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PODCAST EPISODE 2  |  8.10.2020

What the heck is PBL?

What the heck

In this episode, best-selling authors and long-time PBL advocates Suzie Boss and John Larmer tell us what the heck PBL is! They discuss how PBL is different from other methods of teaching and the research evidence that shows why and how PBL works for students. They also shed some light on common PBL challenges and how to overcome them.

About our guests

John Larmer is a frequent writer on the topic of PBL and education. He’s also a former teacher, a long-time champion for making education more engaging and meaningful for students, and the editor in chief at PBLWorks!

Suzie Boss is a writer, education consultant, and National Faculty member at PBLWorks. She is a passionate advocate for Project Based Learning.

Full transcript

Laureen: Today on the project, we're here with our guests, John Larmer and Suzie Boss, both of whom are bestselling authors and longtime PBL practitioners who've traveled around the country and beyond, observing and promoting best PBL practices.

Stanley: John is a frequent writer on the topics of PBL in education. He's also a former educator and longtime champion for making education more engaging and meaningful for students. He's also the editor-in-chief at PBLWorks.

Laureen: Suzie is a writer, education consultant and national faculty member of PBLWorks and a passionate advocate for project-based learning.

Stanley: John and Suzie, welcome to the project.

Suzie Boss: Thanks for having us.

John Larmer: Hi Stanley, hi Laureen.

Laureen: Hello, welcome. Let's start the conversation with a question we get asked all the time, what exactly is PBL anyway? If you're on a one minute elevator ride with someone, how would you explain it? John, can you start us off?

John Larmer: PBL is an acronym for project-based learning. Project-based learning is a teaching method where students learn by doing meaningful, in-depth projects.

Laureen: Great. Thanks.

Stanley: Okay, great. Thank you. Suzie, what would your one minute elevator pitch be?

Laureen: So I would add to that by reminding people that we're in a project-based world. Most of the important things that happen in the world, the way work gets done today, happens from a team coming together, bringing their expertise, solving problems, and making their results public. And that's what PBL gives students an opportunity to do in a carefully guided way with a teacher helping them through the experience.

Stanley: So just a general question for both John and Suzie, how did you get interested in project-based learning? What's your origin story for PBL?

Suzie Boss: I think you're going to hear both of us came from the classroom ourselves. I was a journalism teacher and it only made sense for me as a journalism teacher to set up my classroom as a newsroom and have students doing authentic publishing out of the classroom a lot, talking to people, doing interviews, using the same tools that reporters use and that I had used as a reporter myself before I became a teacher.

John Larmer: Yeah, I was a high school teacher of social studies and English. And back in the late eighties and early nineties, I got very interested in high school reform and helped start a new high school in my school district and we did a lot of cutting edge teaching methods and practices back in those days, including project-based learning. And then I found my way to the Buck Institute for Education in 2001 and I've been here ever since.

Laureen: Suzie or John, can you tell us how PBL is different from other teaching and learning methods?

John Larmer: It's different from other methods of teaching because it's active, it's not passive. The idea is that students are not just absorbing information from a teacher, but they're actively engaging in real world problems and issues and questions that are meaningful and relevant to them.

So it's a much more in-depth and engaging process than typical instructional methods, and it's focused on a high quality product. Students make a presentation or produce something for a public audience at the end of a project. So that public element of PBL makes it really distinctive.

Suzie Boss: And I would expand on that a little bit by saying some of the ways PBL looks different from more traditional teaching is that it's not a teacher guiding students to follow a textbook. When you're following textbook, it's a preset curriculum. The content has been kind of already chunked for you and for your students. You may use textbooks and many other resources in the course of project-based learning, but you're not following a script in the same way.

I think you're also going to see that students do more of the questioning in PBL. In a more traditional setting, it's the teacher who's asking most of the questions. In a good project-based learning experience, we want students asking questions and then taking their learning forward by wanting to answer those questions and share what they know, as John said, with an authentic audience.

