Ask a TAS teacher about PBL

“I want to get into PBL”. Something I hear and see a lot of recently. I’ve been an advocate of PBL for a while, so in lieu of people understanding what PBL is, I take it as a sign they want to do something new (to them) in their classroom.

Romance: They often head off to Buck Institute or start consuming Edutopia content. For the more wealthy, they hire in US consultancies like New Tech Foundation who offer seemingly “off the shelf programs “and “pay-for-databases of projects”.

If you are an Australian teacher interested in PBL, I give you fair warning that all these findable things will not transform your classroom – and in my view, will more likely raise alarm bells among parents and suspicion amount school-executives who will generally “like” the idea, but only if the reality dove-tails into their expectations (after all, most school execs are instrumentalists by nature of their job-description and that’s not a bad thing IMO).

Myth: I’ve said a few times publicly that PBL often appears a cure for something we imagine to be missing in the classroom (the curse of people talking about self-direction and authentic engagement). It assumes the patient is sick and that the symptoms are in some way related to the underlying condition that has been popularised by Web2.0 authors and speakers.

Reality: PBL requires 2 things – both of them are well researched and important. Firstly, the process or cycle of learning is well a planned, rhobust and instructionally designed to produce emergent, communicative knowledge. This does not mean students understand how that knowledge might be applied to new situations – wisdom takes a while and cannot be planned to happen week 8, lesson 3.

The craft of PBL is to plan a project in such a way that students build understanding though multi-layered experiences. It requires using more than Blooms (in fact I strongly recommend you avoid Blooms all together).

This is the second element, PBL requires learning about unfamiliar taxonomies and theories which when applied to the work kids do – produce the kind of understanding in the teacher that allows them to actually assess what the kids are learning.

This is key in my view – it’s really easy to assess what they ‘make’ and convince yourself that this is project based, when what might actually be happening is more problem based – which isn’t a bad thing at all – and clearly there is much debate and arguing over the differences.

My view (take it or leave it) is that PBL as a cycle is pretty easy to follow, but takes a while to understand. PBL Training is only semi-effective, as what people actually need is active-mentoring – because PBL itself is a communicative approach to learning, and how it works (for you) emerges from your experience of it. This means anyone investing dollars more dollars in up front training (call the consultant) and not investing in on-going maintenance, I can’t see attaining new heights – or much beyond problem based learning.

The 8 steps paper-based templates from BIE ignore vast amounts of things that bring wonderment into focus for me. Good start point, but in the Australian curriculum, lacks spark. You can see that in the way they present driving questions or argue what makes a ‘good’ one. Committing to PBL is committing to a long term adventure, where teachers and students will encounter many ideas and methods of learning. Like a great video game, PBL is promiscuous with pedagogy – and builds more than knowledge – such as trust, insight, wisdom and so on – the REAL 21st Century skills that will see people avoid being dominated by technological determinism and drone-like-mindsets.

Learning about how to blend technology into imaginative approaches to enquiry … that’s PBL in Australia. In that you can bring in so many new ideas such as games, challenges, advocacy, social inclusion – you name it.

Alternatively, just go talk to your TAS teachers, they know the design process off by heart, as to all their students – don’t be seduced into the idea that design thinking, six hats and PBL is somehow the exclusive domain of thought-leaders you have to pay.

I get a sense of deja-vu as I sign this one off – but really if you want to know about PBL, then it really is a matter of finding a mentor who can help you build understanding – and support your own ideas. It’s not one thing – but it can in my view lead to very rewarding and effective ways of teaching and learning. Sadly the culture of conference and training rooms makes this very difficult – but since when was life not difficult.


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