Tag Archives: pbl

When Students Don’t Work

Going to school isn’t a job. Students don’t get paid. And yes, they are forced to be there. Therefore I am always hesitant to apply business advice to schools. But more and more I am seeing that project management strategies often do apply to student groups in PBL.

In 4 Reasons Good Employees Lose their Motivation on the Harvard Business Review, they identify the following causes of a lack of motivation:

  • Values mismatch
  • Lack of self efficacy
  • Disruptive emotions
  • Attribution errors

In order to help an employee find motivation, the the proper “trap” should be identified leading to applying the appropriate solution. I believe this can be adapted to leading a class of collaborative groups using PBL.

Values Mismatch

This trap can be summarized as “I don’t care enough to do this.” I would argue that this is the most prevalent motivational problem that we have in school because of our one size fits all, mandated curriculum. PBL is a great approach because it gives the teacher freedom to customize their class to their students’ interests and abilities.

The first step in fixing a values mismatch is to know your students. Build relationships with your kids and discover their passions. Then PBL projects can be designed to connect with them. I have even designed an entire class project with only one student in mind, that is struggling to engage in my class. Students will find more value in a class where they have a positive relationship with the teacher and they feel like the content addresses issues that matter to them.

Lack of Self Efficacy

In this trap students are saying “I don’t think that I am able to do this.” Except students rarely say this out loud. Instead they avoid the task with disruptive behavior or shut down by sleeping or daydreaming. Oftentimes this student tries to hide the embarrassment of lack of ability or belief in themselves from both the teacher and other students. It is crucial that teachers see through these smokescreens and identify the real cause of student actions.

Again the first step is knowing your students and then applying the appropriate scaffolds to help them succeed. Have you identified your students who are EL or special ed? What about the students who don’t have an official “label” but need support? Show students quality examples and give them outlines and other scaffolds to get started. Acknowledge when they are successful to help them build confidence. Most importantly remove scaffolds when students don’t need them anymore and point out the growth to students.

“Remember at the beginning of the year, you needed my help to multiply fractions. Now you can do it all by yourself!”

Disruptive Emotions

Sometimes students are feeling that “I am too upset to do this.” One of the reasons that I like to start class by meeting kids at the door is to check on their emotional state when they get there. This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If students are angry or depressed, then they will not be able to focus on school.

Be a caring listener. Have a private conversation with the student and hear out what is bothering them. I often ask students if they would like to talk to a counselor or another trusted adult if I can’t give them the time that they need during class. We rarely can fix whatever is bothering them in the middle of a busy class but students must know that we care about their well being more than the content that we teach. Ask students if they think that can do the tasks of the class that day. Once they have been truly heard, most students can focus on what they need to.

Attribution Errors

This trap is when students say, “I don’t know what went wrong with this.” I think in schools this is usually an avoidance ploy of the above, Lack of Self Efficacy variety. Students (and adults too) don’t want to admit failures or weaknesses so they shift to excuses of “I was too busy” or blaming group members for not completing tasks.

One solution that can help student groups is teaching them to hold each other accountable. I like to use a Student Scrum Board or Trello for groups to regulate themselves. With a clear plan for project management, then students can focus on the actual problem of lack of skills or perhaps a values mismatch as being the real reason that work is not being completed.

None of these are magic, but it is always important to know our students and to properly assess why they may not be successful on a given day. I also think that it is critical to their growth to acknowledge what has been holding them back and how they have overcome it. Then the next time that they are feeling unmotivated they can learn to self analyze the cause and self correct.

PBL isn’t Chaos

Illustrated by James Fester

Control Continuum

Who controls most classrooms? Whose voice dominates? Who decides what is learned, how it is learned, and with whom? Who determines the assessments and what they look like?

When first learning about Project Based Learning, many teachers skeptically ask me “How do I keep kids on task?” or “How do I ensure that students learn all of my content standards?” Often what they are actually questioning is “Does PBL lead to classroom chaos?”


Behind these questions is a fear of losing control. Educators worry that if they allow student voice and choice, their well managed class will turn into a free for all. They don’t say it out loud, but these teachers fear Anarchy as seen on the left hand extreme of the Control Continuum with students having one hundred percent control and the teacher exerting none.

They imagine students doing whatever they feel like with the teacher asserting zero input. When educators think about inquiry based or student driven work, they wonder, “What is the teacher is doing? Just sitting back reading a book or playing a game on their phone?” They picture the teacher as a clueless babysitter ignoring a mob of spoiled rotten children. They imagine poor substitute teachers that they have observed and think “No way!”

But this is a straw man argument and one of the biggest myths about PBL. No one is advocating for Anarchy in the classroom!


To demonstrate how ridiculous this fear is, I want to consider the opposite extreme: Tyranny. On the right side of the Control Continuum, the teacher has one hundred percent control and the students have zero.

