People often ask me what the inspiration was behind the title of my two books on Project-based Learning: Keeping it Real with PBL. At the risk of trying to sound too hip, I believed the message at its core was essential. And I was committed to honoring a voice that I thought was lacking in the field, as it relates to PBL and the work of teachers in the trenches. For every one tweet, blog or presentation that I sit through that pontificates the need and importance of PBL, I see ten teachers that are disengaged- due to a disconnect between theory and practice. I hear their murmurs and see their comments: “How is PBL possible with Kindergartners—and what does it even look like with five year olds?”, “How does PBL align with our district benchmark assessments?”, “How am I supposed to do PBL when it doesn’t map onto my pacing guide?” Those ten teachers are for whom I wrote my books—I see you. I hear you. I feel you! You ten teachers represent millions of teachers trying to do good work, despite the mixed messages they hear daily about teaching and learning, in an ever-changing educational landscape. So no more pretending that PBL is an easy lift that can happen overnight, let’s keep it real and talk about what makes this work hard – so we can name it, game-plan for it and make it happen.
We need to have these taboo conversations because denying the challenges of PBL keeps us from removing the barriers to doing this important work!
What Makes PBL Hard
While there are many challenges that I could list that make PBL difficult to implement, I want to highlight the three largest deterrents I see for teachers when they are considering trying PBL:
- Misalignment and mixed-messages
When it comes to PBL, there seems to be a pretty large disconnect between the people who are making decisions about teaching and learning and those that are actually doing it. From 3,000 feet it may be easy for decision makers to see how PBL fits into the larger picture, but until concrete connections are made for teachers it remains nebulous. And by concrete I mean: clearly communicating “the why” behind PBL for each context and community, expressing expectations to all stakeholders, articulating how PBL will align with other pre-existing initiatives, showing teachers how PBL fits into their daily/yearly schedule and curricular commitments. Assuming that these connections will organically happen only leads to confusion, early mis-steps, and makes the work messier than it needs to be!
- The standards struggle is real
Content standards are the reality that every teacher must exist within, so we must show teachers explicitly how PBL works with standards…AND assessment best practices. We must dispel the myth that PBL is not rooted in standards, or that assessment doesn’t happen in PBL because it is “student driven.” Expecting teachers to navigate these myths, without guidance, makes the work more difficult than it needs to be. We must meet teachers where they are and honor the realities that they face every day: standards and assessing student understanding of content, alongside development of skills.
- Big barriers exist
The comprehensive model of schools makes doing PBL difficult—not impossible, but difficult; from large caseloads of students, to limited resources for PD, to minimal planning time with colleagues. These challenges truly require schools to “innovate inside the box” as George Couros teaches us in his latest book. With structures such as team teaching or block periods, and mechanisms in place such as “collaboration wheels” or frequent (and effective!) PLC planning times, teachers are more inclined to “take up” PBL because it helps them with the lift.
Why PBL is worth it
Now that we got all that #realtalk out of the way, it’s important to remember that just because PBL is hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. In a previous post for Corwin Connect I explain why PBL makes me unapologetic: because it’s about the kids, it empowers teachers and it brings together communities. I would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who doesn’t prioritize student engagement, performance or preparation for the future; and if PBL is a vehicle to help us get to those goals, then I would argue it’s worth the good fight.
Just because PBL is hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
So now what?
Have some real conversations that focus on PBL initiative alignment at your district, find your tribe who is ready and willing to try PBL- whether in be on Twitter or at your school, and start getting creative with leadership at your site for ways to put some helpful structures in place to make PBL sustainable.