Making a Mess of PBL

Every so often, I re-read Dan Pink’s blog post called “Why you should come up with at least 1 bad idea today,” and I’m reminded that authentic PBL ought to be messy. Following is a short list of potential pitfalls that I’d encourage us to embrace rather than avoid:

1. The project design has imperfections. For me, the biggest hurdles to developing authentic, research-based PBL have always involved the move from “nothing to something.” I struggle to live up to my own expectations: I want each new project design to be perfect… from the beginning. We often say that we want to create more of an inquiry-based learning environment where students are encouraged to experience failure, to reflect on their work, and to make incremental progress. I often feel as though my approach to PBL design ought to model this behavior in my role as ‘co-learner’ with students. We’ve got to be flexible (and vulnerable?) enough to ask students for their advice and feedback about identifying and correcting design flaws – both during and after PBL. I strive to embrace the imperfections as opportunities to engage students in dialogue and share my learning process as a teacher.

2. We can’t see the end from the beginning. As many of us do, I have worked to ‘reverse-engineer’ the courses I teach. I begin with essential questions: what do I want students to know and what do I want students to be able to do at the end of the unit//semester/course and work backward from assessments to day-by-day planning. It’s hard to let go of that process and embrace a messier planning model for PBL. For me, planning authentic PBL is messy because we want students to have more ownership over the process – which means we won’t know precisely what directions students choose until they choose. Students will make mistakes along the way; their progress will be uneven; and sometimes their struggles will be uncomfortable – for them and for us. In my view, when we embrace the notion that losing (or largely giving up) control over students’ PBL processes is okay, we help to set ourselves moving along a path toward authenticity – which serves our students well.

3. Using the technology tools is overwhelming. For example, my students in Economics and I are in the process of developing a photography project. I’ve outlined a vision: students will use their cell phone cameras to capture ‘real world’ examples of concepts from economics, we’ll ‘tag’ the photo collection together, and then we’ll choose examples from the photo library to create writing prompts for assessment. (The end result may actually look quite different; see #1 and #2 above.) I have no idea which tool(s) will best facilitate collecting, tagging, and sharing digital photos. I’ve asked my PLN and my students for suggestions (and I remain open to hearing more!). After students and I decide, many all of us will have to learn how to use the tool together as we go along. I embrace this potential pitfall; it has the potential to create powerful opportunities for students and me to collaborate as learners and problem-solvers.

To conclude, the history teacher in me takes great comfort in following FDR’s example as “experimenter-in-chief” during the Great Depression:

The historian Eric Goldman wrote of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “he trusted no system except the system of endless experimentation.” FDR himself made this point time and time again. At Oglethorpe University, FDR declared, “this country needs bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something” (see Jonah Goldberg).

The phrase that speaks most clearly to me is FDR’s advice for when an experiment fails: “admit it frankly and try another.” Developing authentic PBL with our students can create opportunities for us to model the process of continual growth and improvement that defines our professionalism as teachers.

What other pitfalls should we embrace as we consider PBL?


About Dr. Ostroff

Head of Upper School at The Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX
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2 Responses to Making a Mess of PBL

  1. Pingback: PBL for the history classroom… « Back to the Basics

  2. Pingback: Musings « Feed Curiosity

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