Don’t just say it. Do it! Motivation and PBL
This week, I’m answering a few FAQs I received from a local school district as the teachers and administrators were being introduced to the foundations of PBL (project/problem/passion-based learning). My goal is to answer one of those questions each day. Today’s post is day 3.
How does PBL motivate students to really strive for excellence…really, not just say it.
This question made me nod and then laugh. Yes, of course, we want kids to really strive for excellence and a lot of what PBL does is helps foster that environment. But then the last of that question…”really, not just say it.” I LOVE it! A cynic/realist after my own heart! Because the truth is there are a lot of speakers and authors out there talking about engagement, but too many of those turn out to be … less than real, no matter how much “fidelity” we put into implementing them.
And the last thing I want to be is another one of those talking heads who can spout the research and data while showing no results on real kids.
So I laugh. And I know. Because while I have my own stripe of cynicism, at the end of the day, I WANT THOSE KIDS ENGAGED. Yes. I just yelled that. It’s important. Too important to just talk about. Which is why I’m such a proponent of PBL.
So since we’re getting real, let’s talk some truth.
High school and middle school students who are deeply disengaged may have been that way since 2nd grade…some even before. Let’s do some math. Say I have a 16 year old who has been intellectually checked out at school since 2nd grade…8 years. HALF of her life. About 75% of her sentient life. We can say, with some certitude, that’s all she knows about school…that it’s a game to get through. That how she currently is surviving is “good enough.” This is who she, effectively, has become. No strategy will work the first time with her. She’s engrained in apathy or whatever she’s got going on. And they all can smell the “banana oil” a mile away. So whatever you come at them with, it’d better be real. And know that it took years to develop that other path, so it might take years of consistent love to bring her back. Have consistency and patience.
This is the foundation I always begin from. Kids who are disengaged are ones we have a moral obligation to recapture. To reengage. And the pieces that PBL brings to the table are so vital to the process.
Students are used to being told what to, when to, and how-to since day one. When they are given choices, those are usually limited choices. And in our current world outside of school, students are used to being able to customize nearly everything. So when we start letting kids make real choices in the classroom, it’s a good thing. Many first lose their minds at first when we lift our thumbs and start giving some freedom, but we know what will happen and have strategies in place to help kids through this first awkward phase of freedom. Remember the kid you used to know who had very strict parents? Remember the first few months/years of their lives when they left home? If we want kids to begin to take responsibility we have to give them choices and support for when they fall. Want to learn more? Check out Lessons for LifePractice Learning for a longer, more detailed support for fostering kids’ choice and voice in the classroom.
- Students crave authenticity in their work. They’ll do anything we ask of them. They just want it to matter. I get it. I don’t want to spin my wheels for 8+ hours a day either. I want my work to mean something. So when we are able to not only bring reality into the classroom, but also get our kids and their work out into the world, something changes. Some times suddenly, sometimes eventually, kids start to get that this isn’t what they’ve always done. Or known. That this work is different. And it might matter. To some, they want to save the world. Some simply want to save their families. Some just want to have fun in their learning. PBL allows us to make room for each of those. The trick is getting ourselves ready and able to accommodate all our kids. But it can be done.
- Flexibility in content, time, learning preferences, and whatever it takes to customize the shifting interests of the student who is just beginning to explore who she is and who she might want to be. Some teachers may not feel they have that flexibility. And at first, when you’re learning how to create this environment, it’s true. But sticking with your own learning as an educator will allow the flexibility to be on boarded once you know how to manage your own content, time, learning preferences, etc. I promise.
- Most importantly of all pieces we must have in place to allow PBL to truly and deeply engage our kids is the mindset of the teacher to do what each kid needs. To create the culture of a learners’ classroom. Student-centered. Whatever it takes. The refusal to let one kid go. To go down swinging (figuratively) as we give our all to each. The passion to try our hardest, fail, and go back again. This isn’t taught in preservice. Nor is it taught in most inservices. Nor can it really be taught at all. It’s something you are…or aren’t. To see kids as exactly that: kids. No matter how hard they are. Or unwilling. Or hurtful. Or hateful. They. Are. Kids. They’re not done yet. It’s our job to partner with families, colleagues, community members, and do what it takes. Anything less is … well … not what teachers do. We don’t have to do it alone. But we do have to do it.
None of these things are easy to incorporate into a classroom environment. Nor are they fast to incorporate. But as you know, nothing worth doing is easy — otherwise you’d already be doing it. Give yourself some time to learn, some room to experiment, fail, and try again. And in the process of learning how to do this for your kids, you become a deeper learner who is able to foster that in your own kids too. I promise. We can get all kids to reach for more and better.
If you’re interested in what you’re reading here and want more, or if you find yourself nodding along to some of the truths that have been laid down here, please…do your kids and yourself a favor (or a colleague if s/he needs it) and check out Lessons for LifePractice Learning. It’s a book that was just published, jam-packed with ideas like these! You can get it on Kindle or paperback. or even iBooks now, for a whole-PLC book study!