teacher with students


Planning a project that includes all of Gold Standard PBL’s Essential Project Design Elements is the key first step. But equally important for the success of your project is creating the right classroom environment and culture. 

Here are 4 ways to build a healthy culture for PBL:

1.    Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

We often hear about “relationships” being at the heart of good teaching, yet it often becomes a forgotten buzzword. Strong relationships, though, are especially important in PBL. Strong relationships are built through a safe space for communication and collaboration, and trust that is lifted up through positive interactions from both peers and the teacher. To help accomplish this, I ensure the students trust and respect me as a person. I accomplish this by demonstrating interest in them as individuals and taking a personal interest in their lives, which also helps me understand what is happening outside of the school. This translates to personal support in the classroom. (Oh yeah, and I don’t mind talking about Fortnight when the moment arises!)

2.    Student Ownership of the Learning Environment

The classroom space is usually viewed as the teacher’s space, but PBL teachers say, “It's not my classroom, it's ours.” The more ownership given to students, the more they respect and love their learning space. In my classroom, students are empowered to decide the norms and all students have a voice in the process. They also decide which jobs they can take on to ensure our space is organized. Organization is important when they’re in creation mode, so they know exactly where everything is located. Student ownership and collaborative roles are important when scaffolding students at any age towards independence. When I began using the makerspace, I noticed students didn’t take care of materials and clean up took forever! When we moved from teacher-led to student-led space, everything changed for the better. Students began asking if they could stay after school, during lunch, and even over the weekend to organize and clean the space. With the power of student independence, it is easier to scaffold students in time management, goal setting, and accomplishing their daily tasks to meet the needs of their team. 


students working on project


3.    Common Language and Processes

Along with shared norms, we create verbal cues, processes, and systems that provide support for PBL. Transitioning from individual work time to whole-group time can be difficult when students are heavily invested in their projects. To ensure we get back together in an efficient manner, we have “call outs” that are recognizable and consistent. I have a bank of three: 

  • Call out “Class, Class” and all reply “Yes, Yes”
  • Call out “To Infinity” and all reply “and Beyond”
  • Call out “Hands on Top” and all reply “That Means Stop”

Then, I can give praise for quality work and also maximize my coaching opportunities when students encounter common misunderstandings or challenges.

In addition, the use of consistent processes and systems fosters an environment of common expectations and norms. In PBL, you need to scaffold success skills such as collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, and being a high-level presenter.  To scaffold critical thinking and problem-solving, we have the design process posted with explanations of each step. Along with the design process, we use protocols such as the Charrette Protocol and the Tuning Protocol to provide students with a step-by-step process for giving high quality feedback. These steps are posted in the classroom, along with the common language of how we should give our feedback, reminding students to be “Helpful, Specific, and Kind.” Finally, we have rubrics displayed, along with the “project wall” which includes our driving question, vocabulary, calendar, and any other key documents supportive to student success. 

students working on a PBL project


4.    Growth Mindset

The final way I build classroom culture is through teaching our kids that productive failure is good. Some call it “failing forward.” This concept is great in theory, but we must create an environment that inspires this in action. PBL fosters this type of environment through three very important design elements: inquiry, reflection, and critique/revision. Developing a “Need to Know” list and having kids participate in the Question Formulation Technique support the process of asking good questions, which will in turn lead the students to quality answers and questions. This process builds a growth mindset by reinforcing that there isn't one correct answer. Students learn they can search for the best answer that wasn’t readily apparent upon first examination. By building a culture of inquiry you begin to see deeper learning experiences, where students are empowered to drive their own learning. 

In my recent “Entrepreneur Project” I was blown away by the problems my students selected and by the amount of research they invested in their topic. They really wanted to know what the best solution would be. They embraced topics such as gender equality, pollution, drug poster  that says "culture eats strategy for breakfast"abuse, and even school shootings. They encountered roadblocks, but never quit because they had strategies in place to help them advance through all challenges. To build that “never quit” attitude, reflection has also been a big key. We not only reflect at the end of a project, but also on a daily basis, to gauge whether students have met their daily goal or if they still have questions or struggles. We utilize graphic organizers and sentence starters to scaffold students to support this type of thinking.

Culture Is King

If we as educators want to develop successful, independent learners who are not afraid to fail, then we must create a culture that fosters it. How are you building culture in your classrooms to help your students find deeper meaning and do high-quality work? 

Drew Hirshon is currently a K-6 STEM educator in Pueblo, Colorado, and a PBLWorks National Faculty member. His 13 years of unique educational experiences surrounding technology, biomedical science, culturally and linguistically diverse education, mathematics, exercise science, and utilization of design thinking and maker spaces within a project based pedagogy has continued to drive his passion to create authentic learning opportunities for his students.