all a bit high modality, I think. Like: “no single teacher can influence anything more than their classrooms without a massive shift in leadership and funding.” How about something more along the lines of: single teachers find it hard to influence pedagogy beyond their own classrooms…etc”. You know? I don’t think that using PBL “requires the re-development of whole-school policy…”, though I’d agree that it works best when it’s part of a whole school approach.

    Individual teachers that are inclined to burn themselves out trying to implement PBL, imho, are the kind of teachers that are going to burn themselves out on SOMETHING, regardless. Where else do you suggest the energies of such teachers, disillusioned with the system and searching for new pedagogies, be spent?

    PBL strategies, such as giving students and authentic audience wfor their work, or grounding a unit in a ‘driving question’ are very easy ways that solo teaches can draw on the parts of PBL. If some teachers leave these seminars ready to go back to school and change their half yearly exam to a half yearly writing project, I’ll be stoked. What a great start! What a difference that would make!

    We have to keep our eyes on the prize – changing the system, yes. And we have to increase professional awareness about the risks of burnout that comes with trying to work against the grain of your context, yes. But let’s not let the message be ‘if you don’t have school support, you might as well give up’! I think that solo teachers can make a big difference.

    • Metaphysically, agreed. We as teachers are able to make a difference in the lives of children. The butterfly-effect. As a teacher, one rarely is made aware of events that have an affect on a student – but, yes, is happens.

      What I think is being suggested is that for PBL to function to a high degree, beyond an educational accoutrement, the culture of learning in regional settings, not just school districts, needs to experience a paradigm moment.

      I’ve immersed my pedagogical thinking into PBL/GBL for decades. It has not changed my former team pedagogically, nor the school, the district, or the state department of education. Like the infusion of technology for the past 25-years, and the hundreds of billions spent, PBL will fail to make an impact on how children are learning in US public education unless it can be scaled with fundamental change.

      Burnout happens because as a teacher we need more than the butterfly-effect as validation that what we’re doing matters outside of our classroom.

      Public education in the US has not fundamentally changed for generations. And yes, it is depressing.

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