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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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Topic tags: Gold Standard


September 8, 2015
Building a PBL Culture in the Classroom

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

During a project, what does a classroom look, sound, and feel like? I asked this question of three of BIE’s National Faculty members to begin a Google Hangout last week. Here’s what Feroze Munshi, Jeanine Leys, and Krystal Diaz came up with:

• student-centered
• sense of student ownership
• students doing research online
• students asking questions
• students in different parts of the room working in teams or on their own
• engagement is obvious
• academic conversations
• trust, respect, and responsibility
• organized chaos (with structure and purpose)

One of the Project Based Teaching Practices in Gold Standard PBL is “Build the Culture.” BIE has described a healthy PBL classroom culture using terms such as independence, inquiry, attention to quality, growth mindset and team spirit.

Feroze suggested we think about culture like anthropologists – which they define as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization" – by asking, What language is used in the classroom? What are the practices and routines? What artifacts do you see?

Let’s consider what a culture of independence is like. Generally speaking, we’re talking about a classroom where students are not directed too much by the teacher. While there should always be some guidance from the teacher and perhaps other adults, students in a PBL classroom have an appropriate degree of autonomy, given their age and experience, whether working alone or in teams. They should be able to make some decisions about how they work and what they create. This obviously connects to “Voice and Choice,” one of Gold Standard PBL’s Essential Project Design Elements.

It's important to build student independence; you can’t just turn them loose and expect them to be able to effectively function autonomously. Scaffolding includes co-crafted norms, practices, and routines – and teachers should be clear and explicit when talking to students about how they are practicing the habit of independence. Krystal pointed out that even high school students, much as we might think they can handle it, need support and structure to be able to work independently. On the first two days of school this year, for example, her school, the Applied Technology Center near Los Angeles, built students’ independence and collaboration skills by asking them to work in teams to create lip-dub videos about their school.

A culture of inquiry means students understand there is no single “right answer” and see the importance of asking questions and digging deep for their own answers. It means being open-minded when exploring an open-ended driving question. It means feeling safe when you express your thoughts, test your ideas, and sometimes fail. Jeanine told a story about how her school “celebrates failure”– which at first sounds strange but is actually a wonderful idea – by thinking of it as an opportunity: "Yay, I get to improve my work!" They even use a classroom tool called “raindrops and rainbows” to keep track of failed ideas and how they are necessary for eventual success.

A classroom culture that values high-quality work is likewise intentionally built through tools, practices, and routines. For example, it’s important to give students explicit language to describe high-quality work. Feroze said that on the first day of school he has students practice giving feedback, since that skill and belief in its value are so important in creating a culture of quality. (Both he and Jeanine, btw, credited Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence as an influence on their thinking.) Jeanine explained the key role rubrics play in communicating the meaning of quality; she even uses a rubric for giving feedback, which includes sentence stems that are helpful for English Learners. Another key process at Jeanine’s school is rapid prototyping, a familiar term from the 21st century tech world. Krystal emphasized the importance of having a growth mindset in a PBL culture; at her school they say, “critique the product, not the person.”

In case you’re wondering if you have to transform your classroom into a Silicon Valley-style office complete with couches, reconfigurable desks, whiteboard walls, and maybe a nerf basketball hoop and an espresso machine, Feroze and Jeanine pointed out that you also would see traditional teaching practices in a PBL classroom. There might be times when you’d see direct whole-group instruction, or students listening to a (brief) lecture, engaging in peer critique protocols, or gathering in small groups for workshops and literature circles. But usually, when you walk into a PBL classroom, it does feel quite different from our traditional image of school as a place with desks in rows, quiet students, the teacher in front. It often does in fact resemble a healthy, high-functioning modern workplace.

You can learn more about building the culture for effective PBL by using our Project Based Teaching Rubric to reflect on your own classroom or school.

Please add your thoughts to the comments below – what does “Build the Culture” mean to you?


  • There seems to be an easy matter to create a group of PBL students with different and varied attitudes. But one should bear in mind that the role of the teacher in PBL classrooms is to guide the students in achieving a cultural communicative purpose. In case we have multi-culture identities, the task wouldn’t be easy.

    MINIMAL on October 1, 2015 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Interesting point - can you tell us more about what you mean by “cultural communicative purpose”?

      John Larmer on January 21, 2016 
      [Reply to this comment]
  • I am so excited. I have been working towards the PBL environment with my 6th graders and this BLOG is just what I needed to keep inspired with fresh thoughts and inspiration. 11 yr old students are not in the habit of inquiring, but I am teasing it out and this is FUN!

    JenBaker on October 28, 2015 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • Glad to hear you found this useful - please do send me an update about your progress! We need to collect more stories about building a PBL culture. (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) Thanks!

      John Larmer on January 21, 2016 
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