Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Real PBL teachers don’t do the work for their students

Real PBL teachers don’t do the work for their students

Related Tags: Project-Based Learning
More Related Discussions
5 Replies 1248 Views

One of the scariest things about deciding to use a project-based learning approach with your students is letting go. My experience has been that even the most creative teachers who have taken the leap into the PBL waters continue to find it difficult to let go of their role as teacher, despite having the best intentions for their students.

So why is this? I have a theory. Ego. What we commonly refer to as ‘ego’ is simply our self-esteem, our self-worth, our pride. When I first started teaching, I would hear things like, ‘How did your students do in the exam?’ Now I’m more likely to hear things like, ‘I got ten students with top results.’ This shift in focus from ‘their’ results to ‘my’ results is problematic but understandable in the current educational climate. There is so much pressure on teachers to meet certain benchmarks, especially when things like salaries become tied to student achievement. So when we mix PBL into a climate like this, what is the result? Sometimes, sadly, the focus on ‘results’ can be transferred to a focus on the final ‘products’ or ‘presentations’ that students share at the end of a project.

The nature of PBL is such that students are required to take responsibility for their learning. They own their learning, and if necessary, they own their failures as well. Unfortunately, when teacher accountability or ego comes into play, often failure is seen as a dirty word and we find teachers working tirelessly to ensure that the final product and/or presentation is at a standard that meets their expectations. Or worse, a perceived expectation of the expert or audience. The teacher is actually afraid to let their students fail because, naturally, they feel that this failure will reflect badly on them. As a result, we have students who become overly dependent on the goodwill (or anxiety?) of their teachers and therefore less self-reliant and even less willing to take risks or challenge norms. This, indeed, is problematic.

Real PBL teachers don’t do the work for their students. They don’t spend hours cutting and pasting, baking cakes or making signs. They aren’t up all night editing books or films, or making the presentation slides for their students. The best experiences I have had as a PBL teacher are when I have been actively involved in guiding my students through the process of trial and error, and then stepped back on the day of celebration. A well-planned project will allow students plenty of time to experiment, to take risks and to learn haphazardly. Yes, this may result in slightly dodgy picture books or poorly edited sound in films or nervous students reading from palm cards. Sometimes we can catch these ‘failings’ in the process of project work and sometimes we can’t. We need to be willing to accept that the young people in our care are learners and be secure in sharing their learning journey with others outside of the school. Yes, it can be very intimidating to allow people from outside in, but my experience is that we are much, much more critical of our students than anyone else. Remember, these guests have come to see what your students can do, not what you can do.

I firmly believe that in order to allow your students to learn, you need to give them the opportunity to fail. If I can leave you with one final note, it’s this: you can do the work for your students but you can’t do the learning for them.

Comments (5 Replies)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

This is so very true. I work with a lot of different teachers in several places, and the ones that struggle the most with implementing PBL are the ones who end up doing the most work for their students. In the end, they get a complete class set of perfectly crafted projects where it's impossible to assess what the kids know and don't know. The teachers then get frustrated and think PBL takes too much work, so they don't want to design like that any more. It's a vicious cycle that's hard to break.

(2)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

This is exactly why I wrote my book (Facilitating Authentic Learning- http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book237515 ). I saw a lot of teachers trying to do PBL but they couldn't find the balance between too much structure and support vs. not enough. I tell teachers to eat a Bit O Honey when they give kids something to do. The candy sticks your teeth together so you can't talk, reminding you to step back and let kids do what they can. We also encourage an "ask three/ then me" tool where students have to have three other people sign-off that they were unable to answer a question before the student is allowed to ask the teacher.

(1)
Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

I think that it takes a lot of experience with PBL and confidence. With instructions that are well-thought-out and explained, a good focused question / main goal, some small goals along the way that act as mileposts, and a knowledgeable teacher to answer questions or give hints, most students will succeed.
However, we have to be confident enough to let the students make mistakes. That's part of learning, as long as the teachers point out the mistakes, explain why it is a mistake, and help the students learn from them.
If students are shepherded through everything and the teachers do things for them, PBL becomes nearly meaningless, in my opinion.

(1)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

Yes! It's hard for many teachers to watch students struggle, isn't it? Even though we know (on some level) that the learning lives in the struggle and the reflection that comes after. I think teachers have to have specific things they need to do while the students are working- specific observation and coaching tasks that they can focus on. I can allow for more struggle if I know that I'm looking for specific things while they're working. I guess it's about having my own work (connected to the students') to focus on, rather than just standing around waiting for someone to ask me a question.

Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

Working on something is a good way also to not seem too attentive, which can stifle some kinds of students.

The students know that they can ask me any questions, some of which I answer, some of which I only give hints, and others where I ask a question back, but I usually work on something and get up and walk around the classroom every 15 minutes to make myself more available for questions and to see how they kids are doing.

Knowing students well is important because usually you can tell by their body language if there is a problem. If it is a group project, we also have to keep an eye on the group relationships. Other times, a student may need tutoring after school in some aspect that I cannot cover in class, for example, using quotations correctly or Powerpoint, etc.

(1)
Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

Working on something is a good way also to not seem too attentive, which can stifle some kinds of students.

The students know that they can ask me any questions, some of which I answer, some of which I only give hints, and others where I ask a question back, but I usually work on something and get up and walk around the classroom every 15 minutes to make myself more available for questions and to see how they kids are doing.

Knowing students well is important because usually you can tell by their body language if there is a problem. If it is a group project, we also have to keep an eye on the group relationships. Other times, a student may need tutoring after school in some aspect that I cannot cover in class, for example, using quotations correctly or Powerpoint, etc.

(1)
Hans Albanese's picture
Hans Albanese
English Language Arts teacher in Japan, Course Supervisor (past)

I think that it takes a lot of experience with PBL and confidence. With instructions that are well-thought-out and explained, a good focused question / main goal, some small goals along the way that act as mileposts, and a knowledgeable teacher to answer questions or give hints, most students will succeed.
However, we have to be confident enough to let the students make mistakes. That's part of learning, as long as the teachers point out the mistakes, explain why it is a mistake, and help the students learn from them.
If students are shepherded through everything and the teachers do things for them, PBL becomes nearly meaningless, in my opinion.

(1)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

This is exactly why I wrote my book (Facilitating Authentic Learning- http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book237515 ). I saw a lot of teachers trying to do PBL but they couldn't find the balance between too much structure and support vs. not enough. I tell teachers to eat a Bit O Honey when they give kids something to do. The candy sticks your teeth together so you can't talk, reminding you to step back and let kids do what they can. We also encourage an "ask three/ then me" tool where students have to have three other people sign-off that they were unable to answer a question before the student is allowed to ask the teacher.

(1)
Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

This is so very true. I work with a lot of different teachers in several places, and the ones that struggle the most with implementing PBL are the ones who end up doing the most work for their students. In the end, they get a complete class set of perfectly crafted projects where it's impossible to assess what the kids know and don't know. The teachers then get frustrated and think PBL takes too much work, so they don't want to design like that any more. It's a vicious cycle that's hard to break.

(2)

Discussion Grading PBL

Last comment 5 hours 38 sec ago in PBL Planning

blog Creating a Welcoming and Intellectually Challenging Classroom

Last comment 1 day 22 hours ago in Back to School

Discussion Project Management Methodology for the Primary School

Last comment 4 days 21 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion PBL & Kids with Special Needs/Autism Spectrum Disorders

Last comment 1 week 7 hours ago in Project-Based Learning

Discussion How do you improve education in Nairobi slums?

Last comment 1 week 1 day ago in Project-Based Learning

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.