Solving 3 Key PBL Challenges
Here’s how schools are overcoming some of the biggest hurdles to effective project-based learning.
- By Dennis Pierce, Brandon Sherman
Project-based learning (PBL) can lead to deeper learning and engagement when implemented well, but K–12 educators and administrators face a number of challenges when they shift to a project-based approach to learning. Some of the most common hurdles include supporting students, supporting teachers and assessing students’ learning.
Here’s how an elementary school teacher, an innovative high school and a school system with more than 83,000 students are addressing these challenges.
Gibson Ek High School in Issaquah, WA, opened in 2016 as a fully personalized PBL school. Instead of learning content knowledge and earning credits by sitting through traditional core classes, students learn by completing hands-on projects and internships, and they advance by demonstrating competency in five key areas: communication, empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, social reasoning and personal qualities.
“Our school is designed to help students who aren’t thriving in a traditional school setting,” said Principal Julia Bamba. “We weave in personalized, real-world learning through projects that make an impact in students’ community.”
This approach is radically different from what students are used to experiencing in school. Bamba described the school’s biggest challenge as creating new routines and structures to guide students’ learning and support them through the process.
“When you don’t have systems in place that are smooth, this creates anxiety for students,” she observed.
Because Gibson Ek is completely project-based, the school does not use a traditional grading system. Instead, it uses a platform called LiFT to help students manage projects. The platform also gives students and teachers a place to evaluate work.
Students at every grade level take part in some form of internship experience. In the younger grades, these might consist of job shadowing, career days and group field trips to help students identify careers they’re interested in. Juniors and seniors complete more traditional internships, attending school three days a week and working with a mentor in their field of interest for the other two.
Although the school schedule is more free-flowing, with open periods for students to work on projects either independently or in small groups, there are structures in place to help them learn the skills they’ll need for success. For instance, Gibson Ek offers “design labs” that are more like traditional classes. These last four weeks and focus on a particular skill development, such as design thinking. Students also work independently on ALEKS, an adaptive online math program, for an hour each day.
To support students on their personalized PBL journey, Gibson Ek begins and ends each school day with advisories. Students meet in mixed-grade groups with an advisor who acts as a project manager. Working with their advisor, students develop a personalized learning plan that reflects their goals and interests, and they design projects they’d like to pursue. They also discuss their progress and what they need to learn to achieve their goals.
Advisors help students learn how to break down a project into discrete tasks, as well as other skills needed for success.
“We didn’t expect how difficult it would be for students to learn in a new environment that takes them out of the classroom setting,” Bamba said. “We have to help students learn how to learn independently — and that takes time.”
When a school or district shifts over to PBL, it’s not just the students who face a change. Teachers must learn new approaches as well.
In Loudoun County, VA, the entire school division has been transitioning to PBL to support the community’s vision of empowering all students to make meaningful contributions to the world. Students use digital tools and devices to complete authentic, challenging projects, and in the process they learn how to become critical thinkers, communicators, creators, collaborators and global contributors.
According to Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Ashley Ellis, the key challenge for a school system as big as Loudoun County — with more than 90 schools and 83,000 students — is scaling up the initiative so that every student has a chance to benefit. This requires training and supporting every teacher, a massive undertaking in a school division this size.
Loudoun County partnered with PBLWorks to help teachers implement PBL effectively. PBLWorks taught cohorts of teacher-leaders how to design and evaluate projects using the organization’s Gold Standard for PBL, and these educators now lead three-day workshops throughout the year to train their colleagues.
Principals are encouraged to send faculty to these workshops in grade-level or subject-area teams. “There’s a lot of value in experiencing the training as a team, because you can go back and work together on designing high-quality projects,” Ellis said. “We didn’t want teachers to have to work in isolation.”
Using this approach, Loudoun County has been able to train about 500 teachers per year. So far, some 5,000 of the county’s 7,000 teachers have attended the workshops.
But these sessions themselves aren’t enough for PBL to take root and thrive. Teachers also need continuous coaching, support and collaborative planning time if PBL is to become ingrained in the school system’s culture. “It’s essential to have internal supports in place,” Ellis said. “Otherwise, PBL just dies after the initial workshop.”
Loudoun County teachers work in groups called “Deeper Learning Teams” to develop and reflect on projects. Instructional facilitators also work with teachers to provide feedback and support.
Patience and persistence are very important, Ellis said — especially in a large school system. The messaging that leaders use when talking about PBL is important as well: To convince teachers to buy in to this approach, leaders must make a clear and compelling case for why they should change their practice.
In Loudoun County, “our emphasis on authenticity has helped with our messaging,” Ellis said. “Teachers see the power of learning through authentic projects in which students are making meaningful contributions to the world. We had one teacher who came from a very traditional school. She has completely transformed her practice after several years of teaching a different way because, as she put it: ‘This is good teaching for every student.’”
To support its PBL initiative, the district also partnered with education consultants Education Elements for personalized learning instruction. Ellis said personalized learning provides teachers with additional tools needed to implement PBL so students have authentic experiences.
“Personalized learning is specific instructional strategies — using adaptive digital content, playlists, personalizing instructional for individual students — and this lays on top of PBL and makes it stronger,” she said.
Assessing Student Work
Another challenge when implementing PBL is how to assess student learning. Because projects are often collaborative in nature, it can be hard to assess the contributions of individual students to the group as a whole. What’s more, the focus of PBL isn’t just on content knowledge, but on skills that are tougher to measure — such as creativity and problem solving.
“These skills are hard to assess in any setting,” said Lesa Wang, K–5 STEAM coordinator at the Marymount School in New York.
Wang has her students learn STEAM concepts by challenging them to design and make things in the school’s fab lab. She uses a rubric and a written narrative to assess their learning, describing examples of how they have applied new knowledge and demonstrated important skills.
Central to her success is embedding assessment throughout the learning process. She is continually observing students’ progress, checking in with them to discuss their projects, and giving real-time feedback. “PBL is about the process, and not just the product,” she explained.
In one project, she had first graders design a piece of playground equipment that would develop the balance, coordination, problem solving and social skills of children. Each group was assigned a certain kind of apparatus: climbing, swinging, spinning, sliding and so on.
Wang showed students images of playgrounds from around the world, and they also visited a park and looked at the playground equipment with a critical eye — considering why each piece of equipment was designed as it was. Students made multiple iterations of their own designs using various materials before creating a final version using a 3D printer.
One of her goals was for students to see things from a design perspective, and in this respect the project was a success. “They started to see their world in a different way,” she said. “For instance, they noticed that some playground equipment in the park was dangerous, because there was no soft padding on the ground.”
Wang has students use a digital portfolio app called Seesaw to document the steps they have taken in completing their projects and reflect on what they have learned. “They use it to keep track of their work and assess their own learning,” she said.
Self-reflection is as important for teachers as it is for students. After each project, Wang reflects on what worked and what didn’t, so she can design more effective PBL in the future — and she also asks students for their feedback.
“I consider each class a working prototype,” she said. “This is uncharted territory, and you have to put your ego aside. My students are an integral part of my self-assessment.”