For decades, educators have recognised the need to teach in more integrated, dynamic, and less “old-school” ways. Nevertheless, many of us still find ourselves stymied when trying to implement PBL successfully.
I share my experience in attempting to implement PBL somewhat reticently, as I do not consider myself to be an expert, or even a fully successful educator in this field. My only credentials are the fact that I believe in the concept, that I have been exposed to training by various different proponents of PBL, and that I have had the opportunity to implement PBL at Hatfield Christian School with learners in three different grades in the past few years. This last point is the most important; I believe that we, like students, learn best by trying things, even if we do not necessarily feel completely ready!
The first project was an environmental project in which Grade 10 Life Sciences students had to develop a management plan for the eradication of alien invasive plants in a nearby nature reserve. The second attempt at PBL was an integrated project across several subjects with our Grade 9 learners, in which they explored different aspects of food security. The third and most recent project was with our Grade 7 learners, where they explored endangered species, learned about their adaptations, and the threats that have caused them to become endangered.
In all three cases, there were parts of the project that were successful and, in the eyes of the learners, worthwhile activities. However, there were some challenges that, despite being very frustrating to teachers and learners alike, highlighted the need to continue with PBL because the skills which are the hardest to learn are the most valuable in the long term.
Encourage creativity and student specialisation
PBL provides a vehicle for different skills and interests to come to the fore. Some tasks in a project require different abilities and interests. It is important to allow the learners to identify the areas of interest that bring out their strengths, and to help teams cater to these strengths so that each team member feels like they are contributing to the success of their team. If this is done well, students feel empowered and excited to tackle something they know they can do well.
With the Grade 10 environmental project, each team had people focusing on different aspects of the project. The field researchers went out to the reserve to plot the alien invasive plants while the more mathematically-minded learners worked on the budgets. The desktop researchers found out about the plants and the ways of controlling their spread while the artistically inclined learners created the maps and models of the reserve. In this way, PBL allows for individuality and creativity, encouraging individual strengths, so that in the end the total becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Of course, this task segmentation means teams need to carefully plan who is doing what, and relies on each team member completing the work assigned to them. This is easier said than done – more on this below – but you do increase the odds of this occurring if each student is given a task that fits neatly with their strengths and interests.
Re-framing learning as ‘fun’
We speak and hear a lot about the need for ‘lifelong learning’ amongst the younger generation in an age when change is the norm, not the exception. However, this requires us to re-frame the way we approach learning, and the way learning is viewed by learners. Most learners associate learning only with reading, writing, and ‘book work’, which makes it challenging to sell them on the idea of ‘lifelong learning’.
The beauty of PBL, however, is that it completely re-frames both the purpose of learning – to solve problems and make change, rather than to complete a test – and the method and process through which this learning is gained and demonstrated. PBL allows the learners to discover and the teachers to become facilitators of learning. It sounds like a well-used cliché, but it is exciting and refreshing to stand by and watch the learning happening because the learners are interested in the content and are excited by what this knowledge will enable them to achieve in the project. At times, the learners had to be stopped in their tracks as they presented their findings to the class because they had too much information on the topic!
The Grade 7s had to build a sanctuary for their endangered animals at the end of the project. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the remote learning this brought about, some groups opted to build their sanctuaries digitally using the Minecraft software. The results were stunning, creative, and ridiculously complex (with secret passages, interesting signage, hatching eggs and baby turtles running everywhere, lookout towers for poachers!). When asked, one learner said he spent THREE ENTIRE DAYS at home designing the sanctuary, drawing on his learnings from the unit to ensure the sanctuary would suit his animal’s adaptations and help its population rebound. How often do we find learners excited about spending three days doing their homework?
I believe that this level of engagement is unparalleled outside of PBL. In what other classroom context might you find this response from a learner?
I think PBL is a good and fun way of working because you’re doing all these fun tasks with friends but still learning, and instead of being bored in class while your teacher is teaching and you’re taking notes, PBL is a much better way of learning and you remember what you learned because it’s fun
Keep cross-curricula integration small at first
When we planned the Grade 9 project on food security, we were somewhat overambitious. We tried to integrate Art, Natural Science, Social Science, and Mathematics into the brief. What resulted was an oversized, cumbersome process that left the learners confused as to what exactly was expected of them. I would therefore recommend that you are not overly ambitious in the number of subjects you attempt to integrate into the same project. Keep it small and focused; sometimes, you’ll find that this approach actually lends itself to bringing in more faculties as your project evolves.
The Grade 7 project, designed by a more experienced PBL team from outside our school, was very different. It was designed to be done in one subject and had very clearly defined and easily-accessible tasks. This made it a pleasure for the teacher because the process was easily manageable and the learners had a platform where they could see exactly what was required of them at any given point in time. Ironically, the project then lent itself to integration across two other subjects. The IT teacher taught the learners how to use the software they needed to design their sanctuaries. At the same time, they were learning about area, volume, and perimeter in Mathematics, so they ended up applying these learnings to the design of their sanctuaries.
It is important, however, to realise that PBL does not happen naturally nor easily for many learners, especially because of the need for group work. However, as I mentioned above, we saw this as both a reminder of the need for PBL and an opportunity to work with learners to improve their skills.
How do you assess it?
