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“I have tried PBL — it doesn’t work…”

…and our response to this.

Hello! Welcome to the 7th edition of Things in Education, the fortnightly newsletter through which we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

In the 5th edition of our newsletter, we had mentioned one of our experiences where a school thought that they were doing project-based learning (PBL) but were actually just getting students to do projects at the end of a term. We will use some parts of our conversation with that school in this edition to delve more deeply into our views on best practices for conducting PBL classes.

PBL does not mean student projects

The school honestly wanted to do PBL, and they genuinely thought that they were doing PBL.

But because the school was really interested in doing a good job of PBL, we were able to have honest conversations with them.

Equating student projects to PBL is probably the most common mistake educators make with project-based learning. Student projects are projects that students generally create at the end of lessons and sometimes form the basis for summative assessments or displays of what the students have learnt at the end of the topic or term. The end-product of PBL is also a finished project which displays student learning and understanding at the end of a term. However, PBL doesn’t involve only project creation – it is more than that. As the name suggests, PBL means learning through doing a project. In other words, the student is learning while doing the project. The project is open-ended, authentic and, ideally, contextualised for the students. For example, a student project at the end of the term for a language class may be to perform a play that is part of the curricular reading. On the other hand, an effective PBL approach would be to get the students to write their own play based on the discussions, learning and understanding of the play in their curriculum. The way to make it authentic for students is to choose a contextually relevant topic for the play.

But, doesn’t PBL mean hands-on activities? Can we really do PBL for other subjects except science?

PBL does not mean only hands-on activities or making something concrete

We specifically chose the example of creating a play to drive home the point that a project need not be something physical that students need to build with their own hands. The students are still creating something, only it is not physical. In this case, it is a play. In another case, it can be a poem which includes all the figures of speech they are trying to master. Firstly, PBL doesn’t have to be only for science-based physical creations. And secondly, it doesn’t always have to be elaborate or long-term. Like the example of a poem – that project would probably last a week or two.

So, in your examples you have said a student can write a play or a poem. So, does that mean that PBL need not be multidisciplinary?

PBL may not be multidisciplinary

PBL may or may not be multidisciplinary. There is no rule stating that all PBL classrooms must be multi-disciplinary. The way we look at it is that PBL gives teachers a lot of options to explore multidisciplinary teaching and learning. For example, by choosing a relevant topic for the play that the students are supposed to write, a teacher can make the project multi-disciplinary. If the play is about a social cause or a modern take on an historical event, the project can be made multidisciplinary by collaborating with the Social Science teacher! And even though there is so much potential with PBL to be multidisciplinary, there is no compulsion. If you are uncomfortable, start with projects which do not involve too many disciplines. And anyway, skills like collaboration, presentation, research, etc. are already built into PBL.

There is an issue here. You are saying that students will collaborate and do research, but all of that does not get assessed. So how do we even know if students have progressed in those skills? The students are only assessed at the end, based on the project submission.

Assessment and learning are continuous in PBL

This is another big difference between PBL and students doing projects at the end of the term. Formative assessments and learning are a continuous process. Remember! It is project-based learning. Students need to learn while doing their projects. And how do teachers ensure that students learn? By having clear, successive milestones for all content, process and skill learning goals that they expect students to attain during the project. Once teachers have the milestones, decide on what form of formative assessment will give you the best measure to evaluate the extent of learning.

Ah! So that means assessing students while they are doing the projects helps them learn?

Yes. Teachers find out where students are doing well and where they need help. This helps in checking students’ progress towards the learning goals and gives some feedback to teachers on where they may need to help students. For example, if the teacher finds out that while writing the play most of the students are having trouble developing a character backstory, the teacher can then do a session on that specific aspect of play writing.

Umm…but isn’t PBL supposed to be a form of discovery learning or inquiry learning? How can a teacher directly give the information that students need?

PBL is not only inquiry learning

PBL is not purely inquiry learning or discovery learning. Yes, there are aspects where students need to ask questions and find out new things in the process of doing the project, but PBL is more than that. It is also about the teachers acting as guides or information resources for the students. This may involve teachers guiding students with relevant guiding questions or even direct instruction.

Hmmm…I think this has been a helpful discussion. Though I am not sure how to implement these in our classrooms yet. This gives us a starting point in putting our thoughts together.

Scaffolding and supporting teachers taking up PBL is important

Teachers who are going to take up using the PBL pedagogy in class will need support. The conversation here is the first step. Understanding what the teachers need, how much support they need and how frequently are important. Otherwise, there is likely to be feedback from teachers saying, ‘I tried PBL once, it is not working.

PBL is unlikely to work if you have tried it only once or a few times. Transitioning to PBL entails a change of perspective not only for the teachers but also the students. Both students and teachers need to be hand-held into this new pedagogy. To make this transition easy the teachers can undergo professional development courses in PBL and they can be supported by PBL kits which essentially follow the principles here and help teachers understand how to structure their classes.


Useful Links:

  • Don’t be fooled by the title of this blog by Ritu Lamba. It speaks about how authentic experiences in PBL can be extremely useful for learning.

  • How to find an authentic goal? This is a western perspective which can be adapted with some tweaks to the Indian context.


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Edition: 1.7

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