So, I’ve been thinking about Project Based Learning (PBL). As my school thinks about expanding our interdisciplinary course work, PBL has, of course, entered the discussion. I’m a fan of PBL, and I know it’s not easy. However, I think I might have forgotten just how much work it is to do well.
To review, there are projects that teachers plan at the end of a unit, as summative work. In that case, the learning happens and then the project is the assessment of the learning. Then there is project-based learning (PBL) where the learning happens in and around the project. In an effort to see more true PBL in action, I’ve been visiting other schools that are PBL based and going to a lot of conference sessions on the topic. All of this looking and listening has been super interesting. I’ve seen examples of units and projects that look great: clear learning goals, interesting and engaging (to the kids) questions, integrated learning, and rigorous (I know that is a bit of a dirty word right now) work.
I’ve also seen examples that don’t hold up, where the unit is focussed on engaging products without enough learning, integrated or not. Some of what I have seen that is not working, in my opinion, is being described as project based learning, but the students are jumping right to the project (as if it was a project at the end of learning) and skipping over the learning.
Even so, I don’t think anyone I have observed in the classroom or heard from at conferences is not trying very hard to do right by kids. Where I think part of the downfall has happened is in one of two places: either too much focus on the engaging kids part or too much focus on the charming product part. Both of these flaws mean that the deep learning and effective evaluating of the learning is getting short changed. I have certainly been guilty of both mistakes, maybe even in the same unit.
I have not made any revelations here. Anyone who teaches knows that teaching is always a lot of work and some drudgery. Good teaching is a lot of smart, thoughtful work and some drudgery. Effective and rigorous PBL shifts a lot of the teacher workload to the beginning of the unit. Then, during the unit there is lots of on the fly instruction, formative assessment to determine what content needs some direct instruction, conferencing with groups or individuals etc. There are a million moving parts. This is not work for the faint of heart.
I can see that as I have been spending more time thinking about interdisciplinary work and PBL, I have brought a wider range of ideas and approaches to my own teaching this year. As I think about teaching an interdisciplinary course next year, I guess my point is that I am excited to think more about this sort of work and mindful of the very real challenges it brings.