Where Are You on the Continuum of PBL Implementation?

Where Are You on the Continuum of PBL Implementation?

For the past 14-ish years of my 26 years as an educator, I’ve been practicing Project Based Learning.

Of course, I started as a beginner PBL practitioner, but within 2 years I was helping other teachers learn how to build onto their own PBL understanding and practice. And eventually, I began working as a consultant. In this role, I get the honor of working with thousands of educators across all grade levels and who are coming with a variety of PBL experience and implementation, and who are working in a variety of locations around the globe. It’s really a bit overwhelming when I think about it.

Along my journey, I’ve noticed that there seems to be some very clear patterns that emerge in educators (and their communities) as they move from the beginner level, to the experienced level, to even another level of PBL being less about what they do in their classrooms and it becomes simply how their classroom culture operates.

It’s an intriguing observation that has led to interesting connections in my brain recently.

Today, I was working within another branch of my job as a part of the ESSDACK Resilience Team. This team helps educators and communities learn how to heal trauma and solve poverty. And some of that work is helping schools understand the continuum of moving toward being able to say they’re truly Trauma-Informed. Because just attending a workshop isn’t going to get you there. That with the first time we learn that there are things like ACEs and that there is science that begins to explain some of the struggles we see in kids (and ourselves). And that there are some things we might be able to do to help the kids heal and thrive… well, that’s what we call Trauma-Aware. And as we learn more and begin to implement changes in our schools and communities, we move through several signposts of progress before we even get close to Trauma Informed, which might take up to 7 years or more! It’s very much about the realization that the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know much! 

I was thinking about that Trauma-Informed continuum today as I was making connections between PBL and the restorative justice practices. And it hit me: we also have a continuum of implementation with PBL!

Way Station 1
I think when we first start digging into PBL and understanding that it’s complex…And that it’s not the same as “doing projects.” … And that there is a clear cycle to the process that we want to invoke… And that it really might awaken an engagement and learning that’s unlike other pedagogy we use in schools… I think we could call that first step, “PBL-Aware.”  At this point, we may have tried one unit. Or we might just be trying out some of the pieces of PBL, such as the presentation protocols, or grouping strategies, or developing a project launch strategy (or a launch strategy) and KADQ.

Way Station 2
Then we start moving into building more units. And practicing PBL not as a stand-alone event a couple times a year, but as a regular part of our curriculum “delivery” process, we move into the realm of “PBL-Sensitive.”  Ok, so that’s not the best word. There’s something better out there. But it’s still a way station along the continuum.

Way Station 3
Eventually, we really see a variety of kids coming alive. We are integrating content in our PBL experiences. Students are beginning to drive some of their own learning independently of the teachers’ promptings and agenda. And we as educators are also learning so much more — not just about kids and teaching & learning, but also so much more about our content, others’ content, and gosh, just life! And we’re understanding that PBL, as a collaborative approach to life, is a lot more productive successful than just a single unit. We call this … what? “PBL-Responsive” Again, there’s a better word for it, I’m sure.

Way Station 4
Finally, we’ve transformed not just a classroom, but our entire learning environment for our kids. We no longer talk in terms of “PBL” or “math” or “electives” in our days but instead, we simply talk about learning or projects or initiatives, or — whatever else the learners are working on. Unless of course, we’re talking to others who are not in our community about what we’re doing or the path we’ve traveled. In those cases, we explain what’s going on as “PBL” even if we know that’s not the full story. We also see students who’ve left us thriving and providing useful feedback about how we could continue to improve for kids like them. And when we have a change in leadership, this approach continues. This would be “PBL-informed?” Nope. Not good. But the continuum is still real.

What do you think? Where are you on this continuum? What am I missing? Where, realistically, do you think your community wants to be?


Let me know where you’d like a little help on the daily realities of Project & Problem Based Learning!

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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Written by GingerLewman

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