A few months back, I was making a repeat visit to a school that is encouraging the adoption of project-based learning to drive more student-centered learning. There’s no top-down mandate to shift to PBL. There’s no expectation that all students will be doing all projects in every class. Instead, school leaders are wisely recruiting early adopters and supporting teachers on their PBL journeys. I’ve enjoyed being an informal member of the support team—connecting teachers with resources, encouraging them to celebrate what’s working, and helping them troubleshoot challenges.
While some teachers are off and running with PBL, others are taking a wait-and-see approach. A few have been openly skeptical. Their concerns typically fall into the category of “yeah, buts.” For example: “Yeah, but I have to get my students ready for a high-stakes, end-of-course exam [such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate]. There’s no way I can cover all the content we have to get through with PBL.” Or: “Yeah, but my students don’t know enough about _______[math, French, etc.] to be able to apply it. They’re still mastering concepts and vocabulary.”
I try not to let these “yeah, buts” be the last word. To keep the conversation going, I might share resources or research to show that alternatives to teacher-led, textbook-based instruction are indeed possible. I encourage teachers to visit classrooms where projects are underway and see for themselves whether students are engaged in rigorous, meaningful learning.
On my last visit to this school, I was surprised when an IB science teacher requested a meeting. She had been a consistent member of the “yeah, but” camp. I knew that her reluctance came from her deep commitment to her students. If they were willing to sign up for challenging IB coursework, she wasn’t about to let them down. But hearing about other successful projects had piqued her interest. She saw the value of students making real-world connections to what they were learning. She knew they would remember academic content better if they had a chance to apply it, not just memorize. She wanted to give students more of a voice in their own learning and more opportunities to build their confidence as problem solvers. Could PBL help them do all that—and still succeed in IB?
An hour of animated conversation later, she was well into designing her first project. She wisely started with a short-term project that had clearly focused learning goals. She built in student voice and collaboration, but limited the choice of final products and kept teams small. As she began to map out a project calendar, she saw where she could plug in resources and assessments that she had used in the past. PBL felt new to her, to be sure, but this veteran teacher was hardly starting from scratch. She had all kinds of tools in her teaching toolkit that fit naturally into PBL. And she clearly had her students’ best interests at heart as she considered how she would support their learning.
I’d be exaggerating if I said this was a tipping point. But it certainly felt like a moment to celebrate. Because a teacher was willing to lean into her own “yeah, buts,” her students had the opportunity to take a more active role in their own learning. That's exciting. I can’t wait for my next visit, when we’ll debrief how the project went and think about how it could be even better next time around. One courageous teacher at a time, we can turn those “yeah, buts” into #thinkpossible.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.