Tag Archives: pbl

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.

Michael Kaechele

October 4, 2018

This is the fourth 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.


It’s cliche, but of course most teachers are passionate about their students and their content area. Teachers that I have seen that are most comfortable shifting to a PBL framework are passionate about things outside of the classroom too. They have hobbies that they love or things that they geek out about. It may be music, coding, knitting, martial arts, or blacksmithing.

It really doesn’t matter what they are passionate about. The important thing is that these teachers proudly share their passions with students modeling excitement about learning!

My Obsession

I was a concrete finisher for twenty years before I was a teacher. My students thought that I was obsessed with concrete, and I guess that compared to a “normal” person I am. They would troll me in class by calling it “cement” just to hear my lecture on how that was an inaccurate term. Seriously if we had a new student, they would tell her to ask me a question about cement.  (You can learn the difference between concrete and cement with Clarence in the video above). Once I even wrote a poem about concrete.

But the truth is that I exaggerated my love of concrete for important reasons!

It all started my first year at our PBL school. The district had remodeled part of the Career Tech Center into an amazing space for us. It had these exposed concrete columns (see GIF above) that were beautiful. The exterior ones were left natural, but the interior ones were painted.

One class I started randomly lamenting that the district had painted the columns and that it is NEVER ok to paint concrete! Students thought it was hilarious and kept asking me questions about concrete. They even started tweeting out about it. Of course they were egging me on, down a classic teacher rabbit trail.

At first I kept talking about concrete because students thought it was funny. It became an inside joke for me to go off in great detail on how great concrete is and its scientific properties. The truth is, that I didn’t really care about concrete as much as they thought I did.

But then I realized something deeper was happening and that’s why I never let the topic die, but talked about my concrete obsession even more.

My passion for concrete is weird. I mean really weird. No one cares about what sidewalks are made of. I bet you don’t have a pile of coffee table books on concrete at your house. But by me proudly sharing my weirdness, it gave unofficial permission for students to share their weirdness too.

Students could share about anime, playing the accordion, cosplay, or Dr. Who. My students had unique, weird passions and it became cool to talk about them. Our classroom was a safe place, where everyone could be themselves and be accepted. My public display of affection for concrete created a positive classroom culture.

Project Design

I had a couple of students whose entire lives focused on being woodsman. They would be “off task” in my history class because they were reading college level botany texts and watching YouTube videos on wilderness survival. One of them built a wigwam at his house.

Using PBL, I was able to integrate their passion into our class. I had them focus their research on Native Americans viewpoints throughout history. They loved the Revolution Garden project where we looked at the harmful results of Industrialization.

Teachers can use the PBL framework to engage kids by tying projects to student passions or integrating their passions into projects. Student passions could be a focus for research in a project like my woodsman students. The rest of the class benefits from the deep, passionate research about topics that they would probably never choose themselves.

Student passions could also be used to create a final product. I once had a girl who decorated a cake for her final product. It was full of imagery and symbolism. Students’ talents that are often ignored in school, can shine through projects. Examples of skills that I have seen from students include video shooting and editing, graphic design, coding, public speaking, dance, carpentry, sewing, and anime. I have watched students find a career path through skills that they have discovered and developed through projects.

For a passion project at the end of the year, I taught students how to make concrete candleholders.

The passionate teacher can connect with students in multiple ways. By recognizing students’ passions in project design, teachers can build relationships with students and engage more students in their class and their content. Besides teacher passions show both are humanity and excitement about living.

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.

Flex like Stretch Armstrong


From https://images.vat19.com/covers/large/the-original-stretch-armstrong.jpg

This is the third 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.


I remember as a kid that Stretch Armstrong was definitely the ultimate Christmas present. I am pretty sure that at some point I “accidentally” punctured or cut him in someway just to figure what exactly was inside his amazing body. Teaching with the PBL framework can feel like you are getting pulled in many directions at times between student voice and choice, community partners, and your regular teaching demands. Teachers who are more flexible have, dare I say, a less stressful time with PBL and their students benefit from the freedom granted.


The most flexible teacher that I know is my friend, Nate Langel. He is a science teacher who is willing to do anything to get kids excited about learning. Want to do an integrated project, he’s in. He doesn’t worry about timing with his calendar or standards. He knows that he will make it work with the NGSS emphasis on practice and application. Want to partner on a project about poverty, the problems of industrialization, or water? Nate is leading the charge!

What we can learn from Nate’s approach is that he often starts with a great project concept, not the standards. Then he looks through his content and finds the standards to match. This allows him to be flexible to all kinds of project ideas that at first glance, might not “look” like they fit his class.

The other thing that Nate does well is that his students do not perform canned labs but design their own experiments around a problem or theme of the PBL project. He encourages students to research and come up with crazy hypotheses that students can test. “Normal” in his classroom is to see every group of students working on a totally different experiment towards a common group of standards. Kids love the opportunity to be creative and ask their own questions.

Road Tripping

Maybe you are not ready to be this flexible yet. How about starting like another colleague of mine? His students were creating PSA’s around the topic of invasive species. A group of girls approached him about a local problem. The airport was using a de-icing agent on their runways that was ending up in the nearby stream and polluting it. They wanted to research the effects. He let this group do a separate project while still meeting the content standards. You might guess that this group was more invested in the project than the rest of the class and did the highest quality work.

When you run a student-centered classroom with voice and choice, then you have to be flexible to where students decide to take the projects. It’s more of a road trip to your learning goals than using GPS. Of course, Google Maps can take you anywhere by the fastest route and help you avoid construction, accidents, and tolls. But sometimes the “obstacles” are where the greatest learning takes place.

Starting a PBL road trip means that you know the destination of standards and enduring understandings that your class is headed for, but let students choose the route and where to stop to take selfies along the way. Students learn how to manage the project and themselves, and are more motivated along the way.

Killing a Project

Sometimes projects go off the rails. There are always unforeseen difficulties that arise with school events, student groups, and the logistics of working with your community partners. Acts of God can throw a monkey wrench in. We once had to cancel our field trip to local factories to launch a school wide project because of a snow day. Then the community partner cancelled an appearance the following day because of the storms. PBL teachers have to be willing to improvise when things don’t go as expected because I can guarantee that challenges will come.

One year my students made Choose your own Adventure videos about World War I and World War II. This was a whole class assignment of 50 students working together to research, storyboard, write a script, make props, act, film, and edit the final product.

Things went south in so many ways. I did not create enough structure for the students to organize and complete the project (yes, teachers can be too flexible). There were miscommunications; students forgot costumes at home on filming day; everything took longer than expected; filmed scenes were lost as we had no system to get the files easily from the cameras to computers for editing. 

After a few weeks, one class had very few final videos completed and the other class had a hodge podge of scenes done. Neither class was anywhere near a final product and would probably need weeks to finish. My teaching partner and I made the decision to kill the project. Sometimes it is necessary to discard a project that isn’t working. We reflected on the obstacles with our students and were able to improve our processes for future projects the rest of the year.

Teaching with a PBL framework is going to bring some unsuspected challenges. Being flexible ensures that you honor your student’s voice and choice and may also help you to keep your sanity!

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.