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PBL Frustration!

Ms. Zack Math Teacher @ a Project Based Learning Charter High School Brighton, MI

Hi All,

I'm so frustrated right now! My school is brand new and is an all-PBL School. Sure, we have classes, but our classes are designed around PBL, so the idea is that I'll always have students working on projects with me, and I'm there to facilitate and guide them (particularly through the mathematical portions, since I am a math teacher).

I'm just so frustrated with my students! I've attempted 2 projects with my Algebra 2 students (The Great Debate: Which Cell Carrier is really best? and The Rocketeers: Real life PBL & The RocketBoys). and I'm in the middle of my 2nd project with Geometry (Building Bridges was first, and now we are doing ProjectHOME). Some of these projects have been designed by myself and my colleagues with whom I integrated the projects,and some, like the ProjectHOME that I'm working on now, come from

My frustration is that my students aren't engaging. They are whining and asking for a test and asking for a lecture and notes, etc. I just can't seem to get the buy in (which seems silly since they knew when they registered at our school what our mission was!).

Can anyone help me? Help them?

Comments (14)

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Firstly, our educational

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Firstly, our educational system will have to take responsibility for hard-wiring students to want worksheets, have the one correct answer, and testing. In PBL, students will have to learn in a totally different framework: learn-by-doing; taking risks because there's no one correct answer; and learn by collaborating with peers.

You may have to "transition" your students from the industrial age way of learning to the digital age. An orientation or rather re-orientation session about how one learns, citing research that demonstrates how students hardly retain learning from filling in worksheets, may give your students a sense of how neuroscience and best practices support learning that happens in a PBL framework. For example, in a traditional math class, if you give the wrong answer, then you're doomed. However in a PBL class, it must be made clear that you are looking for the strategies students employ and iterate to solve problems.

You may want to use a PBL approach as well to the PBL orientation. In this way, we practice what we preach.

Hope this helps.

Director, Strategic Resourcing and Programs at Tiger Woods Foundation

When I get stuck in a

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When I get stuck in a classroom, I ask myself these questions: Is it possible the students don't understand why they have to learn this? Is it relevant to them? Do you they feel connected to the lesson? How can it impact them?

Sometimes I ask students to design the actual lesson and work in small groups-- instead of me asking them to do what I planned. I give them the basic guidelines/structure of what needs to be accomplished. I let them constructively assess each other.

I just saw this article from Ben Johnson about students working collaboratively or collectively in preparation for college. I thought it was useful for student engagement strategies.

Hope this helps as well.

Learning technology integration coach in international schools

Avoid the activity dump and explain WHY

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The two BIG problems I see in watching teachers implement PBL are that they throw a lot of activities at the students, but they are all at the same level of learning (think BLOOMS taxonomy). AND, teachers forget to explain WHY the activities are important to the overall learning goals.

-I plan each unit with one activity related to each level of Bloom's....even the students who do not need to re-visit the lower levels, benefit from them. And, by doing this, teachers help all students raise their understanding of the subject. ALSO, by doing this, I avoid the "activity dump" .....the tendency for teachers to just "do" a lot of activities related to a topic but not really building UNDERSTANDING of that topic.

-Secondly, no matter what I do, I explain to the students WHY we are doing the activity. This keeps me accountable AND builds trust with the students. If I cannot coherently describe WHY an activity is necessary, then my students will not understand how the activity relates to their learning, either.

Hope this helps!!!

Journalist and PBL advocate

Adding Student Voice/Choice

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Hi Kristen,
Shifting to PBL can be challenging for teachers and students alike. It can take time to get into project mode, especially for students used to more traditional instruction. If it's any consolation, you aren't alone in feeling frustrated at lack of student engagement. (Check out this blog post from 2010:
You've described projects that you designed, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues, as well as ones you've adopted from Maybe it's time to bring students in at the design stage, so they are invested early. What are their interests? How can you leverage these for meaningful, academically rich projects?
Please let us know how it goes.

Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

It's Worth It - Stay the Course!