At this logical extreme, the teacher commands every student action. The teacher is a military dictator controlling every thought through power and fear. Students are marionettes, powerless to think or react without permission. Relationships, feelings, and emotions are irrelevant as the supreme leader dictates content into the brains of his subjects. They will obey, and they will learn at his command.


Just as the metaphor of teacher as all powerful dictator is absurd, so is the teacher as powerless babysitter. Student centered inquiry is NOT a free for all. It is NOT students doing whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like doing it. These analogies are a thought exercise to show that both extremes of the Control Continuum are equally absurd. No one is advocating for the style of teaching at either end. Both are straw man arguments that if they did exist somewhere would warrant firing the teacher.

But educators rarely question the right side of the continuum. What if the teacher has too much control? Does the climate of many classrooms stifle creativity and actual learning? There is not the same fear associated with the right end of the Control Continuum as with the left. A strong classroom leader (but not to the dictator extreme) was the model that many teachers experienced when they were in school and is their comfort zone.

Implicit Bias

A further danger of the fear of student voice and choice is that some teachers don’t believe that “their students” can handle self directed learning. Sometimes this is because of the age of the children or maybe their socio-economic background. This is dangerous thinking. We know that students will rise to meet expectations and vise versa (The Power of Expectations). We also know that implicit bias can prevent our students of color from being pushed as much as they should be. ALL STUDENTS can self direct their learning with proper scaffolding and support. Never sell your students short of what they can become or do!

PBL as Framework

PBL is actually the opposite of Anarchy. It is a framework, a structure, a design process for student centered learning for both the teacher and the kids. PBL has protocols to guide students through content standards while giving them voice in what and how they learn.

We will explore the what the middle of the Control Continuum looks like in a future post and reflect on where the ideal spot is for both teachers and students. But for now, can we all agree that the fear of PBL leading to chaos is a misguided myth? Don’t go to the straw man extreme of Anarchy as an excuse not to try PBL. Give it a shot and you will learn to love the process and students will excel beyond your wildest imagination!

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

I will never forget the advice that Eric gave me early in my teaching career.

After my first year teaching social studies at an alternative high school, I was laid off due to being the lowest seniority. My principal told me not to worry, that it was just a formality and that I would be brought back in the fall. So I didn’t sweat it or look for another job. At the beginning of August she called and told me the bad news. Unfortunately I would not be brought back due to financial reasons. My wife was 8 and ½ months pregnant with our second child and we would have no health insurance. I was a bit freaked out, not having a job with the start of school fast approaching.

Days before school started I applied and was hired as a technology teacher at the middle school where I student taught. Eric, the previous technology teacher, showed me how the class was designed for students to rotate weekly to different technology and engineering stations (it was STEM before someone invented the term. Does that make me a hipster?).

I was excited, but stressed by my limited time to prepare for this new class and knowing that I would soon be on paternity leave. Eric told me not to worry about knowing how to do all the stations myself. “Just let the kids figure it out on their own,” he told me. “If they get stuck, have them problem solve. Check back in with them later and have them teach you how they did it.” He told me to learn who the students were in the class who became experts at certain stations and refer the other students to them when they had questions.

It was definitely a “fake it ’til you make it” strategy. And I have never stopped using it, because it EMPOWERS students.

Even when I know how to do something I have my students figure it out on their own or talk to other students. I may point them in a general direction or help them figure out the best search term, but I avoid giving direct answers. It all goes back to “whoever is doing is learning” and I don’t want to steal the chance from students to figure something out by themselves.

This strategy is also freeing because I don’t have to be the expert of everything. I can say, “I don’t know. Let’s figure it out.”

Instead of answering questions, I teach students search strategies to find the answers themselves. In my personal life, I use YouTube all of the time to figure out things that I don’t know, from how to prune my grapes to fixing something on my car. If our students are truly going to become “lifelong learners” than they have to figure out how to ask and answer their own questions.

One thing I will say to students when they ask me a history question that I don’t know the answer to is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you research that and come back and tell me what you find out?” Students are motivated to find things that they can teach me!

A specific example of fake it ‘til you make it, is that I like to use many online tools with students. Instead of using whole class, direct instruction to teach lessons on how to use an online tool, I tell students to figure it out for themselves. I quickly learn which students excel and direct other students to our class expert. I will have these expert students lead a workshop on the online tool for those who may need some help.

This strategy creates a collaborative culture with students depending on each other for help and success. They learn that the teacher doesn’t know everything and is learning too. It also grows confidence in the student experts as they lead workshops for their classmates.

Modeling Collaboration

This is the sixth and final post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.


Traditionally teaching has been an isolated occupation. Most teachers work independently and “shut their door and teach.” They are in charge of their students in their classrooms, focused on their content. With PBL, part of the shift for teachers is away from the idea that their primary job is content delivery, towards a holistic development of children including socio-emotional skills and success skills like collaboration

Community Connections

PBL requires more collaboration for teachers as well as students. Teachers must find authentic problems in their community. This often requires reaching out and networking with people, traditionally more of a business practice than an educational one. Making cold calls or going to social networking events may be new experiences for many educators, but great projects can be found by reaching out and working with your community.

