Why is PBL a new hot ticket buzz word in education?

31 Days of Deeper Learning & PBL Blog Series 4:

Whew! After that last post on Deeper Learning I felt exhausted. I worked tirelessly to craft a post about standardized testing without tyring to go off the deep end and to share my ideas that would lead to discussion and not a criticism. I want to thank everyone who took time to reach out to me via comments, Twitter, email, and Facebook. You have all rattled my brain to really think through all the complexities of education and how to make sense of it all. I know that we are on the right path and my passion to continue to write these posts leave me feeling excited about the future of education and the future of these very conversations.

With that being said I want to use this fourth post to highlight a key piece of information that is important to bring up in the discussions on deeper learning and project based learning. I would like to clarify that the whole notion of project based learning is not new. I have made reference to this in the prior posts, but want to really bring this to the forefront. I am working diligently to make sure I don’t celebrate the ideas of deeper learning and project based learning as some new system(s) that will save education.

The question that maybe begs to be asked is, “Why is PBL a new hot ticket buzz word in education?”

My own opinion/answer to this question is that education and teaching has become stagnant due to education reform and pressures to perform well on standardized tests(See previous post on this topic). With the pressures coming down from the top whether federal, state, or local district initiatives, schools across the nation are narrowing the focus to a sit and get type method. No matter how we would like to justify and explain that this is not happening, the truth of the matter is that it is happening. Schools are working like mad to move those bubble kids and as a consequence we are leaving behind some of our brightest and others that are not a major concern for punishment. People around the world are beginning to realize that “when bubble tests define what gets taught, we end up with narrow and shallow curriculum.”

Preschools no longer look like preschools. Kids are expected to enter kindergarten with skill sets that they should be learning and developing in kindergarten. Kindergarten has kids sitting more than ever before and this simply is not fair to the learners who at the age of five and their developmental stages should still be experiencing play and experiments. Unfortunately with the pressure to identify, be able to read, understand math, and other “essential” skills the culture of play and tinkering is being lost to worksheets, drill and kill, and standardized curriculums that educators fear deviating from for fear of punishment or loss of jobs.

Tests reign supreme. There is now kickback from both parents and students. Schools are looking to find ways to engage students after losing their attention. Teachers are slowly losing their love for teaching because they can’t. They have to follow a binder, say key phrases and are slowly morphing into robots.

Without repeating my whole previous post, let me shift the focus back to why PBL and deeper learning are taking off. It is taking off because schools have had enough. Administrators, educators, students, and the community want something more. To push the idea of PBL is a natural fit. Students become excited. Multiple choice fill in the blank tests slowly go away and the community can be invited to see what students are learning and doing. As projects begin to grow and develop, more people get involved and schools are able to see a shift in the excitement of learning.

It does not matter what model you look at in terms of how to incorporate project based learning. The key is to hold true to the essential elements of a quality project.

In order to develop high quality PBL, educators need training, they need time to work, time to develop their ideas, and protocols and tools in place to make it happen.

If I can use my school for an example. The state of Iowa has set aside money for TLC. With this money and new leadership roles our building has three instructional coaches. Besides the tasks of PLCs, data, meetings, and other regulatory parts of the job we have time and allocation to work with teachers to develop projects. We set up project tunings, brainstorm sessions, do it schedules, exhibition prep, record lessons, help with field trips, documentation of learning for teachers, and more. Basically, we are here to serve and support the educators where they need help to move their teaching and practice to new levels. We are not the answers, but we are a sounding board to help educators find the answers that they all have inside them and just need help out bringing out.

I will share in future posts how we do all of this, but for now I want to bring up these opportunities because it is important to note that teachers cannot do it alone. For so long we have expected teachers to do it by themselves. Just like we teach our learners we must work collaboratively and network to find the answers. Educators must do the same.

This is a radical shift and perhaps something that is new for many educators. For so long, teachers have been islands working to develop their own solutions by themselves. Now, more schools are increasing the support for educators and they must learn how to ask for help and how to receive help.

As this support network increases, we must see changes in teaching. The days of kindergarten had elements of pbl. Elementary used to be pbl. Art classes, industrial tech, living skills, are all PBL focused. Science labs where experiments were conducted are natural fits of pbl(as long as they are not the cookie cutter ones where everyone gets the same results). Even, gifted programs operate on a pbl model(at least when I taught gifted students were always knee deep in inquiry and problem solving).

Once again, use the resources below to determine if you have pbl already happening in your school. Maybe you do. Maybe you have some elements and just need to tweak what you have to make it pbl. Maybe you don’t have any of it and need to start. The key here to raise your own awareness. Identify your base foundation of your school and/or classroom. In order to make change you need to know where you are starting. You must first identify your Point A so you can plan for your Point B.

DISCLAIMER: I do not want to provide a standard recipe. You can find all types of templates and forms to create your project whether you look into BIE and their tools or HTH or many of the others schools that use project frameworks to develop deeper learning opportunities.

Remember, projects are a creation over time. This is not a one and done approach. PBL is not an end all be all system either. It is a tool, one tool, to help you develop deeper learning in your classroom.

Here are some articles with various twists to projects, but they all work. I share these in hopes that you find one that connects best for you.

8 Essentials for Project-Based Learning (by BIE) on bie.org 

9 Steps of PBL


11 Steps Of Effective Project-Based Learning In A Blended Classroom

Did you find common themes? Basically, posing a problem, digging into resources, developing an action plan, implementing that plan, sharing out learning, and reflecting on the process.

We have a system that we use, but I really don’t want to share a cookie cutter approach because so many schools do things a bit different and knock learning out of the park, but they have the key elements mentioned in previous paragraph.

I challenge you to take a look at what you are currently teaching. What elements do you have? What elements are missing? How can you take what you are currently teaching and begin to tweak and shift things around to develop a project?

Leave a comment and let me know what your school is doing/not doing. I would love to have educators share their insights and ideas. Also, share out any questions you have and what you would like to learn.

As Heather Wolpert-Gawron writes, “PBL doesn’t ask you to replace your content. It asks that you create a vehicle in which to communicate your content.” 

In post five of this series I want to move from the posts of theory and big ideas and share with you something that we use in our school that has fundamentally transformed project development, collaboration, and brainstorming. I will break down and share out our project tuning protocol. This is jumping the gun a bit, but I want to stop these long posts of big idea talk and move to practical tools that anyone can use.



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One thought on “Why is PBL a new hot ticket buzz word in education?

  1. I am so glad you included this in your post “Elementary used to be pbl. Art classes, industrial tech, living skills, are all PBL focused.” From my perspective this is the reason for PBL in core classes. Classes that naturally included PBL have slowly been reduced or eliminated. Our core teachers realized that and try and compensate but, most of the time, they don’t have the time, resources or skill to switch to PBL.

    Great Post.