Leveling Up Your PBL Game to True LifePractice
The other day, I was talking with Clint Corby, a very brilliant school leader, and Principal of Hillsboro Middle and High School in Hillsboro Kansas. And for a few minutes, we had another go-round at a topic that we seem to always wrestle with: How much of a kid’s day should be spent in a Project/Problem Based Learning environment? Spoiler: we don’t agree… until we do.
We’ve worked together off/on for the past few years and I absolutely respect Clint’s vision and work for schools; I will always defer 100% to his belief about what’s best for his students & staff. And I think he respects my vision for schools and my ability to help others share that vision and then bring it alive. So when we wrestle with topics, it’s from a position of safe footing and with the intent to stretch each others’ thinking deeper into the possibilities and realities of innovation and change, while still seeking common ground. He’s never advocating for the status quo and I’m never advocating for disconnected ivory towers. So we know we’ll eventually strike a perfect note (or four) of agreement.
Sidenote: I hope each of you has a “Clint” in your life…someone who is willing to help you wrestle with all sorts of tricky topics in order to get both of you to a better place.
So in the middle of a virtual PLC connecting educators from multiple rural schools, when the topic of how much time should a MS/HS kid spend in a PBL setting arose, I invited Clint to respond and let us “duke out” the conversation as other people watched, hopefully, helping them to see the various facets of the argument and make a call for themselves and their kids, based on what they think they’re ready for. And I have tried my best to recreate Clint’s point of view here because he’s busy being a principal and doesn’t need to take the time to write it out (although he has approved it).
QUESTION: How much of a kid’s day should be spent in a Project/Problem Based Learning environment?
PBL should be the large majority, up to 99% of a student’s learning day. The world beyond school, which includes college, operates in a just-in-time learning environment that requires (successful) people to operate with the skills to manage time, task, self, and others. These are the skills we want students mastering more so than memorization, test-taking, note-taking, hand-raising, etc. Life needs us to be able to be given (or better, seek out) problems that need solved, make a plan, then execute that plan to completion. That’s PBL. How could we ever step outside of those bounds and still claim we’re “preparing kids for real life.”
I get all that and agree. But PBL, when all teachers are doing units with kids, can truly-over work and over-stress the kids, especially if they’re doing great, in-depth work. Realistically, a MS/HS kid can only manage 1 or maybe 2 projects at a time. And this is doubly true for students who are involved in extracurricular activities and/or who have lives at home. PBL is great and we want students to have a great experience with it. We cannot turn them off great learning by overwhelming them, which only stresses their teachers too. Too much of a good thing isn’t good at all.
Clint isn’t wrong. Neither am I. So what’s the disconnect? The structure of “school.”
You see, when we start to roll out real-world learning in our classrooms, the artificial structures we’ve put into our system starts to pinch and push back onto this change. Our system is built to sort and classify kids and the structure of time within the learning day is a quiet, omnipresent ruler of the order. PBL is not about that. It’s about flexibility. It’s about depth of learning and engagement, unbound by time, except for the deadlines we assign to it. Done well, it does consume our brains & passions. And asking kids to split their brains between radically different concepts to great depth is difficult at best. And it’s impossible for most, including me.
So what’s the solution? Stop PBL? Slow it down? Why? In order to keep the structure in place? When we choose that option, we’re slowing down learning in order to keep status quo. And if you’re about slowing down learning, you can do that. I don’t want to.
In fact, if I believe in the power of PBL to create powerful, independent, self-advocating, self-driven, passionate people, then I’m going to find a way to change the status quo school structure to allow in the Good for my babies. Period. What needs to change? Not the learning. Ever. We can rewrite our systems to serve the students, not serve itself. After all, we’re raising kids, not schedules, right?
Conclusion: In order to get to 99% of kids’ learning day in a PBL environment, we’ll want to de-silo our classrooms & schools. Many schools (ie, teachers OR students) aren’t ready for that. First steps to getting there:
- Establish teacher buy in for the benefits of active, student-led learning and understand that shifting to student-led learning doesn’t happen overnight.
- Begin practicing PBL in your classroom with kids. Help them unlearn their previous “student-like” behaviors and shift into embracing the rigor/freedom of learner behaviors. Because these two things aren’t the same. And it will take a good amount of experience and success for students to unlearn this crippling “wait to be told exactly what to do” behavior. Meanwhile, teachers are learning how to hook kids deeply and manage this type of learning environment, figuring out not only how to bring their own content to bear, but also how to begin integrating other pieces of content when possible.
- Build to a tipping point of teachers operating in this way. But be vigilant when you’re getting to this point because you’re going to want to pull the plug on this quickly. You can’t keep your students overwhelmed for long because they’ll shut down, rightfully. Have them help problem-solve, shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers, about how to break down the silos so that we can have 1 deep project at a time that really brings good content learning and skills development. This gets messy as teachers begin to look at their content as something more than an informational checklist.
- Begin to prototype the unsilo’d projects, slowly, and carefully, listening to kids and teachers when pinch-points begin to get identified.
Basically, what we’re talking about is the deconstruction of school and the reconstruction of learning. Because if PBL more closely mimics what life is like beyond the four walls of schools (which does include college), and if we say that we’re preparing kids for that life, then why would we not want to have kids working like this all the time? Or maybe I should ask, why would we want them working in a way that doesn’t prepare them for what life is like outside of the four walls of school?
And before someone comes at me with the, “but they have to learn to sit, listen, & take notes in college!” I have 3 responses:
- I’m not preparing them for only the next 4 years of their life. I’m preparing them for life. And if that includes college, then that’s part of the challenge of PBL. But I’d say that post-secondary ed is becoming less and less like that for many students (go ahead and ask me for evidence of this). So… again, the challenge is, if that’s the path for a few kids, how do we make that part of the path to life…which isn’t like a college lecture hall at all. Because that lecture hall really isn’t the end-game for kids, is it?
- How many of your kids are going to lecture hall college? How many are/should be going to a more hands-on postsecondary education? So then maybe the question we want to ask too is how do we better prepare THEM for that path?
- This is a question I get from elementary teachers asking about prepping for middle school…and middle school teachers asking about prepping for high school….and high school teachers prepping for college…and, I kid you not, I get the same question from college professors asking about jobs. Yes, I teach all those levels. And yes, they all are picturing the next level being all lecture halls and multiple choice tests. I assure you, each level is NOT that alone any more, no matter how traditional the environment. I think we in education might want to step out of our age-based silos and take a look at the end game for our students, not just the next level. If we create learners, they’ll be ok, even inside a lecture hall. They’ll hate it, but they’ll survive it because they too will see the end game…but now they’ll know how to build it.
So what do you think?
I hope you have someone like Clint in your life. Someone brilliant and as passionate as you are about making school and life great for ALL kids and willing to go to the mat with people who are willing to suss out the best routes to go.
I’m truly blessed to have MANY people who are willing to help me wrestle with all sorts of topics. If you’re one, thank you. You keep me sane.
You’re looking to support PBL in your school and community? The daily practicalities are precisely the stumbling blocks where new-to-PBL teachers decide that PBL isn’t for them and with over 13 years of K12 PBL experience, I can help navigate and knock flat those pesky daily hurdles.
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