by Jim Bentley
“Build the culture” is an essential Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practice. One way a PBL unit differs from a traditional unit is by incorporating the learner more in the process. This means both teachers and students must shift their understanding of what instruction looks like in a PBL classroom.
I recently realized that shifts in mindset—or mindset growth—can be understood by laws similar to how the movement of an object is governed by Newton’s Laws of Motion. I’m not referring to Carol Dweck’s work on “growth mindset,” but rather our willingness to change our thinking.
First Law of Mindset Growth
The First Law of Mindset Growth (or the Law of Mental Inertia) suggests that a mind at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by a powerful idea. After teaching for 10 years, I was comfortable and “in the groove.” But a groove quickly becomes a rut. PBL was a powerful idea for me that changed how I work and my students learn.
For students, PBL places new responsibilities on them. Students are asked to reflect in a variety of ways throughout the project, to self-assess their work and work habits using rubrics, to learn and apply success skills in addition to traditional content standards. Students sustain inquiry with their own questions as compared to studying what the teachers says.
I’ve found student inertia when making the shift to PBL varies. Sometimes those who have learned the roles of engagement in traditional classes are the most hesitant, having grown accustomed to the cycle of reading, worksheets, essays, tests, and cut-and-dried letter grades. Conversely, I’ve seen students who have struggled to fit into the classic education model sometimes react the most positively.
Teachers shifting their thinking must overcome mental inertia, too. Incorporating student voice when planning units means releasing a bit of control. Designing a truly authentic project forces a teacher to think outside the teacher’s manual and make connections beyond the walls of the classroom. Teachers might need to acquire new technology skills to manage student teams and promote collaboration. For example, I’m building a unit that explores the impact of organic recycling on climate change. My students are 1:1 with Chromebooks. I’ve determined I need to group videos enhanced by EDpuzzle with texts adapted by Newsela and specific websites related to climate change to build HyperDocs that will curate information and structure lessons. This is a major shift in my thinking and teaching style, but given the students in my room and the resources at our disposal, such a change seems warranted.
Second Law of Mindset Growth
The Second Law of Mindset Growth states the greater the resistance to a new idea, the longer it takes to initiate a mental shift. Mindsets don’t change overnight. The work of Everett Rogers and his Diffusion of Innovation Theory can help explain the relationship between innovation and adoption of new ideas.
Any PBL unit involves a level of uncertainty and large educational institutions are often what Everett would refer to as “Late Majority” adopters. To do PBL well, it takes training and time, trial and error, along with reflection to refine one’s practices. Drawing from Everett’s thinking, many PBL teachers are “Innovators” or “Early Adopters,” willing to take chances and interact with peers in order to grow as professionals. High quality PBL units are not mass produced like textbooks; they’re tailored to the students in a room and the talents of a teacher. Many districts adopt curriculum to minimize the risk of flaws in unit design and insure uniform coverage of content. For individual school sites with a bit of autonomy or in smaller districts, growth can occur more quickly due to less resistance.
What does this mean for teachers who want to use PBL with students? Choose a teaching site based on how supportive the administrator is. If a grade level team isn’t on board yet with the notion of PBL, don’t worry. Everett says Innovators compose only 2.5% of a population and may experience mild discomfort as they import new ideas into an existing culture. But that can be overcome by developing relationships with colleagues and partnering with them to design PBL units.
Third Law of Mindset Growth
I view The Third Law of Mindset Growth more from a teacher’s perspective. Simply put: there will always be something competing for your time when an opportunity to grow arises. My district recently adopted a new language arts program and is offering numerous after school professional development. I need support with this, but I also need to dedicate time to working through Google Certifications or ASCD PD Online modules or reading the dozens of pedagogy-related books on my shelf. Competing with those opportunities are caring for an elderly parent, exercising, and trying to be a better husband and dad to my three daughters.
Ultimately, we have to make choices. A friend recently shared on Facebook a post promising 13 Things You Should Give Up If You Want to Be Successful. Looking for a brief digital distraction, I clicked on it. Several points deeply resonated but two especially stood out.
First, say no to tasks, activities, or demands that don’t support your goals. Most innovators or early adopters are eager to take chances and try new things to add to their professional tool boxes. But sometimes, we need to say no to the next new thing lest we get overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s necessary to “go slow to go fast,” spending more time with a thing and really testing it out and refining our use of it before certifying it as beneficial or detrimental to achieving our professional goals.
That doesn’t mean shutting the door to innovation happening around us. Referring back to Everett’s work, we can monitor others’ growth by building relationships with innovators or early adopters. What we learn via peer-to-peer networks promotes what Everett calls “trialability,” or the ability to test a new idea on a limited basis. We may not be able to constantly open new doors, but at least we can stand in the hallway listening.
The second point that spoke to me about managing your time was letting go of perfectionism. Ben Kamens, who helped launch Khan Academy, recounted in a blog post how Sal Khan once said at a meeting where a team was beginning to draft Khan Academy’s company values that “shipping beats perfection.”
The takeaway: focus on the impact of your work, not what’s missing. Khan Academy says, “Maximizing impact means shipping quickly, learning from users, and iterating.”
A PBL unit may not ever be completely “done” being designed. There is always something that could be added or modified to make it better. The trick is to observe your students closely and be ready to adjust the project as needed.
Building a PBL culture takes more than posters and catchy quotes on the walls of a classroom. It takes time, energy, and a willingness on the part of teachers and students to shift mindsets. It means focusing on goals, iterating our work, and accepting that there is always room for more growth.
Follow Jim Bentley on Twitter @Curiosity_Films