A great example of this is Schoolcraft Community Schools. My friend, Matt McCullough has developed an approach where he asks local businesses for problems that their students can solve. Most business people attended traditional schools and are not very familiar with PBL and are unsure how to collaborate. Matt has developed a process in which he helps businesses find appropriate issues that students can partner on. This requires contacting and meeting with many organizations in the community and taking the time to assess their needs that students can help.

Integrated Projects

Many teachers start out doing PBL on their own, in one subject area. They soon discover that the PBL framework is a natural vehicle for cross-curricular, integrated projects. The authentic problems in the “real world” are rarely siloed into pure math, science, or social studies, but mix disciplines and content areas. So what I think of as the next level of PBL involves an integrated project with multiple teachers from various content areas. These project are often the most authentic and motivating for students.

Integrated projects can be logistically challenging and require a serious time commitment from teachers, a willingnesses to compromise, and dedication to work together. It takes flexibility of both teaching styles and curriculum scope and sequence to get content areas to “match.” Trust me though, it is so worth it. When I have worked on collaborative staffs we have had the best projects such as the Poverty Project or painting our school to leave a legacy for future generations.

Collaboration takes patience, time, and effort, but the payoff is worth it! When teachers connect to local experts in the community they are modeling that they are learners too by seeking advice. By working with colleagues to design epic, integrated projects, teachers are modeling for students what successful groups look like. Collaboration is a key success skill needed in our modern world and we should demonstrate it often for students if we expect them to learn the skill for themselves!

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Good Work Leads to More Work

This is the fifth post in a series where I flesh out why the ideal traits of a PBL teacher are important. Check out the links to the rest of the series below the post.

Self efficacious

I am a believer in hard work. I always tell my students that “good work leads to more work.” They always groan the first time that I say it. But then I explain that when you work hard in what you love it leads to more and better opportunities to do what you love. Hard work is often what separates excellence from average.

The Pareto Principle states that in most organizations 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Research has shown this to be true in many different situations and I have observed it in schools and projects that I have been a part of. I think that the self efficacious teachers who fall into the 20% category thrive in PBL environments.

In recent years many teachers have done things outside of the classroom to enrich themselves and their students. Some teachers have started edcamps and other conferences. Others blog, tweet, or post to other social media sites about a myriad of education topics. Some teachers create and run Twitter chats, podcasts, write books, or present at conferences. All of these activities are above and beyond their teaching job, requiring extra time and effort. These actions usually don’t “count” for professional development hours. These activities represent both passion for education and indicate that the teachers are willing to put in the effort that PBL requires.


Authentic PBL projects don’t come in nicely wrapped lesson plans or textbooks with worksheets for every day. High quality PBL involves teachers either designing from scratch or customizing projects that they find. PBL front loads a lot of the planning for what students will be doing. This can seem overwhelming to teachers at first, but if they follow a structured process they discover it is similar to the planning that they already do. But self efficacious teachers are willing to commit to the initial planning because of the pay off of student engagement that comes through the PBL process.

Community Partners

Working on local issues with community partners requires teachers to reach out to local businesses and organizations. This is a huge shift from the “island mentality” of “I just shut my door and teach.” It also is a new skill for many teachers who may not know how to build a network of relationships with the business community.

Teachers who have used blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to connect with other educators for personal growth often make an easier transition. They are probably more open to new ideas for their classrooms because of the examples that they have been exposed to online. These teachers have also developed some networking skills that help them when reaching out to their communities for partnerships and audience critiques of student work.

Just say “no”

Self efficacious teachers are not heroes who do everything. The best PBL teachers have learned to say no to things outside of their focus area. They do not volunteer for everything happening at school but target opportunities that support their visions and their students. They also say no to busy work. They don’t sit on committees that are irrelevant to learning. They don’t grade as many papers because they use self, peer, and community assessments. They would rather spend their time brainstorming the best projects for their students.

When I think of teachers who are self efficacious, I see people who “make it happen.” They don’t make excuses or look for others to lead. They look for epic, meaningful projects and take them on for their students’ benefit. Their goals are not pride and achievement, but a humble lifting up of their kids to give them the amazing opportunities. Self efficacious teachers are also willing to fight as advocates for their students when they are being treated unfairly or not being given equal opportunities.

Self efficacious teachers give the time and effort to make learning meaningful and relevant to every student in their class.

Links to the rest of the series on Ideal Traits of a PBL Teacher:

  1. Overview
  2. Student Centered
  3. Flexible
  4. Passionate
  5. Self efficacious
  6. Collaborative

Questions? PBL Consulting?  I can be found at my blog michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele onTwitter.