child with flowers

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and we should give a special shout-out to teachers who use Project Based Learning. Whether they are new to the game or PBL veterans, they share certain admirable traits along with their use of the Project Based Teaching Practices in our model for Gold Standard PBL.

And the good news is, you don’t have to be an exceptional teacher to become a PBL teacher! With the right support, and hopefully some colleagues to join you on your journey, you can learn to make PBL work for you, your subject area, and your students, whatever their background.

We appreciate PBL teachers because:

1. They work hard, but are rewarded for their efforts.

First we should acknowledge that most teachers work hard. But, just sayin’, a teacher who typically lectures with a set of PowerPoint slides they’ve used year after year is not working as hard as a teacher who designs and implements a PBL unit. Ditto for a teacher who follows a scripted curriculum or marches students through a textbook (although they may have no choice if it’s mandated by their school or district). PBL teachers feel it’s worth it when they see how much PBL benefits their students—and how fun it is to teach this way. 

2.    They are dedicated and persevere through challenges.

PBL teachers might face many obstacles, but they believe in the potential of PBL. They make time to plan projects, even if their school/district does not provide enough of it (yet - lookin’ at you, leaders!) as part of the regular day/week/month. They explain PBL to sometimes-skeptical students, parents, administrators, and colleagues. They’re willing to take a pause for a “reset” during a project, if students and teams are struggling, if the technology is problematic, the products aren’t working out, or the whole idea needs rethinking.

3.    They are collaborative.

PBL provides many opportunities for working with colleagues, to generate ideas for projects, plan them and get feedback, implement them together, and team-teach them. What’s more, PBL teachers find they enjoy collaborating with experts and other adults beyond the classroom, from whom they get ideas and support for projects.

4.    They open their classroom doors.

For many teachers in the traditional paradigm, they’re the kings and queens of their castle and no one but their students knows what goes on in their classroom. PBL teachers “deprivatize” their practice. They welcome visitors, whether it’s parents and administrators to hear presentations, experts to mentor students, or colleagues who observe them to learn, provide feedback, and offer resources.

5.    They like getting to know their students.

PBL teachers tell us they enjoy being able to learn more about what their students are like as young people—their lives in the community, interests, cultures, and identities. Teachers often report being pleasantly surprised by seeing their students’ capabilities during projects. 

6.    They are creative and resourceful.

PBL brings out the innate creativity within all of us. We’ve seen teachers generate some amazing ideas for projects at our PBL 101 workshops. Then there’s all the creative problem-solving required in the midst of a PBL unit when things aren’t going to plan—or are taking off in an unexpected yet wonderful direction!

7.    They are willing to take risks.

Even veteran PBL teachers get a little nervous when launching a new project. Rookie PBL teachers might be more than a little nervous, so I hope they’ve been given permission from school leaders to try PBL without fear of consequences, and told it’s OK to fail-forward.

8.    They support all students in accessing and succeeding in PBL.

PBL is good for all students, and PBL teachers know it’s important—and know how—to make it work for K through 12; English learners; special needs students; advanced students; students whose reading skills are below grade level; urban, suburban, and rural students. PBL teachers build the right classroom culture and work closely alongside students to engage and coach them, recognizing when they need scaffolding, encouragement, or celebration.

9.    They are not afraid to tackle complex or controversial topics. 

When PBL teachers create (or co-create with students) projects with driving questions that are authentic to students’ lives or tackle real-world issues, there are no simple answers. These projects might lead students to political action or taking a stand on a controversial issue in the community or the wider world. It’s safer for teachers to avoid such topics, but PBL teachers know how powerfully students are engaged and how much they gain—in terms of both success skills and a sense of agency—from doing work that matters.

10.    They are learners and storytellers, whose enthusiasm is infectious.

Like a kid who comes home from a school that uses PBL and has plenty of things to say when asked, “What did you do in school today?”, PBL teachers are eager to share stories of projects. They are often transformed, along with their students. I love it when teachers around the U.S. and across the world tell us, “I can never go back to traditional teaching.” And they love to learn, whether it’s about a topic in a project or how to improve their practice of PBL.

Have you got a PBL story to tell? Please share it with me, and consider writing a guest blog post; email john@pblworks.org. And thanks again, many times over, for all that you do for our students!