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“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

That quote, attributed to Albert Einstein, is one I’ve had posted at my work station for some time, but its relevance now is more profound than ever. It’s also a source of inspiration when I work with teachers who wonder if now is the time to start (or continue) doing Project Based Learning (PBL) in a remote learning environment.

Many teachers in this unprecedented school year are reticent to move further into the unknown, even if they know that the relative “comfort” of mandated pacing guides, canned curricula, and uninspiring work packets are clearly not working for many of their students.

The good news is there also are countless teachers and administrators who are hungry to do something different – something that’s more inviting, relevant, and effective for students. Rather than fighting a losing battle with traditional compliance and control tactics, these educators are using this time of uncertainty as an opportunity to meet students where they are through approaches such as PBL. 

Of course, this is where you have every right to say, “Easier said than done!” True. Embracing PBL is not a simple task, especially in a virtual context. It’s hard work, at least relative to posting the same passive lesson that’s been used before, with the same deadline and the same grading criteria. Rinse, repeat. But the payoff of doing high quality PBL is infinitely more rewarding than staring at data that shows a significant number of students not engaged in online lessons, not completing assigned work, and not seeing any relevance of their work to what they care about in these times.

These PBL teachers are using an asset-based lens at this moment because they know that we can indeed make the learning real even in a remote setting.

They are part of a global community of PBL teachers who are sharing project ideas, online learning hints, and even entire projects through social media and other platforms (check out the #PBLChat on Twitter right now just to see one example of what I mean).

One such platform is PBLWorks, which has a gold mine of resources – much of it free! – for any grade level or curricular area. PBLWorks has even tailored their well-known Gold Standard PBL 101 workshop to model what excellent PBL instruction looks like in a virtual setting It also just recently launched an affordable Project Designer that combines an interactive planning tool with over 70 projects in one place. How cool is that?!

Still not convinced? Let me share a brief interaction I had as part of a recent virtual PBL 101 workshop, to inspire you to reconsider.

A group of high school teachers were struggling with how to develop a virtual, cross-curricular project that would be relevant to the students in their rural school in New Hampshire. One of the teachers was really interested in the Face Your Face project she found on the my.PBLWorks.org website, but her peers were unsure how to connect it to their curricular areas, especially doing so virtually.
As the workshop’s facilitator, I suggested a few questions they might consider to move this project forward (the following is a paraphrased version of that conversation):

●    Could we extend this project into the current issue of mask wearing relative to COVID-19? Doing so could bring in topics such as civics, individual rights, and government authority.

●    What if students explore what makes a mask effective? This could bring in lots of science connections, including biology (what type of mask is best to prevent virus transmission via droplets or aerosols?) and chemistry (what is the rate of CO2 diffusion in a mask?).

●    Could we bring in math (and physics) with questions related to what is the most effective geometry, how to ensure a generic mask will fit any size face, and the probability and statistics related to mask effectiveness in different populations?

●    By looking into the material of the mask, could students explore things like raw material supply chains in terms of economics, finance, etc.? For example, a cotton mask opens the possibility of students exploring the dark history of cotton production in this country (the legacy of slavery, child labor laws, colonialism, etc.) while a synthetic mask allows students to study the environmental impact of polymer production.

These few questions were all it took for these teachers to be inspired to make this project happen!

Something as simple as “a mask” got them thinking about all the different ways they were going to give their students authentic entry points to engage in sustained inquiry and a way to use a remote learning setting as an asset and not a weakness.

The really exciting thing was that all of these teachers were new to PBL. All it took was a shift in paradigm to spark the kind of collaboration that I’m confident will be a whole new level of excitement and engagement to their respective classrooms – something no work packet or canned lesson can touch. This is the beauty of student-centered PBL, especially at this moment!

Where are you on your PBL journey? Perhaps you are looking for a way to bring more excitement and deeper learning to your classroom in these uncertain times. Perhaps you have done one or more projects in the past but are unsure of how to do it in an environment of remote learning. 

If you trust the process and are true to the elements of authentic PBL, you will not only see more engagement and deeper learning than you experienced with typical, traditional approaches, but you will be helping your students develop the skills they will need to solve the complex problems of today’s rapidly changing world. That’s the kind of teaching and learning environment we should all be working for. Let’s use this difficult time as an opportunity to make that environment a reality for all our students!
 

Ben Owens, National Faculty
Ben Owens is a former engineer and STEM teacher. He received state and national recognition for his innovative approach to teaching and teacher leadership and now works as an education consultant to help schools create the cultural conditions to do the same. He co-authored the book, “Open Up, Education!”