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You are getting some good advice from what I read in the earlier comments. My first piece of advice is to join the #pblchat PBL chat each Tuesday night at 9PM on Twitter. In fact, go on to Twitter, search #pblchat as soon as you can and search the entries that typically are posted on Wednesdays that summarize the night before. We all get new contacts, new links, new ideas, AND new encouragement and motivation each week!

My advice reinforces what has been sort of mentioned already: DON'T TRY TO LEAD THEM WITH IDEAS FROM YOU. Start with a broad question or challenge THAT'S IDENTIFIABLE AND INTERESTING AND REAL-WORLD TO THEM. And the step back, mentor when appropriate, redirect when needed, and don't try to be the expert. They will make mistakes; remind them this is normal. They will need to remember that this approach is very real world, that learning will occur during it, and that the knowledge will be retained and along with the skills developed, will prepare them for exciting lifelong learning and career opportunities.

It is all about the process. So don't feel you have to teach them process, rather help them discover and improve the process. Projects don't have to be long and, indeed, can early on even be guided. By that, do it small step by small step with lots of reflection with each step. And for sure, have the teams self-reflect within the team, and then as a class - reflecting on each team's outcomes. This is where the objective effort in problem solving becomes the skill of defining; and it's where the reflection / documentation effort in problem solving becomes the source of success of success and ever-improving skills.

Above all, have fun and don't set arbitrary deadlines. Hope you join us next Tuesday. @jcbjr

Math Teacher @ a Project Based Learning Charter High School Brighton, MI

Thank you!

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Hi All,

Thank you so much for your encouragement! I'm trying to brainstorm ways to get this project more engaging for my students this week, and you have all inspired me to do so. I'm so happy to be a part of the Edutopia community!

PBL leads to life skills

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We had the same problem in our school. The approach we took was to teach students that yes, there will be times in life when they will be tested for knowledge, skills, and aptitude (driver's license, promotion opportunities, i.e. sargeant's test, as entry-level credentials and the like), but that much more importantly employers hire and keep employees for their research, project-planning and product-development skills. PBL emphasizes creative thinking and problem-solving, communication and collaboration, and cross-cultural interactions, all attributes that help students more so than being a good test-taker. Students learn time management, evaluation, accountability, and technical skills that test-taking cannot teach and strengthens students' character and ethics, also. Transitioning to a "grown person" point of view comes hard for some students, and may require interventions to help students change their coping mechanisms that reinforce their doing less and accepting less. An emphasis on 21st Century skills (American Association of School Librarians) could be introduced as a schoolwide initiative in your school, if not already in place. Good luck with turning around your students underachieving philosophy and transforming them into future productive citizens.

Alexa Savich

I agree with your statements

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I agree with your statements on activities in your classroom. Often times, I will forget to tie the activities in my lesson with the learning essential question.

Time and Patience!

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I don't think your experience is so unusual when students are new to PBL. Often times they have been used to being more passive 'receivers of content and knowledge'. Now they are being asked to start questioning and thinking for themselves! It's harder work and can require more effort on their part. In my experience some students manage the transition smoothly but others find it more challenging and want to go back to what they are used to- listening to the teacher talk, worksheets and tests.

Changes I made to help solve similar problems:
1. Review the driving question to ensure it is stimulating and engaging for students.
2. Introduce the project with a fun/intriguing hook.
3. Review the guiding questions to ensure they support the learning and take students through the necessary steps/stages to enable them to process the content and answer the driving question.
4. Review the formative assessments to include reflective assessments/checklists that can be used as discussion pointers between me as the teacher and students who are having issues with engagement.
I hope something here might be of help, I found the suggestions from other people very helpful myself.


Middle School Science in Eugene, OR

Authentic Audience

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I have noticed that when I up the ante on the end result of the project students really get grinding. I have had students present to people from the local University (grad students often have clubs that love to get involved) and local professionals. When students know that their work matters and will be taken seriously by adults outside of the 'classroom setting' their work takes on more meaning for them and they really dig in.

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