And I think one last point is, PBL can be and should be pretty challenging. We know the good learning happens when students need to wrestle with ideas and struggle a little bit. If learning is really fast and you're memorizing some facts, you're going to perhaps let go of those facts as soon as the test is over, but when you have that opportunity to really wrestle and come to your own understanding, that's when the learning is going to stick.

John Larmer: Another way that PBL looks different is the classroom itself. If you walk into a PBL classroom, you'll often see students working in teams, engaging with outside experts, using technology. So they're not just sitting in rows, taking notes individually and quietly at the teacher lectures, or they're not just answering textbook questions.

Stanley: I love this idea around active not passive, and just thinking about how students are questioning and struggling and outside experts, they really helps kind of frame that active learning. I appreciate that. Thank you. I was really curious about who's doing PBL, what schools, percentage of schools, grade levels and subjects. Who's doing PBL out in the world?

Suzie Boss: So I can offer a little bit of perspective and then I'm going to defer to John for some more thinking about what's happening in the US but I've had the privilege of working with schools all around the world so that tells me that interest in project-based learning is exploding everywhere, on every continent and often for the same reasons because educators and students themselves are wanting to shift to this kind of teaching and learning.

And in these many different contexts, we're seeing PBL happening both in independent schools and public schools. Just on my own agenda in the coming weeks, I'm going to be working with public school teachers in Chile and in China, some independent schools in Columbia and India. So lots of interests everywhere.

John Larmer: In the US we're seeing project-based learning spreading rapidly through all kinds of schools. In regular public high schools and middle schools you're seeing it start with the more innovative teachers and some pioneers. A whole-school change is a little slow at that level. In elementary schools you're seeing it happening a lot.

You're seeing it in charter schools, which are sometimes set up explicitly to do project-based learning. STEM programs--science, technology, engineering, and math programs--you see a lot of PBL there. And we're working now at PBL works with a lot of school districts around the country, several dozen over the last few years. So it is spreading in regular school districts around United States.

Suzie Boss: And maybe just one more thought to add there, we're seeing PBL occur in different ways. Some schools it's wall-to-wall where students are learning through projects all the time. In other situations, students are having maybe two or three project experiences per semester. So it's not necessarily everything being taught through PBL all the time, but students are having regular frequent opportunities to take part in this kind of exciting learning.

Stanley: It does sound really exciting and a lot of exciting opportunities for learners. I'm curious about why do you think more schools are not doing PBL?

John Larmer: Well, yeah, I think a lot of schools don't do PBL because they're sort of hesitant to make the leap. There's a lot of pressure right now in the United States, and other countries for that matter, to cover content, to prepare students for tests--and those high stakes test with teacher accountability built into the system, it's a big risk sometimes, people think, to shift to project-based learning.

And we try and say that you can still get high test scores with project-based learning. You still teach to your standards in a good project you've designed or adapted, and so you can still do well on traditional measures of academic outcomes, as well as all these other things that students learn through project-based learning. So testing and pressure to cover content is a big barrier.

Suzie Boss: And one thing we sometimes hear from teachers is a concern that they think their students aren't ready for the challenge of PBL. And when we hear that, it's really an opportunity to kind of lean into that conversation. If their students aren't ready, they think because they've never had collaborative experiences, my challenge to teachers is to say, when are they going to get ready?

When are they going to learn the skills that are going to set them up for success? And we can also help teachers see that there are ways to scaffold the experience so that all learners can be successful. We don't think PBL is something that's only for a few or only for a particular profile of learner.

John Larmer: Another challenge for project-based learning is that it's a shift for teachers who are used to being in the role of deliverer of information, standing in front of the room, directing students every step of the way, dispensing knowledge. And to shift to be more of a facilitator and coaching students to build their own understanding and develop 21st century success skills, it's a different role for a teacher. It takes a leap of faith almost sometimes for teachers to trust that the process is going to work and that their role, even though it's different, they still have a very valuable role to play in a classroom.