Learners (and their parents!) are so marks-driven that they can be unable to enjoy the process of learning if it is not linked to academic grades. I had parents writing to me with great concern because their child was in a group where the other participants were not as diligent, so they feared for their child’s academic achievement. One of the ways to address this is to ensure that within the project certain tasks are submitted which count for academic marks which are to be completed individually. The challenge is therefore to find the balance between summative and formative assessments.
The Grade 10 project was designed to be purely formative (it was undertaken to be submitted to a local Science Fair). This, however, resulted in learners not taking it very seriously as it had no impact on their academic results. Our approach to assessment for the Grade 9 project fared little better. It was intended to be formative, as the intention was to see the learners working together towards a collaborative outcome. The difficulty was that, as mentioned earlier in this article, the parents, teachers, and learners all felt uncomfortable with the fact that there were no “marks” at the end of it all.
The Grade 7 project was the first one to correctly find the balance between formative and summative assessments. Lessons were taught intermittently to provide the learners with the content they needed to continue with the next task in their project (e.g. animal adaptations, food chains, habitats), which then formed the basis for formative assessment at an individual level to ensure students had correctly applied content to the project. At the end of the project, students were assessed summatively on how their content understanding had informed their final solution, as well as collectively on how well they had collaborated across the project. This meant that formal “tests” on the content could still be carried out, independently of the success of the project.
Our school, being one of the Independent Examination Board (IEB) schools in South Africa and required to follow the National Department of Education’s criteria, cannot completely distance itself from a marks-based system of assessment. Fortunately, PBL does not limit the type of assessment. It is possible, and in fact preferable, to include both types of assessments in the outcomes of the projects. The mix of individual and team-based assessment can also ensure an equitable approach to assessing each learner’s knowledge and contribution to their team.
Managing team member contributions
It is a well-known and commonly experienced constraint to group work that some people feel hindered when forced to work with their classmates. They know their own strengths and preferred style, so they struggle to delegate and release control to others. On the opposite end of the scale, working in groups allows weaker or lazier learners to ride on the coat-tails of their more diligent teammates.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon reflects “real life” in the workplace too. From my experience of working in the corporate world before becoming a teacher, I often experienced the frustration of having to rely on unproductive colleagues for input which hindered the progress and quality of our deliverables. We need to teach our children to cope with this scenario or, better still, to understand that the part they play can ensure that the scenario will not materialise.
As a means of encouraging equal participation by all the members of the group, we turned the Grade 7 project into a “challenge” or a “game”. Each team was awarded points when tasks were successfully completed by all participants in the team. If someone in the team did not contribute the whole team lost points. I explained to the learners that this is analogous to running a relay: If the whole team does not finish first, none of them are eligible for the medal! The team is only as strong as its weakest member, so the role of the strong team member is to support, encourage and assist the weaker one. The Grade 7s received the marks that they so intensely believe to be all-important, but they also (more excitedly) received large slabs of chocolate for the winning projects!
Furthermore, to address the issue of the non-contributor, there has to be some consequence to this behaviour that impacts directly on this individual, in order to provide some incentive to change his/her mindset. In the implementation of the project, as already mentioned, team points were lost if all members of the team did not do their share, but individual summative assessments also helped to “force” some work out of these learners. Learners also had the opportunity at the end of the project to evaluate their group members’ contribution in the following categories:
How well did he/she communicate during the project?
How well did he/she accept your ideas and suggestions?
How well did he/she do the work on time so your team could get their points?
How well was he/she willing to work with others to get the job done?
This peer review has a scoring rubric and can therefore be translated into actual numeric results which count “for marks”. In this way learners will eventually realise that if they do not pull their weight in the group, it has a real effect on their formal academic evaluation.
Developing collaboration skills
In monitoring the progress of the groups as the projects were being carried out, the group dynamic was unfortunately sometimes one filled with conflict, frustration, and hurting individuals. The learners are young and inexperienced in the skills of negotiation and collaboration. The natural leaders and those with dominant personalities “bulldoze” their colleagues into decisions which are not the choice of all the group members. This can affect who does the different tasks, how these are carried out, and what the end product will look like. One Grade 7 girl was reduced to tears because her friend did not consider her preferred colour for a building in the final presentation!
This was turned into a positive learning opportunity where I, as the teacher, could explain concepts such as expectations, the need for clear communication, tolerance, and compromise.
It is important, as part of the ongoing management of the project, to allow learners the opportunity to communicate to their teacher when the group is not functioning effectively. The teacher is then able to engage with the members of the team and assist them in identifying the issues, their role in the conflict, and how the problem can be resolved. It takes effort and energy from teachers to help them navigate these stormy waters, but that energy is better spent and will yield a greater return than energy spent preaching content from the front of the classroom.
It is precisely because of these frustrations that we need to persevere with PBL. The skills gaps which hinder the success of the project and often negatively affect the participants are the very skills we are trying to instil in our young adults in preparing them for the working world they will enter one day.
I would encourage those considering embarking on a PBL journey to take the plunge! Yes, it will have its challenges and yes, it might even fail. But if it succeeds, even a little, it is a step in the right direction. After all, in the words of Frederick W. Smith, “Fear of failure must never be a reason not to try something”.
Do you know an educator who is trying to make PBL work in a remote learning context who might benefit from Carla's experience and tips? If so, please share this article with them!