George Lucas Educational Foundation

Reflecting on How to be Innovative with PBL

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As I have sought to implement project-based learning in my French classes, I have often set aside time to reflect on the units I have designed in order to modify them for various reasons. Sometimes, it has been to make the pathway of inquiry more accessible to the diverse range of my students’ abilities and skills. Often, it has been that my students have had great suggestions on how to alter the unit, making it more engaging and interesting for them — that is particularly rewarding, because it is tangible evidence that they are hooked! Other times, it is because I have discovered that what I thought was important, turned out to be not as much so for my students. I have wondered how can I ensure that my project plans are innovative enough to capture students’ attention in such a way as to make them the drivers of the PBL wagon, and not me.

In my mind, one of the most important benefits of PBL (and which won me over, as it were) is that students are actually engaged in their own learning of significant content as they acquire the skills they need to be successful in life. For many years, my biggest struggle as an educator has been to battle apathy! My own driving question has been this:

How can I, as a World Language teacher, engage ALL my students in meaningful work that demonstrates all of the following:
- linguistic proficiency in three modes, oral and written: interpretive, interpersonal, presentational
- cross cultural sensitivity and appreciation of the diversity of humanity
- global and digital citizenship
- their own real-world learning journey

Tall order? Probably, But I suspect many teachers have high expectations of themselves to deliver quality learning opportunities to their students.

My next step is to review all my pbl-aligned units to see how well they line up with my DQ (i.e., driving question). I wonder how I am doing in my own inquiry? I also wonder how I can be more innovative than I have been so my students can also be more innovative? For example, in world languages, we always have one or more units connected to food and culture - how can one separate those?! ≪C’est impossible!≫ However, I don’t want to settle for a simple food project. How can I make that unit more meaningful and significant?

I decided that we should to a project on world hunger and food distribution, a topic of inquiry which is very meaningful in the Francophone world, since three of every five native speakers of French live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where hunger is a real life or death issue. The question is why is that so, and how can we, as globally aware individuals in North America, help to solve this problem? How can we make a difference? How will it change us as well? How can we contribute to healthier living, for ourselves and for others?

My aim is to be much more innovative so my students can also be innovative, as they seek to engage in important work. I am excited to see how we can achieve that goal!

How about you? What are some ways you are looking to innovate your units for the new school year? I would like to invite you to discuss this with me and with others as we take time to reflect this summer. I look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes,

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Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

Hi Don,
I love that you are approaching PBL planning through your own inquiry, complete with a Driving Question. And you're using the same iterative process of review/feedback/revision that we want students to use. No wonder you've been able to develop such stellar projects for teaching world languages!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Thank you Suzie - coming from you that is especially meaningful!

Axa Carnes's picture

Thank you for this great post. Re. student motivation. It has helped me to study the characteristics of Millennials. They are innovators, problem solvers, socially conscious, members of social tribes, are not motivated to work unless it is something worth investing their time. This is what sold me on PBL because it is the right fit for our 21st century students. Students have changed the direction of a project due to inquiry. Last year, we did a country project with a primary focus on ecology. I threw in there that students had to also find a non-ecological problem that directly affected humans, such as poverty, child labor, etc. Students took off running with the human problem. They were much more interested in human trafficking, child labor, poor access to education than they were about contamination in the environment. So, we tweaked the EQ and I allowed them to choose as their final product a primary focus to on ecology or the human problem. Another result of the unit, was that students took on recycling at school. The district videographer came and created an awesome video which will be shown to the whole student body and beyond. Through this video students educate the student body regarding the importance of recycling and waste control and tied it to their study of a target country.

Axa Carnes's picture

Great! I may be able to do that after it has been shown to the school audience. We will do that when we come back to school in August.

Laura Clark's picture
Laura Clark
High School Spanish Teacher in South Carolina

I am so thrilled to discover this discussion. Thanks for your article and being real about how much thought goes into PBL in the WL classroom. I was especially interested because last year I was allowed to create a course that combines Spanish I and Social Entrepreneurship. I still struggle with how to combine the two in an organic and inquiry based fashion but after 5 years in the traditional model of teaching, I can say my students are typically highly engaged every day. They love learning about the various social issues that affect us globally and locally and creating "solutions" to help in some way.

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