George Lucas Educational Foundation
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All great teachers do great work. And not only that, but they also do different work. Great teachers are always looking to improve practice, steal ideas and try new things -- all in order to meet the needs of their students. PBL teachers are no exception. Any teacher who is truly doing PBL would also agree that it's different. There is something about being a PBL teacher that requires different work, and work that is especially capitalized when implementing a PBL project. Because I work with so many PBL teachers, I feel there are some things that PBL teachers should specifically be proud of. I present them in these six affirmations.

1) PBL Teachers Collaborate with Each Other

Although PBL teachers often start out with projects in just their own subject area, most create integrated projects with teachers of other disciplines. In that creation, they seek to learn about how different contents connect with their own in authentic and meaningful ways. PBL teachers bounce project ideas off one another and engage in critique, such as the Critical Friends Consultancy Protocol, to seek meaningful feedback that will improve their projects.

2) PBL Teachers Give Power to Students

Through voice and inquiry, PBL teachers constantly reflect on how students can have more power in their learning environment. Teachers move from structured to guided to open inquiry as they do more and more PBL projects with their students, ultimately empowering students to take major ownership of their learning. During projects, PBL teachers use group contracts, learning logs and more to give students ownership of not only how they show their learning, but of how they spend their time moving toward those learning goals.

3) PBL Teachers are Learning Environment Designers

When PBL teachers engage in designing a PBL project, they are looking to create an engaging experience for all students. They are not only looking at the big package, but also at the nitty-gritty. They utilize their teacher bag of tricks to provide a variety of different learning activities and lessons that will arm students with the skills they need to perform well on the project. Rather than simply replicating lesson plans from year to year, PBL teachers constantly innovate and create engaging learning environments.

4) PBL Teachers are Student-Centered

PBL teachers know it isn't about them. Instead the focus is on the students. For instance, when crafting a driving question, they move away from convoluted, academic language toward challenging, student-friendly language. PBL gives space for differentiated instruction, and PBL teachers use that space. They know students can show their knowledge in different ways, and give opportunities to do just that. They create engaging entry events to hook students on the project. They look for constant real-world relevance in the topic, and they provide contexts for students to connect their lives to this work.

5) PBL Teachers Honor 21st Century Skills

Through instruction and assessment, PBL teachers honor 21st century skills through true leveraging. PBL teachers target specific 21st century skills to teach and assess, rather than haphazardly "doing them." They teach the skills of critical thinking, collaboration and communication through targeting instruction. PBL teachers work to balance not only the learning of their content, but the 21st century skills as well.

6) PBL Teachers Really Plan

And I mean they REALLY plan! Anyone who has done a PBL workshop and/or designed a PBL project knows that the majority of the planning occurs on the front end. PBL teachers design a plethora of critical components for PBL projects from driving questions to rubrics and assessments. They plan the majority of the project upfront to ensure that they can work with students during implementation. They work to make sure all elements of the machine are ready to go before kicking off the project!

PBL teachers, you are rockstars! You harness and hone all of these skills concurrently. The work you do with students is especially unique and honorable. This Teacher Appreciation Week, know that you are not only great teachers, but also teachers who possess specific qualities that I believe are challenging and rewarding.

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Debbie Shults's picture
Debbie Shults
Intervention Specialist grades 6-8 from Sarasota, Florida

I loved this article. My experience with PBL is completely in sync with the points made in the article. My years working collaboratively, across content with my teaching team have almost spoiled me for any other teaching experience. I would only make one change to the way we discuss PBL, and that is to call it Process Based Learning. It is the process of learning that makes the final project an authentic measure of learning.

Sandra Wozniak's picture
Sandra Wozniak
President, NJ Association for Middle Level Education

You are right on with your Kudos to PBL teachers. The key to providing all of that for your students is in the planning. As with anything in the classroom, the best laid plans are, well, they are constantly evolving. Monitoring and adjusting to student needs, resources and time constraints. We are lucky to have such wonderful sharing options today, so that we all do not have to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch. I worked with a great group of teachers through ISTE and NASA and we developed a PBL for the MMS Mission. We have it in a public livebinder ( - a great way to share. Do you know of a good repository for PBL's?

TMCSMATH's picture
Teacher of MS Math, Algebra, 6th Gr SS, MathCounts & Basketball coach...NC

Sounds Great! I need to do some research and/or get some PBL training. Any suggestions?

