Remote Autonomy in PBL

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This is the fifth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.


Traditional education is centered on compliance and control, but teacher dominance is difficult during remote learning. Some teachers are still fighting to control students virtually. We see this play out in ridiculous requirements of teachers demanding that students follow dress codes, leave their cameras on at all times, and prohibit students from eating or drinking in their own homes! The thing is, teachers cannot control kids’ home environment and can’t punish kids in the typical ways of loss of recess, timeouts, or detentions. When the family pet interrupts the web meeting, and every student literally goes “squirrel” it can be hard to keep lessons on track.

One of the hallmarks of PBL and the thing that originally attracted me to the model is student voice and choice. It’s powerful when students take over the classroom, forging the learning path, instead of the teacher. Kids are plenty curious if we only give them some space to explore topics that they care about. This isn’t limited to some narrow passion of theirs either. When given some choice in relevant content, students discover many aspects of the subject matter are engaging to them.

Student voice and choice gives students multiple paths to engage themselves into content.

Voice and Choice

In his popular book, Drive, Daniel Pink shares that the three primary motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Schools emphasize mastery with hours of rote memorization of facts and practicing mathematical algorithms, but tend to neglect purpose and autonomy. Many teachers are afraid to give any freedom to students thinking that their classroom will turn into the chaos on the left side of the image at the top of this post. I would argue that the first thing to focus on is purpose.

The reason that students are always asking “Why do we have to do this?” is because they perceive that school has no relevance to their lives: no purpose. That is why PBL starts with an entry event that connects content to student lives in authentic ways. This initial hook, coupled with an audience for their final product, gives meaning to both the project and the content to be explored. Now students are ready to step into some autonomy.

After the entry event, if the rest of the project is actually just a traditional unit designed, organized, and managed entirely by the teacher, students will resist fully committing to it. But given autonomy by questioning what they will study, who they will work with, and how they will demonstrate their learning, students will engage more deeply.

Many teachers use choice boards to give students some freedom to plan their learning. It’s a nice first step, but until you empower student voice, you won’t see the true power of PBL. To be clear, students already have a voice, but schools often try to quell it instead of encouraging and amplifying it. There are plenty of topics that both connect to curriculum and are compelling to students: climate change, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Fake News, immigration, minimum wage, LBGTQ+ rights, to name a few. When students engross themselves in relevant topics that they can then take a stand on, they develop the Transformative SEL skill of leadership in both the school and their communities.


Staring at a screen all day is not engaging. Not even a little bit. Even playing video games or watching Netflix gets old after awhile. So in remote learning, we need to find ways to get students immersed in offline pursuits. Students can look at the history and context of any current event and consider multiple viewpoints of it. Another option is an independent project with students pursuing a personal passion. Entrepreneurship is another great project theme to help student grow SEL skills of problem-solving and collaboration.

Once you have a topic or theme (ideally with student input), plan structures to scaffold students inquiry both online and off. For live sessions, use protocols and routines, to make students’ time in breakout rooms productive. Thinking Routines don’t limit autonomy, but rather provide an organizing framework to help students be successful.

PBL provides the balance between student autonomy and scaffolding to structure inquiry.

Don’t limit the project to live, online time together. Students can engage safely in their communities through experiments, observations of natural phenomena, data collections, and surveys. Their final products can involve physical objects such as prototypes, artwork, video productions, or photo journals. Encourage students to get outside to explore nature and their neighborhoods, discovering everyday things that they may have taken for granted.

Let’s look at one specific example that could be scaled up or down from elementary to high school. Right now I have a student making maple syrup with her family. They spend hours tapping trees, collecting the sap, and then boiling it for days to make the delicious final product. Think of all of the educational connections in this activity. There is science behind the seasons and why the sap runs right now. Engineering is required to design and build the proper equipment to process the sap. Students could explore concepts such as boiling points, states of matter, and chemical changes taking place. Students could calculate how long to boil it and the proportions of how much sap is required to make a pint of syrup. There is the history behind this process and human/environmental impact of humans collecting and producing a specific food. Students might wonder why maple trees only grow in certain parts of the world. Students could study the economics of running a business and how to write a business plan to sell maple syrup. Profits from sales could be donated to a social cause that students care about.

This one simple activity is a pathway down numerous learning paths that cross content levels and age levels. What topics would be relevant to your students and community that empower student autonomy?

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele on Twitter.