Project Based Learning: Why?

PBL is another of the many buzzwords in education. I have been a fan of pbl since I have learned about it and I really believe many educators were doing this type of work before there was a label. As the pressure builds for teachers to perform to standardized tests while trying to balance the gut instinct of knowing what students need most pbl can help make sense of trying to accomplish both things at the same time.

As I think about how quickly the world has changed from the days of the 90’s where we were told stranger danger and to avoid cars at all costs to today where I voluntarily pay money to ride in a car with strangers via Uber I realize it is time to improve education. I see methods and hear from people all the time that just make me cringe a bit to know that the same things I did as a kid are still being done. It is not so much that these are necessarily bad, but the world has evolved. The way society operates has shifted. The way in which we do many things are not the same as 20 years ago and who knows what the next five will hold for all of us.

The economy is changing. There are more jobs than we ever imagined possible. Not all are high wage and game changers, but they are jobs nonetheless. What are we doing to prepare kids for an economy that will need people in a variety of different jobs? What are doing to help students find areas of learning that are engaging to them? I see more and more students coming to school no interested, not engaged, and not really knowing what excites them. We can get angry, punish, offer detentions, and point the finger at the kid, the family, the work ethic, etc. However, does that really solve the problem or are these methods just a quick patch to avoid the real issues – school is not an exciting place to be?

The way we have operated our schools and education were designed to help a system that is slowly going away whether we like it or not. We are shifting to a society of “Show Me!” where people are looking for employees that can do the job and are not as concerned about what hoops a person has jumped through to find out they are not equipped. Time and money are of the essence. I was just talking with someone about how they have open positions in their business and cannot fill them. They are willing to train them. They are willing to pay for their school while they work. It cannot get much better than this for someone looking to get started in employment.

The world needs more problem finders. The world needs more people who are willing to use their knowledge and skills over extended periods of time to respond the challenges of the world. This is project based learning.

How many of you reading this do some sort of freelance work whether full time, part time, or as a way to earn a bit of cash on the side? How many have shifted several jobs? The average American holds a dozen jobs in their lifetime. The world continues to build out and develop more projects and gigs. It is hard to sustain a living, but this market continues to grow. Technology and the pace of growth has changed everything. The days of our parents working one job and staying in one community are few and far between.

PBL can help. It can help students learn how to prepare for real world work by giving them real world problems. PBL provides feedback constantly which is something we can all work on dealing with and processing. Learning to work on a team and to develop our communication skills. Last, helping us figure out what are expertise areas are so we can use them to our advantage.

As schools explore PBL and PLC there is a happy medium, a common element that they both strive to have that the world knows works. The common element is group norms. Google has discovered this truth when they launched Aristotle(a study exploring over a hundred teams for a year). Even more important was developing psychologically safe environments. How important is this? How obvious does this sound? So why is it that they don’t exist in our classrooms? Why is it they don’t exist as employees? Why is it that we have surface level signs and documents that mask the real truth that norms and safe environments are not as prevalent as we like to convince ourselves. I think the key ingredient to allowing high level learning whether in the workplace, classroom, home, or other locations is making sure people feel safe to take risks and push their learning and understanding that the norms is how everyone will behave. So simple and yet often ignored.

What happens is that we create classrooms where the majority of work is individual. This happens because we often work in silos and our classrooms mimic this mentality. It is safer to be alone. The trust has been broken. The culture does not allow teamwork to really grow. We wonder why kids struggle so much with teamwork while we sit in denial over how poorly we might actually be as employees. Where you find great work, great projects, and great things happening you often find great teamwork, great culture, and great norms. I see these examples and non examples happen all the time with my robotics teams, in my engineering challenges after school, coaching youth sports, being a parent of children involved in various activities. When there is a true sense of teamwork everything just feels different.

When we look at the essential elements to a high quality project one cannot argue that this is not only what is needed for learning to occur, but also exactly what employers are looking for when they hire. If you look at BIE essential project elements that covers most ideas about pbl out there you see: key knowledge, key skills, challenging problems, a high level of sustained inquiry, authentic learning, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and feedback, and a public product.

The reason that these are sometimes not covered in the classroom is because of the wrong mindset. It is not on purpose. What happens is that we(educators) begin to believe that our job is to prepare students for the next grade. How often have we said, “you need to know how to do this because in high school…….”? The goal of school is not to develop and create “students” but to develop adults that are self sufficient enough to be a positive contributing member in society. When we frame the goal as the latter, then students are no longer able to game the system as many have¬†already done.

I am not going to lie. It is easy to blog about these ideas, but to teach them is something altogether different. It is hard. It is difficult. It is stressful. However, nothing of high quality is easy. We must ask ourselves, “Are we in this job to benefit students or ourselves?”

 

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