So what’s my PBL model these days?


It’s been ten years since I really started to understand the effect inquiry learning has on children’s enjoyment of learning. In that time, I’ve adopted, modified and been frustrated by the term PBL, which is now used symbolically – just as we say ‘television’ just so we can create frames in the mind’s of people we are talking to. Today, Twitter is awash with people offering PBL training, or using it to rocket jump their careers beyond the mundane teacher in the room next door. I reject this culture entirely and these days have no interest in the competitive narcissism that fuels it – even being English, a culture which thrives on self-deprecation while loving every moment.

So what have I learned so far?

A collection of thoughts … but essentially, my version of PBL is based on challenges and overarching metagame that focuses on minimalism, intentions and working towards class time being about 100% feedback powered.

Game based learning isn’t the suburb of learning that weird people live in – it’s every aspect of contemporary life. Games have been embedded in culture for thirty years and eclipsed television and film revenue in dollars earned by 1981. Game theory is mathematical and has been expanded, then applied to every other industry aside from education since the 1970s. So we’re SLOW learners. My “PBL” is built on game theory, not downloads from BIE.

Team teaching requires a genuine shared partnership of equality and respect. Team teaching is more effective and rewarding for students and teachers. The closer the two teachers get, the greater the synergy and energy is. Students see the teaching, rather than two teachers. The are less likely to take ‘fall back positions’ in seeking help and guidance. Students will be open to acting on advice (See later on what I mean by that). The whole thing works with the same unspoken synergy that video games rely on in multi-player games. If you don’t understand that – go and play until you do.

Team teaching is the metagame, it’s central to success. The goal is to move the teaching paradox as close to the learning paradox such that both parties understand the INTENTIONS and in that, learning is a highly negotiable process. That matters so much – intentions are MORE important than goals, ego or content. Unless this is achieved, no common frame happens.  It’s not something that can be forced by making people work together. Again, in games, we have pools of players with the same intentions. I don’t see any evidence to suggest teaching culture of ‘human relations’ get this at all (yet). Some people simply don’t like doing as much as others — and it’s a waste of time trying to change their belief. Trust me, a WASTE OF TIME.

Solo teaching is less effective, and more work. It’s still better than the worksheet-lecture and rule-based punitive culture in so many classrooms, however, I believe it’s also seductively corrupting, should that teacher also suffer the ego-centric desires I stated earlier. On the whole (so far) I’d argue, solo PBL teachers do not make effective team teachers, as they seem to more interested in illusory, competition that finding the INTENTIONS I mentioned. They are probably great, like Trump, they tell us how good they are all the time – but after over a decade, I don’t see it as a positive indicator they also make good collaborators or team teachers.

More than two teachers are more likely to have a negative effect on large class size achievement. The INTENTIONS become multiplied and the metagame rules become harder for kids to follow.

Learning design is key. A minimal hypertext document, which sets out the entire projects INTENTIONS and BIG ideas stated with a clear, suggested time to apply to various research elements beats EVERY interactive, multi-faceted software package every time. I learned this from engineer Colin Chapman, make it light, then make it lighter – lightness is the goal. EdTech is a fat slob which binges on junk culture. Kids will do better with the S in SAMR and teachers will design learning better because that is the time-based reality of current school demands. Be minimalist. A Google Doc for the whole project via a consistent Tiny URL, with a persistent structure (as they will get at University), works – if the INTENTION of the design understands the metagame and that Blooms is not the best or default taxonomy.

Projects are crap. Kids hate them. They like them more than worksheet crap, but projects often drag on for weeks – because teacher-brain thinks 1 project over 10 weeks will appease the BOSTES demands more easily. Kids need to MOVE. To get them to do that,  they need CHALLENGES: Think FOUNDATION > CHALLENGE > REFLECT/PRESENT. This ain’t what the PBL experts are showing you right? – Yep, because they are WRONG – they don’t understand the metagame and how important INTENTIONS are. I bet no one’s even mentioned INTENTIONS as being a paramount factor before in PBL training. So a challenge means MOVEMENT. If kids are not moving all the time, if you don’t have a third of the class in flux, there’s a problem

Space matters. You need more than one space – with walls. You need three or four spaces. Projects need 3 or 4 teachers to work on one project – such that kids can come and go.

Block mode works for some, but not all subjects.

All subjects need direct instruction at times, but this isn’t an excuse for not thinking about why it’s the ONLY way to go.

Each space has a contextual purpose to the INTENTION. So if a kid is working on a foundation stage, they need to be in one space, but they don’t have to go there – they need to choose correctly –  because they understand the INTENTION of that space at the time.

Spaces and INTENTIONS change over time – but they don’t get harder. Again, forget Blooms. Think WIN-WIN-WIN. Kids need to find success and believe it is a repeating pattern – even if you’re in a school that doesn’t have deep pockets. If you INTEND to have a top and bottom – that is what you will get – congratulations you just killed enthusiasm and self-belief and most kids end up being SOUND which is like TELEVISION, a meaningless box until you power it up or throw it away.

Schools don’t value learning design as a valid skills set the way University does – so space, equipment, and pedagogy don’t have sufficient learning design theory experts, let alone be able to ratchet that up to the point it can use a metagame.

Feedback needs to be comprehensive, reliable and fortnightly. It needs to given in conjunction with a discussion and in most cases, teachers need to re-assess on the spot, and give kids MORE credit if needed or LESS if they have copied other people and don’t get it. Teachers need to INTEND to spend the entire class time doing this – NOT TEACHING and NOT SITTING ABOUT waiting for kids to approach them

100% of class time is given to FEEDBACK unless you have a really good reason not to. The learning design and spaces MUST make this happen.

Kids should be given the outcome and the opportunity to propose their own project to meet it – even if it’s simple!. IF YOU HAVE A strong metagame structure that has given them the patterns and routines needed for INTENDED SUCCESS, this is possible.

IF YOU ARE EXPLAINING THE PROJECT AT THE START – THE PROJECT DESIGN is such that you will have to KEEP EXPLAINING IT and never achieve the INTENTION of using class time for FEEDBACK.

Oh yeah, don’t be a fool in a Kings Court – own your stuff and make it work for you.

Most people don’t obsess over this for a decade, most go home and annex work with their fall back being the demands of ‘the job’ – rather than thier role in improving the method itself.

… anyway, that’s enough for now.


2 thoughts on “So what’s my PBL model these days?

  1. Hey Dean. Couldn’t agree more with your sentiments but you’re not criticizing PBL — you just don’t like BAD PBL, which is a kind of cookie cutter, by the numbers, canned, downloaded approach which is, truth be told, a clever way to cover content under the guise of a ‘project.’ True PBL is a set of flexible design principles that give structure to inquiry and direction to many forms of powerful, intentional, meaningful investigation, including meta game formats. When a project comes alive with these principles, they are definitely not crap. Live in the U.S., but first time I’ve seen PBL teachers lumped with Trump, BTW. Cheers, Thom Markham

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Thom. You are right on all counts. Bad PBL seems to occur though a mix of poor understanding of the time/PD/investment needed by administration whom, in my experience, often gloss over or try to over simplify the complexity to save time/money etc., and the on-going interference of brands who push products into schools though technological determinism. Teachers are then left to try and put together the best units/projects in a soup of issues – the net result is often less than expected – and then administrations return to what they were doing – managing learning not inspiring it! Thanks again!

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