On The Road to Project Based Learning (PBL)

Or Not Quite PBL

“The road” by Rick Turoczy is licensed under CC BY 2.0 ]

I’m hoping that this is a “before” snapshot and later I will be blogging the “after” version; because I’m just not there yet. Many people and organisations, such as BIE, Edutopia,  teachthought,  gettingsmart  and  globaldigitalcitizens,  stress the importance of inquiry and a student-centred approach to PBL. There has also been some work done on the difference between projects and project-based learning and continua to consider for effective PBL.


[Effective PBL Continua by Peter Skillen & Brenda Sherry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.]


In my context, the culture of Teaching and Learning is very traditionally based. Students learn and behave in an environment that is teacher-centred, fixed and synchronous. There is very little collaboration and so students don’t have the interpersonal skills they need for PBL. There is very little personalization or student agency and so students aren’t used to taking responsibility for their learning and don’t have the skills they need to manage their own learning; and so they tend to be passive rather than active learners. Lastly, there has not been an emphasis on 21st century fluencies or capabilities and so students do not possess the information fluencies they need for  inquiry.

I surmise, that because of this prevailing culture, I have not been successful in my attempts to have students collaborate in their learning and exercise voice and choice. Typically, the moment students realize that they are no longer tethered to their chairs in a seating plan, they have a tendency to become giddy and unfocused (I have even witnessed a student doing cartwheels). Then, even though I have provided all the resources and scaffolding they need, they do not engage unless I explicitly or directly teach them as passively as possible; such is their expectation.

Never the less, I intend on moving forward. So far, my PBL looks like this:








Locus of control

Before: At the moment, I initiate the project, but there is some latitude. For example, a project may revolve around developing a website for a client and the client has specific needs that need to be met, so the way students solve the problem will be different. However, students still rely on me to help them manage their projects, with me setting milestones and deadlines. Students are further supported with extensive scaffolding and templates.

After: I think that I need to work my way from setting the theme of the project to allowing students to engage their passions and interests. However, for students to operate successfully at the other end of the spectrum, they need to take responsibility for their learning. Therefore, I will work my way towards giving students more autonomy, in parallel with training them to personalize and manage their learning. The approaches that I could use, with increasing locus of control to students are:

1. Creating a theme or context – students solve a clearly defined problem with a restricted scope. In my teaching area this would be designing and developing a technical solution such as a website or an app.

2. Hack or remix something that already exists – in this situation students could choose something to modify but it may turn out to be too difficult, so I still need to restrict the domain. Students will still have some latitude within these restrictions though. This option works well in my area because students can follow some instructions to build something and then add their own modifications. For example, could learn how to control LEDs with an arduino microprocessor and then create their own wearable T-shirt with flashing logo.

3. Tie project to a competition or challenge – there are many competitions and challenges that are essentially PBL challenges. These often have scope for student choice.

4. Real world client – not only is there a level of choice here but also motivation. When students have a level of accountability to a real person its a whole new ball game.

5. Free play – this is where students can really engage with their passions and interests.

In their book, Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom, Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy encourage teachers to choose a track:

1. Set-Product Track (most restrictive) – produce a set product or thing.

2. Problem Track (medium restrictive) – initiate project by presenting students with a problem or scenario.

3. Open-Ended Track (least restrictive) – the only restrictions here are the learning goals.


Before: I do all the questioning here. My scaffolding mainly consists of design questions. Even when having students identify “other things to consider”, I use questions. My students aren’t delving very deeply into learning through self-directed inquiry.

After: I need to build up my students’ information fluency and inquiry skills. I can do that by embedding the ICT Capability of Investigating with ICT into my project scaffolds or explicitly train students in the process and then encourage them to use these skill to ask questions and develop their solutions. I can also take up the advice from Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy in their book Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom and qft pg 24 and class-wide umbrella questions pg 68


Before: This rarely happens explicitly; often students will collaborate in a spontaneous way but this is not part of the process. The main reason for this is summative assessment, where it is difficult to determine which evidence has been generated by individual students. For this reason, on projects that are team-based, different aspects are nominated as team or individual.

After: A key hurdle seems to be summative assessment. In Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age (2nd Edition) by Suzie Boss & Jane Krauss, it is suggested that a final performance task that requires students to apply what they have learned is one approach that can be taken. However, my projects lead students through an engineering cycle, resulting in a final product. Therefore, I will keep with team and/or individual milestone tasks but may add an ongoing reflective learning task, such as a development log.

The other hurdle is collaboration skills, or the lack of. Again, Hacking Project Based Learning: 10 Easy Steps to PBL and Inquiry in the Classroom pg 29 has some good guidance on how to teach these skills.


Before: Again, I scaffold very heavily here and provide the content.

After: Definitely need to build up my students’ information fluency and inquiry skills. I can do that by embedding the ICT Capability of Investigating with ICT into my project scaffolds or explicitly train students in the process and then encourage them to use these skill to ask questions and find their own content links.


Before: Not doing too badly here as students do a fair amount of analysis, evaluation, design and creation. I do use blogs and wikis so that students can share and evaluate each others’ work.

After: This could be made a bit more visible by assessing the level of sharing and evaluating between students.


Before: The majority of my projects do have a real world context and students are forced to seek out a client for some.

After: I need to include a client in all projects and source a real-world mentor for either groups of the whole class.