Laureen: So we often hear people say that they're doing projects in their classrooms, but there is a difference between assigning projects and doing PBL. Can you speak a little to that? What is the difference between those?

Suzie Boss: I'll take that one on and I know John has a lot to say about this as well. I think this "doing projects" is one of those myths we just have to address head on and it starts with what many of us who are now adults experienced as learners ourselves. When we were in school, we might've been assigned a project that happened at the end of a learning experience.

We tended to do that project, which was a hands-on activity, at home and you can picture balancing that on the bus to get back to school and perhaps share in some sort of a hallway exhibit. Those are hands-on activities, but they're not full rich inquiry learning that PBL needs to be to really get students to the deep learning that we know it can get them to.

John Larmer: We talk a lot about dessert projects versus main course PBL. So as Suzie said, dessert projects are assigned at the end of a unit or perhaps as a side dish during a unit, but it's not the main way a teacher delivers the content. But in PBL, the project is the unit. It's the main way students learn the content, is through doing the project.

Stanley: I'm really interested in kind of origin stories like I asked earlier, so let me ask the origin of PBL. So what would you say is the origin of project-based learning?

John Larmer: Project-based learning is often traced to the work of John Dewey, might call him the grandfather of PBL--the noted education researcher and advocate for progressive education back in the early 20th century. He was the one who was famous for advocating for learning by doing. That students should experience real world work, and through that work, learn academic content. So that was kind of the origin of it. And it became popular in the twenties and thirties in the United States and in Europe.

It sort of went underground for a while and popped up again in the 1960s with progressive education and some of the new models of teaching and learning that were being tried out in the sixties and seventies. And as far as I know, the phrase project-based learning actually began in the eighties. That's where I first heard about it with the effort to change high schools. And problem-based learning, a close cousin of project-based, that arose in the sixties also in medical schools.

Stanley: I'm actually really curious. So you said, problem-based versus project-based learning. What's the difference between those two? Because I hear that term interchangeably a lot.

John Larmer: Yeah. Problem-based learning is also referred to as PBL. So it can be confusing, but it's sort of two sides of the same coin. Problem-based learning is typically constructed around a... the challenge for students is framed as a problem to solve. And in project-based learning, it might be a problem to solve, or it might be an issue to explore, or it could be a product to create to serve some real-world purpose.

So project-based learning is sort of a bigger category, and problem-based learning typically follows more discrete steps. Project-based learning is a little bit more open on how it could be completed, but they're really both inquiry-based, they share more features than they differ.

Suzie Boss: I think we can look at some of that origin story to compare and contrast. John mentioned medical school as one of the places that brought project-based learning or problem-based learning to life. The reason for it was that medical students were coming through their experience filled with facts but when presented with a living, breathing patient, they didn't know what to do. They hadn't had experience applying what they learned. They were just in the memorization of knowledge, and so some of those first experiences with case studies or pretend patients sometimes presenting with a series of symptoms that medical students had to diagnose, that sort of learning experience is a little more condensed, a little more set up by the teacher.

Now we're talking about the problem-based scenario. And the same thing happens in the classroom in K-12 settings, where if teachers are using more of the problem-based approach, it's pretty much a teacher developed problem. There's often not an audience outside the classroom and the learning is condensed to maybe a week's worth of learning rather than perhaps several weeks.

Laureen: So John, you were mentioning why some people are reluctant or apprehensive to incorporate project-based learning into their schools mostly because of the pressure we have around high stakes testing and so on, but it sounds like it's really great for students. So what is the researcher evidence that shows that PBL works for students?

John Larmer: There is a lot of research showing that PBL works for students. Some great stuff came from Nell Duke, University of Michigan recently. For example, second grade project-based learning was studied and students did better at reading, better at problem solving, critical thinking and so forth. So the research on PBL is very positive when it's done right.

I mean, there are occasions where it's not done well and of course the research isn't so good on those experiences, but when PBL is done well, students do learn. Both traditional academic content and also skills like problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, being able to be creative and innovative. So the research is strong and it's gathering steam every day as PBL becomes more popular.

