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by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

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December 13, 2016
What to Expect When You’re Project Based Learning

by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

You might be reading about Project Based Learning because you self-selected to do so. Or you might be embarking on a new professional development experience chosen by your school or district. Maybe you just tried your first PBL project this semester and it’s time to look back on the sometimes-rocky road you traveled. Whatever your journey is, I can safely say I wish there had been a book with this blog’s title when I first started using PBL 10 years ago. And I still wish there was a book with this title as I begin the last half of my teaching career. 

So, what should a new or even a veteran teacher embarking on PBL expect when they launch their first few units?

Are We There Yet?
It seems like the design and planning and revision of a project will never end! If you’ve been through a BIE three-day PBL 101 workshop, you spend a lot of time using the Project Design Overview and Student Learning Guide to organize the elements of a PBL experience. PBL is purposeful and has a lot of moving parts:

As I design learning experiences now, I find I keep looking back at the BIE Project Design Rubric to see how I’m doing. Sometimes I have a project idea that starts off strong in some areas and weak in others. This is when I think back to a much-loved Mark Twain quote where he described the quality of his own work by saying, “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately everybody drinks water.” Reflecting on that, I’m okay labeling myself an aspiring winemaker who’s currently in the water business.

The key takeaway is this: designing PBL experiences takes time. Give yourself time to plan, but don’t delay launching until your project is perfect. A unit is never finished. You can spend forever tinkering and modifying. Allow yourself the opportunity to grow by going through the cycle of planning, implementing, reflecting, and revising a PBL unit. And remind yourself to focus on the fact that as you struggle at implementing or refining your PBL practices, it’s not about what’s wrong, but what’s missing. It’s not about improving, but growing.

Eye of the Tiger vs. Charlie Brown
A PBL project can be an emotional roller coaster for both novice and veteran teachers. Some days you’ll feel like Rocky Balboa where you can do no wrong. Other days you’ll feel like Charlie Brown where you can do no right.

Just breathe. It’s normal.

If a teacher wants predictability and stability with fewer emotional ups or downs, stick to off-the-shelf, one-size-fits all curriculum. I say that in jest, but there are days where I look at some colleagues who don’t use PBL in their classrooms, and I’m the teensiest bit envious. They have tidy plans that cover content. They use pre-made assessments that render cut-and-dried grades. Their calendars look organized. They show up to school looking refreshed and leaving earlier than I do. I taught like that the first 10 years of my career and felt comfortable in my practice. But in the last half of my teaching career I’ve learned there’s more to teaching than simply covering content or feeling comfortable. PBL is transformative for students and teacher alike. It’s not linear. It’s ambiguous at times. Yet it’s authentic and more closely mirrors what life after school looks like.

Take a look at this Fast Company video that takes a sneak peek inside Google X . Share it with your students. Watch it when you need an emotional boost or start to question everything you’re doing. Or take a look at a short film about a PBL project my students engaged in as they partnered with our city’s integrated waste department. Or watch another film my students produced after studying food waste and insecurity. When I question why I choose the challenge of using PBL in my classroom, I look to my students’ work and feel renewed.

Innovative teaching-like innovation at Google X-is messy. One of my favorite quotes from the video I share with students and write on our whiteboard at school is, “Ultimately if we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes.” The same is true for new or veteran teachers implementing PBL in their classrooms. Sometimes it takes a quick failure and “rapid evaluation” of our practices to better understand what we need to do differently next time.

Failure is the other half of succeeding. It’s natural and to be expected.

Recently a teacher I had worked with in a PBL 101 workshop reached out via email. The subject line was “PBL Quandary.” She shared feeling motivated after the training and immediately went back to her class and threw out several old “dessert” style projects that were heavy on activity and light on learning. In her email she said she was now feeling “stuck” and “overwhelmed” trying to rework old projects into Gold Standard PBL projects.

My response: I still feel the same way sometimes.

To grow we have to lean into discomfort, identify areas of potential growth by reflecting on successes and failures, and seek input from a broad professional learning network.

Finding Support
The Resources tab on the Buck Institute for Education website is a great place to start searching for more information and tools to grow your understanding and implementation of PBL. The Buck Institute for Education Blog has regular posts from PBL practitioners and experts. The Articles section has white papers on a variety of PBL related aspects. BIE also hosts Recorded Google Hangouts on various PBL related topics and has an active Google+ community, too. 

Since project based learning is a fundamental reconfiguring of good teaching, spend time on Edutopia or surf the Teaching Channel to learn more about the art and science of teaching.

Lastly, consider joining Twitter and follow PBL and education experts. If you have questions or wonderings, you can always join the PBL Twitter chat every Tuesday at 5:00 PM PST/8:00 PM EST using the #PBLChat hashtag.

A couple tips to get started with Twitter:

  • Search hashtags like #PBLchat or #pbl and peruse who’s posting.
  • Search known PBL Twitter handles to see who they are following.
  • Read blogs on the BIE website or Edutopia then look for the authors’ Twitter handles.
  • Follow the followers of PBL and education experts.
  • Not sure how to join a Twitter chat? Check out this tutorial by Buffer.

Project Based Learning is different than what most of us experienced as students when we were kids. And Project Based Teaching will require a new mindset and set of skills as compared to traditional textbook-style instruction. It will stretch and test you, but it also is an incredibly rewarding and fulfilling experience. Reach out to others to learn from their successes and struggles. You’re not alone. You can do this.


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