people trying to get out of a puzzle

The “plateau effect” is a powerful force that impacts us all at some point.

If you’ve ever fallen in love or tried to lose weight, you know the feeling all too well. The initial spike of progress, which is so invigorating, can eventually give way to stagnation and feeling stuck. Over time, the weight stops dropping and the honeymoon period ends. 

PBL teachers are not immune to this phenomenon either. I’ve been involved in the creation of a number of school-within-a-school PBL academies, and students had the option to join and stay with us. Along with the excitement of these new ventures came the drive to retain and grow student membership from year to year. That meant we had to provide students with a PBL experience that would keep them coming back for more. The sobering pressure for all of us involved was clear: if students don’t love it, they’ll leave it. Plateauing was not an option, at least not for long.

So, how can we all overcome the PBL Plateau Effect? I’d like to share a few breakthroughs that were used in various PBL academies to overcome the status quo and continue growth:

Breakthrough #1: Project Pitches to Students

We knew that we had to abandon the “lone wolf” style of planning that many of us had been used to. It’s incredibly easy to plateau when we travel the PBL journey alone, so we wanted to ensure that more voices were heard during our project planning phase, especially students. Before launching a project, we’d pitch our ideas to students for feedback. After providing them with the learning goals for the project, we would then share potential products, audiences, and authentic connections that might help us achieve those goals. Students were given opportunities to brainstorm with us, and we’d take the most promising ideas into consideration as we refined our final plans.

Breakthrough #2: Outsider Critique Sessions

As a final PBL Plateau prevention before launching a project, we held pre-kickoff critique sessions that usually leveraged the structure of the Tuning or Charette protocol. These gatherings involved various stakeholders outside of our PBL academy, which included parents, civic and business leaders, teachers, administrators, and other school personnel. This outsider perspective was particularly important for us as we sought to avoid the metaphorical “tunnel vision” that can happen if you only design projects within your usual crew of colleagues. 

Breakthrough #3: Revision Jam Sessions

We had to resist the “same old, same old” approach of simply using an identical project from year to year. That would surely cause a plateau. After each project, teachers in our academy would engage in a revision jam session to reflect and brainstorm possible updates for its next use. Just like a musical jam session, our atmosphere was intended to be informal and involved a lot of improvisation.

We loved to play a little game we called “Crank Up the Volume.” We’d review the Gold Standard Project Design Elements and begin to riff on each others ideas about how “dialing up” an element could improve the project (ex. Our project is at a level 6 right now for the Public Product element. What would a level 10 look like? Let’s share, and don’t overthink it right now!). This approach went a long way toward keeping our projects diverse and helped us avoid the Immunity cause of plateaus, which asserts that we can grow a bit numb over time to the same techniques and approaches.

Breakthrough #4: Quarterly Reviews 

We used Quarterly Reviews as a way to stay close to student voice and to model a growth mindset as the school year progressed. After students completed their quarterly survey, we would compile and analyze the data. The results were then shared with students in our Quarterly Review lesson. During this time, we would show data trends, highlight student quotes, ask follow-up questions, and share our action steps for improvement as PBL teachers. There was usually an accompanying slide show to guide the conversation. Click here to view an example from one of our past Quarterly Reviews.

This was my favorite strategy we used due to its cultural impact. Students always looked forward to these, and we teachers actually enjoyed the transparency and vulnerability. 

Breakthrough #5: Third Party Evaluations 

As an added outside perspective, we sought to have third parties “look under the hood” to identify where we were succeeding and where we needed to grow. In 2013, I was involved with the initiation of a PBL academy called Studio D. Near the end of the school year, graduate students from the University of South Carolina assisted us by conducting a program evaluation that involved observations, interviews, focus groups, surveys, and t-tests to analyze end-of-course test results.

These results were invaluable, because it gave us such a unique perspective and a depth of work that we could not do ourselves. Plus, it helped us better understand our current state, our desired state, and what action steps we might take to bridge that gap. To get a sneak peek into feedback on our program, click here to read through an interview that one of the University of South Carolina graduate students conducted with a student.

The PBL Plateau Effect is a real force to overcome, and it inevitably will impact all of us at some point in our journey.

But, if we have a toolbox of breakthroughs ready, we might be able to ensure those periods of plateau are shorter and serve as learning moments to help us maintain an upward trajectory.

Eric White, National Faculty
Eric White is a passionate educator who, above all else, is devoted to student and teacher empowerment. He currently provides professional development and coaching for school districts on a full-time basis. He previously served as a PBL Instructional Coach and Lead Teacher of Project Based Learning at the secondary level.