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by Benjamin Stern
Education Technology Coordinator for a school in NYC and Academic Liaison for Ponder

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Topic tags: why PBL, what is PBL, how to do PBL


June 3, 2014
Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?


by Benjamin Stern
Education Technology Coordinator for a school in NYC and Academic Liaison for Ponder

(This article was originally featured on Ben's blog, EduMusings.)

Project Based Learning (PBL) is pretty amazing when it works.

PBL units inspire kids to become a sort of paraprofessional, applying their learning in ways that actually make a difference. Well-executed PBL has students learning and doing. A lesson starts with a good question, which contextualizes all subsequent learning. Students identify what they need to learn to come up with their answer. Once they have an answer, they do something with it. For example, say the question is, “How can our town resolve its budget crisis?” Students will need to learn how a town’s budget works, what public resources go to, how citizens can become involved in city operations, the math involved in all of this, and a great deal more. Perhaps a group of students recognizes that there is a lot of money wasted in travel inefficiencies. Knowing when trains meet that leave from LA and NYC (or, local town A and local town B) at 10:25 going 25 mph and 32 mph becomes meaningful. So does their ability to give a presentation, since it’s not just their giggling, equally nervous classmates they need to impress; it’s the city’s council. The e-mails they will send to organize a visit from the local transportation authority require some pretty good grammar.


So why aren’t we all doing this?

Well, PBL has its challenges. Most obviously, it takes time. As adults, we know how long it takes to schedule a meeting, discuss an issue (no matter how uncontroversial it may be), and have someone with some authority make a decision on it. These processes don’t fit nicely into an already overbooked school day or curriculum.

It also requires there to be someone who wants to attend those meetings and hear from kids. If a 13 year old can do a better job than full time employees, then perhaps government bureaucracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. (Oh, wait…)

The pressures to perform on state tests and meet standards ostensibly is an obstacle too, though PBL advocates will be the first to tell you that students often learn even more when they take active ownership over their learning. How much have you learned in training sessions versus on-the-job, trial by fire? Exactly.

Even with the right problems to solve, adequate time, a receptive audience, and open-mindedness on the part of administrators and evaluators, there is the remaining problem of the habits of teachers and students. Teachers need a great deal of training and practice (and willingness to fail miserably for the first time since their first year of teaching) to fully understand how to design a good PBL unit, support students through it, and ensure that important content and skills are taught by its end.

Fortunately, despite their reputation, teachers can and do change. Though schools may be built on an old model, teachers aren’t really doing the same thing as they were fifty years ago. The overall educational paradigm hasn’t shifted, but teachers’ approaches and resources have shifted within its confines. They could change again. Hop on an #edchat on Twitter. You’ll see just how many teachers are ready to take the plunge.

But there is another, real, oft-overlooked obstacle: the students themselves. Children like to play, we think, so they will take to a less rigid classroom like ducks to water. Wrong. We forget that children have learned to play school a certain way. And this game is actually easier than PBL.

When I helped to introduce a faculty, student body, and parent community to PBL, I learned just how resistant to change the student constituency could be. Through much of the year, PBL wasn’t the most popular instructional framework with students and their parents. The hardest working students chafed at having to work with their less driven peers. Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content and following explicit instructions struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

In PBL and other open-ended, student-centric instructional models with an emphasis on “real world” or “authentic” assessments, students chart much of their own path through the learning. Teachers and the community offer the materials, opportunities, and guidance they need to acquire knowledge, develop skills, and apply both toward some meaningful end. But the onus is on the students to do the labor, physical and intellectual. It’s hard.

Adopting these instructional models requires training of faculty, of course. But it also requires significant training of students. We need to scaffold the development of collaboration skills. Students need to learn how to act on a good idea, and how to discern good ideas from bad. Schools need to introduce social norms instinctual to adults but foreign to kids.

Traditionally, the dreaded “real world” taught college graduates these skills (though many adults never learn them, as I’m sure we can all attest). Now, if schools are to really evolve as advocates of PBL hope, we need to do more than send kids out into the real world to apply their learning. We need to bring the real world into school. Project management, collaboration, manners, professionalism, and more need to be taught as thoughtfully and deliberately as multiplication.

This recommendation does raise an important question: is this what schools should be doing? On the one hand, schools are supposed to prepare students to succeed in the very environments for which these new lessons will prepare them. On the other, schools offer students a sanctum from the “real world” in which they can stockpile knowledge and skills to be employed later on. Is there value in this separation, this distance between learning and doing? Is there a deeper reason for moving away from apprenticeship education than the transition to an industrial economy?

Perhaps. Having seen PBL at its best, I believe expertly designed units with serendipitous opportunities for authentic assessment to become meaningful can combine the best of the new and old. Still, it takes a great deal of time, resources, and energy to get students to a place where they seize these opportunities, instead of insisting that the teacher just tells them what to do. It’s work we need to do. Will we do it?


  • I certainly hope so! I have found it to be a slow process to change over to for teachers but I truly believe that if we are to truly prepare our students for the future PBL is the way to go.  Thanks for your blog- look forward to your future PBL thoughts smile

    bfair on June 3, 2014 
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  • We have to do it!  From my experience of changing a school over to PBL, it is a slow process but so worth it!  I truly feel that as educators we need to prepare students for the future and PBL is the best way to do that.  Thanks for your musings- lookng forward to more smile

    bfair on June 3, 2014 
    [Reply to this comment]
  • I work in EFL in Japan. Changing from a teacher centered to student centered classroom takes some time and constant renegotiation of roles and duties. However, it is possible and It is better. Thank you for your thoughts.

    avocado abogado on May 17, 2015 
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