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My PBL Pet Peeves: 4 Common Misconceptions

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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I have a commitment to high-quality PBL experiences for all students. I want to make sure that the projects teachers and students are creating and implementing together meet some minimum quality indicators. The Buck Institute for Education has an excellent rubric to assess a PBL project, as does the New Tech Network. This can help to make sure that your projects are in fact PBL and not a "dessert project." To that end, some of the terms and ideas that come up from time to time get on my nerves. Why? Because they run the risk of undermining high-quality PBL. Here are just some of the terms and ideas that I have issue with.

"PBL Lesson"

PBL is not a "lesson." Lessons are short-term instructional plans that take anywhere from a part of a day to multiple days of instruction. They focus on limited learning objectives. In addition, a lesson has a limited amount of assessments. PBL, on the other hand, has many lessons built into it. In fact, teachers plan PBL projects to meet multiple learning objectives, and use the lessons within it to scaffold the learning for students. Summative assessments take the form of products, and many formative assessments are planned to ensure that students master multiple learning outcomes in a PBL project. When people use the term "PBL lesson," it incorrectly oversimplifies the learning objectives and scope of a PBL project.

Unrelated Public Audience

Yes, one of the essential components of PBL is indeed a public audience. But PBL doesn't simply call for the work to be made public. The public audience component needs to make sense in terms of your project. It must be connected to the challenge, scenario, or problem of the project. If you have students creating and proposing new bridge designs, it would make sense to get an architect or engineer to review the designs. Simply posting it on a website isn't enough, and may not create the relevance and buy-in you want for students. It is critical that when teachers consider the public audience for a PBL project, the audience must connect in authentic and relevant ways. Ask yourself these two key reflection questions as you pick the right public audience:

  1. Who needs to see our work?
  2. Who would find our work helpful and important?

Inquiry Equals Research

Research by itself is not inquiry. The Buck Institute of Education describes inquiry in PBL this way: "Students are engaged in an extended, rigorous process of asking questions, using resources, and developing answers." Yes, research is one part of inquiry, but again, only one part of it. Inquiry is a cycle. When teachers launch the project, they should create a Need to Know list that includes students' questions, and they should use that list to guide the project. As students learn more, they develop new questions. These questions might be answered through teacher-designed activities and scaffolding, through research, or even through fieldwork. This process of questioning and developing answers takes more that just one cycle. If we want deeper learning in a PBL, there needs to be more that just research -- there needs to be inquiry. Consider this graphic posted on TeachThought.

Voice and Choice in Products Only

One major oversimplification is that voice and choice in PBL projects has to do only with the products that students create. Yes, this is one aspect of voice and choice, but another key component is how students conduct and spend their time in the project. Teachers need to consider not only what their students create, but also how they give students space to make decisions around teamwork, tasks, and the inquiry process. Now, this level of voice and choice depends not only on the age group, but also the level of the PBL learners. At the beginning stages of PBL, there may not be as much voice and choice, but there needs to be some. Many elementary teachers, for example, lead discussions and brainstorming sessions with students to help them figure out the next steps in the project, whether that takes the form of some instruction from the teacher or more inquiry. In PBL, all students can have some level of control in the inquiry process.

These are some of the terms and ideas around PBL that get on my nerves. If we want to make sure that we are in fact doing great PBL in our schools and community, we need to avoid these misunderstandings and incorrect ideas. While PBL has a variety of implementation methods, structures, and lengths, there are some minimum criteria that a project must meet for it to be PBL.

What are some of your PBL pet peeves?

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Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL's picture
Dave Philhower @bayareaPBL
PBL and Inclusion thought partner in Berkeley CA

Bravo, Andrew, and thanks for getting this conversation started.
One of my PBL pet peeves is the misconception that performance tasks are the preferred form of assessment in PBL. This misconception scares many teachers away, as it can seem too daunting, and misses the point of using student-engaged assessment all the way through the project.