Suzie Boss: And I would add to that that some of the research about effective teaching generally really supports the work that teachers do in PBL. John and I have taken a really hard look at some of the work on effective teaching practices and some of the highest rated in terms of effectiveness, moves that teachers make or teaching practices, have to do with things like setting high expectations for all your learners, having a strong relationship between teacher and student, making effective use of feedback to guide students to deeper learning, and really teaching learning strategies so that students are thinking about their own thinking.

Those are strategies that are all about good teaching generally, but we'd argue that you can't do PBL well if you're not paying attention to those sorts of practices. The research I think is broader than just side by side comparisons of PBL versus traditional learning, although there's lots of that, but I think we can look even more broadly thinking about what's good teaching all about? How do we define it? How do we know it when we see it? And I think we see a lot of that in good PBL practice.

Laureen: Thanks. I'm wondering about people who might wonder or push back and say, what about PBL for all students? Does it work in all contexts and with all demographics?

Suzie Boss: I think this is an area where... We all feel really strongly that all students deserve the opportunity for the learning experience that happens in PBL. We know from both anecdotes and more scientific evidence that this can be transformative for students. And when we think about the lack of engagement that's been documented over time by studies like the Gallup Hope survey, other studies like the High School Survey of Student Engagement, it's a pretty sad graph that shows students feeling less engaged in learning the longer they spend in school.

And we just feel like that's something that needs to be challenged, that graph needs to be turned around, so that as students are becoming more capable the older they get, the more capable they are of abstract thinking and critical thinking and being able to present their ideas to an audience. This is when they deserve the opportunity to really dig into the sort of meaningful, memorable learning that PBL affords. And we think that's something every single student deserves and can succeed with, with appropriate support, scaffolding and teaching practices.

John Larmer: A lot of the research that's been done on project-based learning shows that for historically disadvantaged groups of students, PBL does work. It can help engage them in school. As Suzie said, you don't want to withhold the good stuff from students whose reading skills they might be lower than another group. They're more motivated to read and write and do math by doing projects. It doesn't mean you abandoned your literacy program or your math program, but you can engage students and teach a lot of the things that they need through well-designed projects that are still aligned with your standards.

Stanley: I'm loving all the different facts and nuggets and knowledge. There's so much information that's been coming out from our conversation. And I really want to kind of direct it and talk to the audience of our new teachers who are interested in PBL, but they're not sure how to start. So what are the first steps someone could take to begin implementing project-based learning?

Suzie Boss: Our advice is often to start small. You don't have to do a year-long or semester-long project to give your students and yourself a taste of what PBL is all about. So a good first step is to think about a unit you have coming up. Could it be modified or transformed in some way to become more of a project? Could you start with an entry event that gets students asking questions right off the bat? Could you bring experts into the learning experience? Could you conclude with some sort of a showcase of student learning? And those are some ways to start to turn a traditional unit into more of a project. And as a teacher, you learn a lot by doing that. Teachers learn by doing just the same way that students do, and reflecting on their learning just as students do.

John Larmer: It's great if teachers can collaborate when they're starting on project-based learning instead of going it alone. So, get with a team of teachers, some colleagues, and you can find resources on the pblworks.org website. You can read books, you can look at videos, lots of ways to learn what PBL is and find examples. Another great way to start might be to adapt an existing project like the ones in the library at the PBLWorks website.

You can find projects there for different grade levels and subjects, and then tweak them a little to fit your needs and your students, your context, but adapting an existing project might be a way to kind of jumpstart your experience with PBL. It'll be successful, hopefully you'll come back for more.

Stanley: Thanks so much. So what I'm hearing then is just adapt existing projects, think about small steps, and collaborate. That's great. Thank you so much. That's such good advice. John and Suzie, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today and for sharing your insights on PBL.

Suzie Boss: Thanks for the invitation. Great chatting.

John Larmer: You're welcome. It was fun.