River Raft


The river-as-a-metaphor-for-life concept is nothing new. From Longfellow’s “To the River Charles” to Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, writers, musicians, and thinkers have employed this device to resonate with audiences hungry for meaning. Last summer, as I paddled 160 miles of whitewater through Idaho, I understood why. I ran the Salmon River twice over a five-week period, and with all that time out in nature, some parallels to PBL surfaced like hungry trout.

You never run the same river (or project) twice

This idea comes from Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher born in 544 BCE who said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Similarly, we can begin a project with the same standards, the same objectives, or the same driving questions as the last time: these structures are like the banks of the river. But you won’t have the same students flowing through it, and you’re not the same teacher.

Scout obstacles ahead of time…

It takes time to pull over to the side of the river, secure your boat, and scramble over poison-ivy-infested rocks to check out a route in advance. The advantage is that you can plot a line through a rapid and avoid getting into a dangerous situation. PBL works best when a project is fully planned out before it’s launched. Time spent planning and anticipating is always worth it.

…but know that sometimes, you just have to “read and run”

However, no matter how much planning or scouting you do, rivers and projects are dynamic: you can’t anticipate every wave. In the middle of a class period, a project, or an exhibition, you may find yourself facepalming upon the realization that you should have done X, Y, or Z to better scaffold for students. There’s no back-paddling out of a rapid or a project. Enter with a lot of speed and energy, and you’ll buy yourself room to maneuver.

Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go

River guides always point to the safest direction. With distance and the roar of the water as obstacles to communication, it’s dangerous to indicate where not to go. Your boat will generally go in the direction you’re looking, so don’t lose precious time and energy focusing on what not to do. Just reflect afterwards and take notes on what you can do better next time.

Rapids are rated on a system of Class I (moving water) to Class V (severe consequences possible). You boat at your level. So plan PBL at your appropriate level and notch it up as you gain experience. Choose the river (or project) that you can handle and get out there. Are you ready to run? See you on the water…

Want to learn more about PBL? Check out our books.

Register now for PBL World 2019.

Heather Wells, K-12 Chair of Modern & Classical Languages, Convent & Stuart Hall