Kristal Mott's picture
Kristal Mott
Student, Teacher, Quest Elementary PBL Charter School

Thanks for affirming PBL teachers. I am currently student teaching at a wonderful PBL school and am seeing first hand how much planning goes into making the projects meaningingful, engaging, and rigorous.

Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School

Have you taken a look at BIE.ORG and all their resources. They also have a great community on Edmodo. PBL World is also coming up this summer in Napa. Might be a ways to travel, but worth it! Let me know what help I can be! Perhaps a trip to NC is in order!

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Pre-AP Science Instructor

A 7th affirmation should be: PBL teachers help students develop Scientific Process Skills where students develop innovative ideas and allow those ideas to be tested. I agree with the above six affirmations. I've been teaching for over 30 years but with cutting edge instruction always modifying and responding to how students learn and always collaborating with other teaching professionals. I've seen it all from top to bottom having taught all the Sciences and been Science Coordinator for over seven years. I have seen flaws thou coming from a few Curriculum Coordinators and Administrators that many times they are unaware about the way instruction should unfold in the innovative Science Classroom! For the first ten years of my teaching career, I butted heads several times with administrators who were just obstacles to student empowerment. Many people are astounded that what I was doing in the late 80's is what the science community is now telling teachers they should consider relative to Project Based Learning. I stayed on track by studying what was happening at major universities outside of Texas like University of Iowa who is the world's leader in Science Education and Project Zero at Harvard University who have impacted so many students and teachers worldwide. The majority of the places where I taught were not Project Based Learning Facilities other than the last two schools where I taught. I insisted on the Science Departments making transitions from traditional approaches to PBL. Community leaders and state governments measure success by test scores, ratings, and rankings! A better measurement device would be to see how many project ideas will leave the school environment and enter college research facilities and global competing markets. Teacher success should be measured by tracking ex-students and seeing how their projects in high school paved the way towards their college and professional endeavors. What PBL teachers need is grant money so that they can pursue the innovative end of their giftedness and strengths and in turn empower their students. PBL Teachers at the high school level should have hard money available to them the way college professors do. This forces teachers to stay on the cutting edge with out going broke. I have poured $50,000 plus of my own money into my Virtual Science University online course plus thousands of hours. I am almost broke but I am impacting society on a global scale! What matters is empowering young people! Everything else is water under the bridge!

Gregg Sinner's picture
Gregg Sinner, Senior School Change Coach

There is Problem Based Learning and there is Project Based Learning. Here might be a good place to clarify definitions. Arguably, projects can be "anything" that demonstrates learning via production of an artifact, while problems call for a "solution" arrived at by a particular process. Science projects demonstrate learning, but science problems demand application of the process of doing science aka the scientific method, yes? Are there accepted definitions and, if so, who are the deciders?

Veronica Bacigalupo's picture
Veronica Bacigalupo
Project Development Manager at iPEC Coaching

Thanks for your article. It's a reminder that PBL is about people and willingness. Willing people give feedback that is warm or kindly critical. Willing people listen with interest and ask good questions. Willing people take part in the collegial relationships because they want to impact students. How would our schools be different if everyone thought, felt, and acted this way?

Miss Andy's picture
Miss Andy
Innovative Learning Specialist in Wisconsin

Thanks for writing this great blog. I share with with my colleagues that I am working with to try and bring more Problem-Based Learning to our school. You touched on all areas of my experience with doing Problem-Based Learning.
Problem-Based Learning Teachers are such collaborative hard-workers. The meaningful learning that goes in these classrooms is different every time. I enjoy the part of PBL where critical friends can happen. You are then able to make these ever-evolving.

Pierre Bierre's picture
Pierre Bierre
Director, Algorithmic Geometry Project

I'll add an 8th: PBL educators collaborate with professionals who can co-instruct a course. The creative synergy and sharing of prep work are no-brainers. An industry co-instructor is plugged into all kinds of resources that a teacher lacks, including real-world projects, equipment, other experts, data and money.

This is how we've been teaching interdisciplinary Math-CS the past 2 years....a credentialed Math teacher partnering with a Computer Scientist co-instructor. We developed a whole spectrum of PBL challenges, from 20 minute mini-challenges to a 2 week class project.

Expect to give explicit guidance to students on how to conduct a project kick-off meeting. Expect to mentor students on how to "be listened to" and overcome social barriers to collaboration. Provide a clear goal, and the tools to accomplish it. Then get out of the way!

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