The problem with PBL

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I did a PBL workshop with a local district last week and I have been thinking about the speed of the spread of PBL in schools. I think there is a strong grassroots movement toward student-centered learning, but everything from politicians and the powers that be is toward a controlled focus on student achievement (test prep).

I realized a big weaknesses of the PBL paradigm is that the curriculum is unstructured. Note I did not say that the process is unstructured, which is a misunderstanding that many have. But what students actually study or do is personalized to that group of students in that time and space. So groups like New Tech Network and Buck Institute do a great job selling training and tools for PBL, but you don’t see PBL textbooks or curriculum for sale because that is not how PBL works.

So PBL doesn’t really work for Pearson or other major education publications. They can’t sell thousands of PBL textbooks or “units.” It doesn’t package nicely as test prep. I am sure that New Tech and Buck generate money but nothing in the scale of the major publishers of textbooks or standardized tests. So the publishing giant’s paid lobbyists are not trying to get our politicians to move toward student-centered learning because it is not beneficial toward building their market.

On a personal note when I lead a workshop, my fee is much less than a keynote speaker. I am not getting “edu famous” and I don’t say that many catchy phrases that are tweetable. But unlike most keynotes that excite and encourage for an hour and wear off in a few days (how much can you remember from any keynote even your favorite one? If anything I bet is good stories that they told) when I finish a workshop I feel great knowing that I leave teachers with a framework and a set of tools to permanently shift their teaching from teacher to student centered learning. The intrinsic rewards of spreading PBL to shift pedagogy are very fulfilling.

If only PBL didn’t focus so much on local, authentic, student centered learning and could support an easy way to make lots of money off from students and school systems.

9 thoughts on “The problem with PBL

  1. Patrick

    Ha! We have started offering schools training and networking opportunities to try to combat the potential negative effects of the growing surge in popularity of PBL. I fear that because PBL is hard work and does not cater well to the curriculum providers, we will be left with only a few crazy PBL teachers in 5 years. everyone else will simply dabble in it before returning to what’s easy.

    We must work to replace the gap in curriculum with opportunities for PBL teachers to connect, collaborate, and share.

    1. Michael Kaechele Post author


      You bring up important points. We had a business person visit our school this year and he warned us that he has seen numerous innovative schools. But after a few years they get stagnant and revert back to being a traditional school. A few of us are taking this seriously and we strive to take our school further in new directions every year. I can see how this needs to be a dedicated focus. But for schools without strong teacher leaders or principals then I can see how easily PBL becomes the latest initiative that slowly fades as the next thing (probably test prep related) comes along.

      “Returning to what’s easy” is a slap to the teaching profession so I wish I could disagree with you, but I can’t. This is part of how we need to raise the perception of teachers by doing the good, hard work. And I love the idea of sustaining PBL through collaboration and sharing. Is this primarily inside of your school/district or does it expand beyond? Can we do more to connect Michigan PBL teachers? What might that look like?

      1. Patrick Malley

        No insult was intended, for sure. I consider returning to what is easy to be part of the human condition. It’s tough work to repeatedly do work that is difficult when there is a strong historical precedent for pursuing a less challenging path!

        We should talk in NOLA next week. My district is on the receiving end of some grant funds to launch what we’ve called the Michigan PBL Institute. We don’t yet have a website, but I have six new schools committed to doing this work with us for the 2014-15 school year. Our goal is to both increase and strengthen PBL implementations in the state. We’ll be taking five of six of those schools to NTN for the Planning Track.

  2. John Larmer

    You raise an important issue, Michael, one which we too at BIE are concerned about: how far can PBL go, given that it requires time for planning & collaboration in order for a larger percentage of teachers to be able to do it well? We’re trying to work with our district partners to institutionalize PBL so it will survive leadership & staffing changes. They’re creating project libraries, adjusting schedules to create more time for collaboration, and building parent/community support so they won’t let PBL go away over time. But it’s not easy, admittedly, compared to handing teachers a textbook.
    Another possible (partial) solution is that some publishers, including Pearson, are beginning to produce PBL-ish curriculum materials. Some of these can be adapted by teachers to make them more local and authentic. Or even if they’re not exactly as local and authentic as we might ideally like, perhaps they can act as a “gateway” and show teachers how PBL can be done, get them more comfortable with it, so they can design their own projects more readily.

    1. Michael Kaechele Post author

      I appreciate your honesty about the difficulty of sustaining PBL over time in a given place. I also am glad to hear that you are working on it with deliberate efforts.

      One thing that you mention, I feel is particularly important-time for collaboration. At our school we are blessed with a large amount of collaborative time and it is priceless. I don’t like to talk about it with visiting teachers because I feel judged. We still end up feeling like it is not enough time and we work on stuff at home too. From things I read about teachers in other countries they have more planning time than in the US and I think that is one change that would really help schools. Unfortunately this is unlikely to change because giving teachers less teaching hours would require hiring more teachers and in these times of budget cuts that is not happening in most places.

  3. John Bennett

    Of course, PBL is harder than “teaching to the test!!!” As my father always reminded me, NOTHING worthwhile is ever easy. The secret to alignment with standards is in the development of the driving questions! Yes, that takes planning and work. But the upside is way up!!! The effective, deeper learning is absolutely long lasting and the efforts made such good preparation for the lifelong learning that’s key to successful lives and careers. If teachers embraced PBL, students will buy in – AND the outcomes will even include higher scores on those standardized tests, worthless that they are to everyone but politicians and policy people!!!

    Textbook sales are or at least SHOULD be done regardless. Why would ANY educator want textbooks with limited topics and limited information about them when the students can gather information on any topic – information with differing viewpoints that generate critical thinking skills AND more effective learning????

    Join many of that participate in the #PBLchat Twitter chat Tuesday evenings at 8:00PM ET. I promise you will be glad you did!!! And visit the BIE PBL and Edutopia websites for lots of good materials. My apologies for all the other sources that contribute to PBL success. BUT it does take work for sure!

    Years ago, without knowing it, our first year engineering course sequence shifted to a PBL format. At first, we kept half of the sections in the previous format: lecturing, homework, individual “paper” studies, exams, … At the end of the first year, assessment people from the school of education administered a survey of both groups. One question was “Were you overworked in these classes?” Now, the new approach included lots of group work outside of class, lots of prototyping, lots of self- and group-learning, lots of testing, … (all on the same topics as previous years by the way). So we “new” instructors expected to take a hit on this question.

    But guess what??? By a margin enough to be statistically different, the students in the “old” format reported they were overworked more than students in the “new” format!!!! Conclusion: when making efforts that have meaning, it is NOT work!!! As a “new” format instructor, it was far more enjoyable for me as well!!!

    Lecturing and textbooks are for educators unwilling to facilitate effective, deeper learning!!!! Seriously spend that summer time allotted to personal growth and development looking seriously at PBL!!!! You’ll never be sorry…

    1. Michael Kaechele Post author

      Thanks John,

      I appreciate your passion for PBL. I have been teaching for three years in a PBL school so we are on the same viewpoint here. What I was considering in this post are some of the obstacles for PBL to become and remain mainstream in a large number of public schools instead of isolated to small groups.

      1. John Bennett

        I don’t see how the size of the school, its location, anything makes sustainability more difficult; EXCEPT unwilling teachers!!! (And, of course, teach to test mandates!!!! And it will always go better, I believe, the younger the student encounters PBL!!!

        Thanks for the reply!!! I’d love to be challenged to facilitate PBL in any elementary school and many middle schools!!!

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