a FAQ: “How often should I do PBL?”

a FAQ: “How often should I do PBL?”

One of the most common questions I get when teachers are learning about Project or Problem Based Learning is how often they should do a PBL unit. This is a smart question because as they start to look deeper into what a high-quality PBL unit is, it can be overwhelming. This is especially true if they’re starting from a pretty traditional approach of “I show, we do, you do” explicit instruction learning where all kids are being taught the same things in the same way so they all will be guaranteed to learn and experience all the same things. The idea that their kids can learn in a variety of ways and do so without the teacher directing every single step is daunting, even when they believe developing independence is good for their kids.

In short, I feel that if a teacher new to PBL sets up her class in a PBL style twice a year, that’s a great start. She’ll have time to deeply plan. Her kids will have a nice toe-dip. HOWEVER, her students, if they like it, will beg for more. And if they don’t like having to think/do work for themselves (hello, middle and high school kids) she can give them a “reprieve” from thinking as she regroups and plans her next foray.

Also, HOWEVER, her students will probably struggle with some of the important soft-skills we’re looking to develop. And just like someone who goes to the gym twice a year, they’ll be sore. They might be irritated. They won’t have a chance to get really good at those skills.

We want to have sustained practice using important skills, right? And we play like we practice? So let’s make the practice as real as possible and using as good form as possible. We would never consider exercising two times a year. In fact, we’d never recommend exercising only two times a month, right?

Project Based Learning

And so to follow up with the initial “two-times a year” permission to experiment and learn with PBL, we know that both students and teachers experience way more lasting and satisfactory success if they do PBL more often…in fact, as often as a teacher can regroup and have another leap forward. In fact, I feel that in most classrooms, by the time 5th grade hits, we can probably be doing PBL 100% of the time. The more often you practice PBL, the better you are at it. The more often a student practices PBL, the better she is at it.

But at first, sometimes we have to go slow to go fast. Maybe the first year, you try out 2 really big deal, long-term, content integrated PBL. And then the 2nd year, you try 4-5 PBL units. And then by the 3rd year, you might be ready to go full-time PBL with your classroom environment. I say go slow, but only so you can go fast. Don’t stay in the slow lane!

***side note — some gurus have taken exception to the phrase “doing PBL” and I can somewhat understand.
PBL — project- or problem- based learning — isn’t an event, certainly not an event in the way “doing projects” is. PBL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning. It’s an environment you create. It’s a mindset of learning by doing, and doing so with independence from someone telling us what-to, when-to, how-to at each step of the learning process. So to say you “do” PBL can offer a bit of a semantic quandary — but it’s a quandary that I really don’t mind. Are we learning by doing? Then don’t waste my time with picking on words we’re using when those matter less than what we’re actually doing. Clarity in communication matters, but we’ll get that out of the way and move on, right? 

So how often should you do PBL in your classroom? The real answer is, “as often as you can.” 


If you’re looking for more support with Project/Problem/Passion Based Learning at the K12 level, consider any combination of the following:



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Written by GingerLewman

  1. Hi Ginger! Good post – did you see mine on Friday about “PBL dosage”? And yes, it’s not a huge deal, but If I may geek out on this a bit more: “Doing PBL” is fine, it’s “doing a PBL” that peeves me.

  2. Oh, totally! “Doing a PBL?” Doing a Project Based Learning? hehehe, yeah. That’s an ugly one, if just on grammatical issue!

    Thanks for reading my post, John. I’ll have to go check out your PBL dosage post. I haven’t seen it yet. This is it, right?

Copyright © 2016