Students working on a PBL project

A few months ago, it happened to me for the first time: one of my 4th graders said he felt he wasn’t learning at school.

I confess his comment surprised me. I could definitely see areas and abilities being developed, such as his capacity to build knowledge from and with his classmates, his writing and literacy skills, and his deepening understanding about immigration and the refugee crisis, connecting it to global warming. It was clear to me that he was learning—but was it clear for him?

When we sat to have a conversation, I decided to ask him: “What is it exactly that you call learning?”, to which he answered “Uh, things like solving math problems and copying things from the board.” So there I was, sitting in front of a student I was pretty sure had a significant learning journey happening, facing the facts: I was failing in making his learning visible for himself.

Don’t get me wrong, I was following the drill.

Students’ multiplication solving strategies were visible on the wall. Daily learning stations provided them opportunities to build knowledge together and to work on their research skills. Reflection about what they were learning about immigration was happening frequently, and I had prepared an intellectually rich environment with books, documentaries, and different learning tools. Opportunities to raise curiosities and connect topics are also part of our routine and my planning is filled with big driving questions that carry our learning moments forward. In this project, students were about to start developing a computer game about a refugee journey through the world. 

Students working on a PBL project


For some reason, my student wasn’t seeing all the learning opportunities I prepared daily for him and his classmates (see Ron Richard’s Cultural Forces on how to create classrooms where thinking is valued and visible). His answer to my question had given me a hint of what might be happening. As a newcomer in a Project Based Learning school, his eyes were looking for results in the form of answering textbook questions, filling in worksheets, and so on. The reflection moments I so thoroughly planned, connected to the topics we were discussing, reading pieces of news, conversations, and hands-on activities did not fit his requirements of what learning should look like. 

The gift of time

When I first started teaching in a PBL school, I also found myself worried about producing immediate and material results. Although I could listen to my students and plan my next teaching moves based on the conversations we were having and the depth of the questions they were asking, I was still holding on to tactile learning evidence such as worksheets and pieces of writing. It took me a while to feel at ease with the fact that I could still have worksheets happening, but only if combined with learning moments in which I was not always expecting right answers from my students. I could give them—and myself—the gift of time. 


Students working on a PBL project


That was when I started investing more time and energy in creating meaningful learning moments for them. Visible Thinking routines, discussions, and so on were the greatest gift I could give them: actual time to build knowledge without worrying about producing immediate results. I shifted the focus of my teaching from the destination to the journey. 

Embracing the beauty of learning

In Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie wrote: 

“The key components of passion for the teacher and for the learner appear to be the sheer thrill of being a learner or teacher, the absorption that accompanies the process of teaching and learning, the sensations of being involved in the activity of teaching and learning, and the willingness to be involved in deliberate practice to attain understanding.”


I could not agree more. Allowing my students actual time to build knowledge, giving them opportunities to embrace the beauty of learning and sharing my own excitement for it brought significance to our daily routine. My uninterested students developed a sense of wonder that allowed them to take ownership of their own learning journeys. My already passionate students had opportunities to share their knowledge with their classmates, working on their collaboration skills and dealing with different points of view and strategies. Students working on a PBL project

Giving students time to learn is giving them time to enjoy learning. Giving students opportunities to reflect and check on their learning is giving them the sense of pride and ownership we all need to move on to harder challenges. Turns out that building a sustained inquiry culture is one of the most generous actions a teacher can take to share his/her passion for learning. 

One thing I learned throughout my PBL journey is that “Is this learning opportunity promoting passion for learning?” is a great question a teacher should ask him or herself while planning the day or week ahead. “Am I offering students time to sustain their passion for learning?” is another one that we should carry around like markers in our pockets. 

Making my student aware of his journey

As for my student, I started giving more importance to the moment of our day in which I share what our main learning goal of that day is. Privately, I share and celebrate his accomplishments with him, encouraging him to raise awareness of the journey he’s on. I say things such as, “I like what you said earlier today about the permafrost. I can see you connected it to what you already know about bacteria.” and, “A week ago you couldn’t do this, remember?” 

Little by little, my student is understanding that learning comes in different shapes and sizes and that every little thing that happens in class matters; meanwhile, I am learning that time to develop, be aware of and fall in love with learning is the greatest gift I can give my students.  

Julia Porto
Júlia Porto, Escola Concept, São Paulo, Brazil