PBL ‘trending’ everywhere

It’s often said that one reason Project Based Learning (PBL) is better than (x) is because students reflect on what they have learned and identify any gaps in their understanding that need to be filled. The problem is of course that the timetable, – the great clock by which all formal education must adhere does not allow for much gap-filling or re-doing. It is laid out in great detail – every inch of what students need to know – and will examine that in one way and one way only – know or don’t know.

Okay okay, some teachers are given OC, Gifted or Extension classes with a very open slate on which to carve out some agenda wrapped around the curriculum and have taken on PBL with success – but it seems chasing down this notion of having a PBL classroom is fraught with problems. Essentially, working on a ‘project’ is more than making an artifact. The project is the understanding, not the powerpoint so to speak.

To be immersed in PBL is to be asked to demonstrate an ability in areas that clearly stand well beyond the time-table, content and test agenda. A PBL strategy deliberately tries to get students to:

  1. learn to study independently,
  2. initialise collaborative learning,
  3. optimise autonomy,
  4. develop clinical reasoning as well as being self directed and lifelong learners

I could argue not going to school – truancy – might be a PBL strategy on this basis and that Huck Finn was the architect of Edutopian belief. Critical thinking is a self-regulatory judgment process that relies on interpretation, analysis, and evaluation of

  1. identifying and interpreting the world
  2. promoting the importance of the context
  3. exploring the alternatives
  4. expending thought process through self reflection.

Put these things together and most kids (with access to technology) are adept at designing their own PBL-world digitally – and those without it are no less adept at it. What they learn at the end of it is that they don’t like the world as it is, that there things, people and ideas that are at best dubious and at worst murderous.

So PBL is not a better way to reflect or get to the end – if that end has a pre-determined state, because there are differences between problem-solving and critical thinking.

What is the difference between Problem based learning and Project based learning?

A common question, often flipped off. To me, problem-solving focuses on seeking a solution for a problem whereas project based leaning focuses on critical thinking stresses the process of raising questions on all aspects of a situation, and further to critique solutions, it is a problem-solving and decision-making process .

It’s quite possible that within the context of ‘school’ agendas, problem based learning can be done well – and when teachers learn new strategies such as using “reflective triggers” that to get to the solution, reflection (and even philosophic thought) can be promoted.

I am not so sure that Project Based Learning is as easy to pull off. School isn’t designed to do it (nor is required to do it). I’d argue that any kid playing video-games, learning to code, uploading drawings to Deviant Art etc., is a PBL-er. In school, I’d also argue that letting kids play Minecraft – because they want to – is closer to PBL than ton’s of things that I’ve seen Edutopia put out. Perhaps this is because they are locked-into their previous ‘work’ which could explain their recent fascination with games, but at the same time keen to set is aside as something new.

When I look back at how I used to think about PBL – I’m pretty sure most of it was Problem Based Learning – and at the end kids made something. In the real world (and the unreal one’s we imagine) we learn in ways that go beyond the PBL approach, yet it seems that when we agree to simplify it down to the point it becomes ‘acceptable’ to the timetable and curriculum – the ways we might ‘assess’ that are blunt and in-effective for PBL.

Sometimes life isn’t a problem to be solved. Yet in almost all instances where schools start using PBL – it’s really not PBL, but yet another piece of ‘bling’ to go with their 21st century school bus”, flashy reception areas and editorials in Sunday papers.

Ultimately I don’t actually care what you call it – but please don’t make out that you’re somehow doing things that in anyway approach the kind of thing that almost anyone with access to technology can now do. And therein lies the social-problem.

Those that benefit most, are the most unable, while those with the most opportunity dally with it (another glitter ball). When the HSC looms, they’ll all go back to past behavior – and that perpetuates the cycle. We put away the ‘toys’ when the real work has to get done – coaching to get that 99.x ATAR of hope (or despair).

PBL is not a pedagogy to solve a pedagogical problem. Playing Warcraft, following @idf and @anonymous and Twitter are way better – and you don’t need to make a play, powerpoint, book or communal blog to do it.

Yeah PBL! Brought to you by ‘trending’ teachers everywhere.


5 thoughts on “PBL ‘trending’ everywhere

  1. Hi Dean,
    An interesting post. Like you, I don’t particularly think it’s good to get bogged down in finessing the differences between problem/project/inquiry. Compared to transmissive ‘sit -’em-down-and-make-them-have-it’ pedagogies all differences become relatively minor.
    However, the biggest confusion I see is the difference between project -oriented learning masquerading as PBL. In POL, you may have a teacher instigate a driving question; you may have kids doing research, looking for solutions. And, in the last couple of weeks they may make a half-hearted attempt to make something, tacked on to a fairly traditional approach. At its worst the thing the make will be a powerpoint presentation, and the students suffer death-by-powerpoint at the end of the ‘project’.
    Dynamic PBL will require the creation of something real, something public, something purposeful, which taps into students passions and the creation of something will be identified from the start. The learning that happens (the research, the knowledge processing, the contact with a client group,yes, even an occasional ‘lecture’ to plug gaps) are in pursuit of the product or service being created, to as high a standard as possible – hence the use of multiple drafts and regular critique. This is when the learning has relevance and authenticity.
    The team I led on the Learning Futures project in the UK (www.learningfutures.org) created a practical guide to PBL, ‘Work That Matters’. It’s free, and downloadable from the Learning Futures website. I train people in PBL, based on this approach (http://www.engagedlearning.co.uk/EAL.pdf) and my experience is that people need to become project participants (doing the project themselves) using some clear protocols and processes, THEN they get it, better and deeper than simply reading about it!

    • Thanks for the comment, I know LF well. Work that matter is so important, and being able to have the skill to use effective reflective trihggers off the cuff to keep equiry wonderful and alive is something that I don’t think teachers learn to do in -pre-service and of late, technological determinism obscures what is an essential skill in natural language. I added a post about it, following your generous reply. Thanks.

  2. I had to read this a couple of times to see if you are against PBL, for PBL, or somewhere in between. I hate to admit it but I am still not sure. It seems that you are around a school district that is trying to use PBL because that’s what the cool people are doing instead of for its ability to get students to think. When done right teachers need the autonomy to move the curriculum around, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, in order to have the flow meet project requirements. This takes 100% buy in by everyone from the school secretary to the superintendent. That is where schools fall short. With one neigh-sayer who is unable or unwilling to put in the time to create well thought out project frameworks, the system collapses. This is because it takes time – lots of time to do this right. Teachers can’t look at a time clock or what day of the week it is – they just need to work. The one thing I have discovered is that in order to give students more freedom for inquiry, the more structure has to be in place. Every minute of every day needs to be planned out so that students can “freely” discover their learning. PBL works. We’ve seen it with our, nearly, 90% economically disadvantaged students; with our highly mobile student population; and with our high level of ESL students. There has been success on our state standardized tests as well. We will be the first to admit that we have to incorporate a daily “Intervention” period to cover basic skills. But when you have large numbers of students in the 6th grade reading at or below the 2nd grade level you have to do something. No matter how skilled a PBL teacher is at differentiating, this requires major triage. This was a good post because it made me think. I would love to have you convince me that Game-Based Learning works – that’s a tougher one for me to get my head around. PBL I can see, taste, and feel. Not so with GBL.

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