How to select great topics for PBL in Australia

The driving question is always a sticking point for teachers new to PBL. Writing a few powerful words in a sentence or two, powerful enough to charge curiosity and enthusiasm is a skill. This is why great copyrighters get paid vast sums for writing relatively little.

The driving question, I always found to be an awkward and misleading term. What PBL is trying to do is drive a topic, not a reply to a philosophic question. Kids are not tested on their philosophic ponderings by the machine. This to me is the biggest reason teachers struggle with PBL early on – it seems too arty or foggy to hit those content standards hard enough. This is not a reflection on BIE, more a reality of the vast cultural differences between how Australia goes about teaching and how America does. America, great at lots of things, drives on the other side of the road and can’t make a car that goes around a corner anything like the Europeans. My point is – Australian teachers need to adapt all US-Import PBL models – and that is hard work.

I prefer to think about topics. I’m not sure crafting one kick-ass question is a brilliant strategy, as learning for kids is all about the extremes of experience and the limits of reality. A kid won’t discover these using the BIE framework though it’s better than the relentless lecture/exercise regime.

PBL in Australia is significantly different to the US (warning to those gazing at US consultancy networks for the answer) – our and their frameworks are significantly different as is the culture and side of the road we drive on. While I respect the hard work and success of groups such saw New Tech Foundation, they are selling a product that was built for America, it still needs heavy adaptation for Australian culture, methods, environments and approaches. It’s not a “one click head-shot” to get better performance or outcomes. Worse still it assumes one method supplants another, and at the really really rubbish end are those who are proposing that PBL combined with business development models are somehow going to improve critical thinking – with no evidence at all to back it up.

PBL is better (in Australian contexts) to be thought of as topic based. Being able to identify quality topics requires using a criteria that can be sustained and justified. It’s easy to be too vague and philosophic when scratching down ‘the driving question’. Don’t do that, it’s a really bad idea.

Not every aspect of the Australian curriculum (or a topic in it) is suitable or needs it! This relates to the idea that PBL is not a full-time requirement either (but if you sell cars, you don’t talk about bikes much), so I wince when people say “we’re a PBL school” – if they are, they are doing the students an injustice in my view.

I prefer the idea that teachers use the best strategy for the job – and the job is to create wonder and curiosity such that students explore the limits and extremes of the world, not the prescriptive view. Even though they undoubtedly benefit from puking up the ‘model answer’ in the big test, and high-stakes HSC teacher (PBL or otherwise) will coach the last term to get those grades (for the students and the school), as least with PBL you can be honest and say, this the answer they want, what would be the opposite, what would be the biggest mistake, the smallest use and so on. It’s better than pretending, and everyone knows how the game is being played – they do anyway, we just elephant in the room it I guess.

So what is the criteria for topics? In my experience, this is something the PBL-lead group establish and help the rest of the staff identify – ahead of trying to actually do it. PBL requires BOTH teacher and exec training of course … it’s dan hard for a teacher to drive on the right when the rest of the school drives on the left.

  • sufficient width
  • sufficient depth
  • sufficient connections with the self—cultural, imaginative, and emotional ties
  • not too constrainedly technical
  • not too general or too unconstrained (e.g. animal is too general, tiger is maybe OK, but cats is optimal)
  • not focused on the more degrading features of human existence or common phobias
  • each topic must provide an equivalently rich experience for all students.

So once you have identified your topics (not based on the fact you HAVE to teach them) – then you can start to think about the kinds of questions that will get kids emotionally involved – and that to my mind is also going to be quite different to much of what I’ve seen in the BIE handbook too.


One thought on “How to select great topics for PBL in Australia

  1. I didn’t know the topic was so complex :-). Thanks for giving us you view on this. I am interested in your comment ” those who are proposing that PBL combined with business development models are somehow going to improve critical thinking”. What sort of thing do you mean by business development model?
    As someone looking to incorporate more PBL into my teaching practice, I have found this post thought-provoking. I appreciate you pointing out that the American-based PBL is different from our Aussie style and hope to hear more about your thoughts on it.

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