John Larmer's picture
John Larmer
Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education

Ooh, ooh, I got one! (Or 20... Nice topic, Andrew.) It has to do with terminology, which figures because I'm a word guy. Some people refer to "the project" and mean "the thing students make" -- the scale model of the building, the geometric-shapes-mobile, the salt & flour map of the state. I think "the project" is the whole enchilada; the weeks of learning, planning, prototyping, testing, critique and revision, etc. which culminates when the final result - a product, findings, answer to a Driving Question, or solution to a problem - is shared. I like the analogy to a wedding: the project isn't just the event itself, it's all the planning and arranging and rehearsing that went into it.
Not going to get (too far) into another peeve, hearing people say, "My class did four PBLs this year" when "projects" is more grammatically correct. I'm told it's a sign of PBL's wider acceptance and I should be happy!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Can I jump in? My pet peeve is that all PBL should look the same and that, unless you have all your kids working totally independently all the time, you're not "doing" PBL. It's a continuum, right? Early on, kids (and teachers) need more structure, support and guidance. Over time and with experience, they need less- and can take on messier, more complicated "P"s.

Oh- and semantics. We've done the whole PBL vs. PBL vs. XBL conversation ( but it drives me nuts when people get hung up on which is a more effective pedagogy. The most effective pedagogy is the one that works.

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

Emily, What you are doing is fantastic! A quality standards based rubric can really allow for voice and choice in products because it's focused on the standards and objectives, not just the product itself. I do use a checklist for products to make sure some pieces are there that relate more to the product. Also, consider how students can self and peer assess themselves in the project and at the end. Reflections can work great here. When students own the assessment process, you can have them select formative assessments themselves!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Emily! We encourage teachers to co-create the rubrics and the criteria by which students will know the work is done and done well. Typically those rubrics (and the standards of quality created with the kids) are used over and over for similar work (i.e., A Quality Paper looks like...Includes...Requires the writer to...) and provide a baseline for evaluative conversation and reflection.

Justin Cook's picture
Justin Cook
Director of Learning, Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools

I really appreciate your post here, Andrew, and the follow-up discussion. I love the thread of teachers and students co-creating criteria for excellent work. This leads to my pet peeve misconception: that PBL is less "guided" than traditional teaching--that the teacher's role in setting high expectations for rigor is diminished in the name of inquiry. I recognize that it does take a master teacher to balance her own authority with student voice and choice, social emotional learning, etc. But when that culture of excellence is established in a learning community, it occurs because the teacher and students have shared ownership and authority. PBL has led me here more powerfully than any other teaching design.

Kevin Gant's picture
Kevin Gant
NBCT, Lead Teacher, nex+Gen Academy

I have two pet peeves: 1 legitimate, and 1 that is totally petty. Legitimate first. A teacher (like myself early in my PBL teaching experience) rolls out the project, and very nicely helps students identify what they know, need to know, and some possible next steps. And here is the pet peeve: The teacher then dictates to the students exactly which "next step" they should work on to begin with. This goes to Andrew's thoughts about voice and choice - what better time that the beginning of the project to let the students know that they can direct much of their learning?

The petty peeve (see what I did there?) comes when someone says, "I would like to design a PBL." or, "That was a great PBL!" *sigh*

EmilyLiebtag's picture

This post really resonated with the Curriculum and Instructional Design team at VIF, as we are working to navigate some of these issues in the design of our project-based inquiry units and lessons. We have noticed even in really high-quality PBI units that the assessment process is often very teacher-centered and often lacks student choice and voice. Therefore, we have started to incorporate more opportunities for student voice and choice into our PBI assessment practices, by allowing students to determine how they are assessed and what the assessment tool actually looks like. For example, we have created rubrics in which students are responsible for coming up with different aspects or "ingredients" that they will be evaluated on. We also have started to embed reflection questions in our assessments, where students are invited to provide feedback on what they would've changed about the unit or lesson, or about their own learning product. What are some ways that you are incorporating student voice and choice into the PBL assessment process and products?

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