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January 19, 2018
Q: What’s the Right Dosage of PBL?        A: Not Once Per Year

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

It’s January, the middle of the school year, and if you’re a teacher who uses PBL, or tried it earlier in the year, I hope you’re planning to launch your next project. I hope you’re not thinking, “I did a project in the first semester, check, so I’m done with PBL for this year!”

Some teachers may only do one project a year because they saw PBL as something they were required to do by their school/district leaders, but did not buy into it as a teaching method they will use regularly. They saw it as a thing to be checked off, but not worth the effort to do again and again. For these folks, I’d urge their leaders to spend more time building the “Why PBL?” case, as a whole school-community, then reach agreements about who will adopt PBL when, how many projects will be done, and what support teachers will need. (And leaders, don’t think of PBL as just one more tool to drop in a teacher’s toolbox; it’s a profoundly different way of teaching and learning that requires a long-term, serious school change effort.)

Some teachers may have done a project in the first semester (at least in one of their classes, in the case of secondary teachers) and it went fine, but they decided not to do another project, much less use PBL regularly. Perhaps they saw PBL as useful for a few purposes/topics/standards/classes, but not most. I commented on this in my 10 PBL Resolutions for 2018 post of January 5; first on my list was “Use PBL regularly for core academic instruction.”

Or, there could also be a lack of clarity around dosage; how much PBL is the right amount? We often hear this two-part question from teachers, schools, and districts:

Does adopting PBL mean we should use it all the time and teach everything via projects?

If not, then how many projects should teachers do per semester or year?

All the Time or Some of the Time?
I don’t think you need to do PBL all the time, just lots of the time. Some schools (like those in the New Tech Network) make wall-to-wall PBL work, with some breaks, and modifications for some classes such as math and world languages. Other schools in the Deeper Learning Network such as High Tech High and EL Education schools use PBL frequently but not exclusively. Independent progressive schools that do not face some of the (perceived) barriers in public schools use PBL much of the time, or some variations of it. I see these schools as something to strive for.

I trust that teachers who experience success with their projects will use it more and more, and their students and community will demand it, and their schools will eventually move toward widespread and regular use of PBL. Until then, we’re seeing many schools using PBL and mixing it up with other methodologies – albeit progressive ones, not traditional didactic, transmission-oriented instruction. The contrast would be too great; too jarring for students, and the difference in philosophies about how people learn would be apparent and irreconcilable. And as we’ve said in posts such as this one and this one, Project Based Teaching Practices are actually just good teaching, period, and many of the practices can be used in the classroom when students are in between projects.

How Many Projects?
Lately, when we talk with potential district partners who are just beginning their PBL journey, we’ve been saying, “Just make two high-quality projects per year for every student be the goal.” In a K-12 system, that means each student would experience 26 projects at a minimum—which sounds like a lot! But that’s only the start. Perhaps students in middle and high school, at first, would experience two projects per year in one subject area—if, say, only social studies teachers begin to use PBL. But assuming PBL spreads across the school, students would do projects in other subject areas, or do interdisciplinary projects, and eventually experience many more than 26 projects if they stayed in one K-12 PBL-infused system.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how many projects are right for a particular classroom or school. It depends on the teacher and students, how long the projects are, how complex, how many subject areas are included, and many other potential factors. But assuming projects are between 3-6 weeks long, I’d like to see a minimum of two projects per year in every K-12 classroom, in all subject areas—so that all students, no matter who they are, can gain the benefits of high quality PBL.

Even better, make it one project per quarter—four per year. And while you’re at it, sprinkle in a few mini-projects to help build a PBL culture or tackle a relatively confined topic or task. But it’s OK to work up to that; don’t move too fast, learn as you go.

Why is the PBL dosage important?
Why should students experience PBL regularly during their years in school? Here are four reasons:

  • The effects of PBL are cumulative. Students cannot build 21st century success skills if they only get occasional opportunities to practice and internalize them.
  • Students will get better and better at working in a PBL environmentand might even be transformed. Teachers won’t face the challenge of helping students (and their families) understand what PBL is and why it’s beneficial, or spend as much time building a PBL classroom culture if the whole system is preparing them every year. Students will become more confident, independent learners—even identifying and tackling problems authentic to themselves, their communities, and the wider world.
  • PBL will become easier for teachers to use. It will save time and lighten the load if teachers can share projects, use the same rubrics, follow the same project planning and reflection protocols, and be part of a culture that celebrates risk-taking and innovation.
  • As PBL takes root, school systems will have to make changes that will benefit students and teachers. If only a few scattered teachers use PBL in a school or district, or only a few students experience it and thus limit demand, then the system’s basic structures, policies, and culture will remain the same. But if a critical mass is reached, schools and districts will need to rethink the use of time, teacher workloads, community relationships, assessment systems, decision-making processes, and much more. Here’s to reaching the PBL tipping point!

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