PBL Project-Based Learning in Traditional Teaching: Issues and Solutions

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    • #703

      EDU Matters

      Today PBL is one of the ‘trendy’ concepts in education, and also one of the most challenging for in-class practices. What is actually PBL? What projects can be labeled as PBL? And what can be done to have more PBL projects and real-life learning in the classrooms?

      What is PBL? In simple words, it’s a real-life, practical and impactful learning process where students explore and find solutions to challenges that exist in the world. 

      What must a project have in order to be considered an instance of PBL?

      According to John W. Thomas, Ph. D, and his research, PBL projects are always:

      1. Central to the curriculum. In other words, projects are the curriculum.

      2. Focused on questions or problems that “drive” students to encounter and struggle with the central concepts and principles of a discipline, themes or the intersection of topics from a few disciplines.

      3. All about constructive investigation where learning is a goal-directed process that involves inquiry, knowledge building, and resolution. The central activities of the project must involve the students’ knowledge transformation and construction.

      You have read 25% of the article – more key points below! Estimated reading time – 7 minutes! 

      4. .loggedin. Student-driven to some significant degree. PBL projects are not teacher-led, scripted, or packaged.

      5. Realistic, not school-like. Projects embody characteristics that give students a feeling of authenticity. These characteristics can include the topic, the tasks, the roles that students play, the context within which the work of the project is carried out, the collaborators who work with students on the project, the products that are produced, the audience for the project’s products, etc.

      What is the main issue with PBL?

      We are talking about the traditional classrooms here. During my 6 years of training teachers in Shanghai, China, I witnessed huge growth in teachers’ mindsets and readiness to use more creative approaches in the classroom. And yet, when one day I was giving training to selected teachers of one of the biggest districts in Shanghai, who had enquired to learn more about innovative pedagogy, as I was introducing PBL, they got very interested in in, however one question bothered them all: ‘How do we apply PBL in our 40-minutes traditional classrooms??’ And here’s where teachers face the biggest challenge when it comes to PBL – restrictions of the traditional school system. 

      Teachers in public schools don’t have a lot of space to innovate with new methodologies and create their own programs. It’s not easy for them to take a traditional lesson plan, connect it to the world’s issues, have students find solutions through real-life learning experience as they impact people who actually need support. They just don’t have space to create courses as freely as I can – being a company owner who creates projects that can benefit all stakeholders. I used to be a public school teacher and I know first hand that, while (usually) having all the desire to learn and develop PBL classrooms, these teachers simply have too many restrictions of the traditional education system. This is the same in most countries and schools around the world.

      So the issue is not really the PBL itself, but the education system that was designed for old-school methodologies that do not adjust to the new generations’ needs. But does PBL really have no place in the system? Actually, PBL has already won the hearts of many teachers and educators, including mine. The trick with PBL is it has to be used wisely and step-by-step, and aspects of it are possible to implement in the traditional classrooms. Needless to say, Professional Development courses on PBL and on-site support have to be introduced to any school that wants to have more innovation in its curriculum. 

      How to have more PBL projects in the classroom?

      Any little activity can be used as a mini-project. Is your school in a rural area? Do your students know how to build a fence or take care of the cattle? Use your environment as help to create small projects and implement them in your lessons, while adjusting them to the 5 criteria of a PBL project mentioned above.

      You can also develop a project without any resources on hands. This is the project we created: a ‘no-curriculum’ online course with two key pillars as the foundation:

      • Research: we use Sustainable Development Goals as a framework – you can read my previous post about SDGs here.
      • One goal: students had to create an educational game that would help other kids around the world learn better. Like the one developed last year here

      There was no curriculum to follow, no extrinsic motivation was created – it all had to come from the students’ hearts. And it did. Students of 9-13 years old from Colombia, China, and the UK, did their research and came up with an educational game within one month. Along the course, students loved it that they were having serious real-life conversations about the world, their empathy towards others started to grow as they saw the bigger picture of how the world works and how they can make it better.

      The fact that the game they create would be used by other students of their age in other countries around the world gave them all the motivation any teacher could only dream of having in a class. Keep in mind that our sessions happened online, as we had students from three different countries – three cultures, mindsets, languages… None of these was a barrier to having a very high motivation and a growing confidence level of students.

      This course started as an experiment… a course without a lesson plan… and it turned into a big success – with the students understanding the issues that exist in the world and how taking small steps can help solve these issues, it was more impactful than I could have ever planned in any lesson plan. The issues to focus on and help solve were selected by students (project-based), it was a huge learning journey for them (getting skilled in project management, product design, critical thinking, communication, and negotiation), the final product was for other students in schools around the world (real-life), it broadened their minds and made them more of global citizens, as they made friends with their peers around the world through designing and playing the game. Oh, and not having English as a mother-tongue was not an issue at any point – their main goal was to impact the work, and that’s what the focused on, and their English skills improved along the way. Want to see students’ feedbacks? Check out their video testimonials here. This is what a PBL project has the power to do! 

      Was it exciting for me to lead this course? Yes, absolutely, as it was so natural and real-life focused. Was it easy to organize it from a ‘teacher mindset’ perspective? Not at all – as it did not have structure, and as any teacher, I am used to having a pre-planned lesson. It was a complete shift of mindset for me, and it was a completely different approach to education.

      It was the first formal course that I led without a lesson plan but rather with a community purpose in mind, and it was the best course I’ve ever led. PBL has made me a better educator, teacher, facilitator and a better friend to the next generations, as it allows me to craft a course tailored to the needs of the next generations, really helping prepare them for the future.

      The Global Competence Online Project (aka Teens Online Project) is not for a traditional classroom. But stages and aspects of it can be easily used in any classroom. This course has been so impactful that we have started training teachers on how to implement it in traditional settings, with their own projects in mind. Any teacher who loves their job can do what we do, and I hope that this post will inspire you to try and implement PBL in your practices.

      Today, as educators, we must keep on learning more than ever, and we must keep on trying harder than ever, creating education that meets the needs of our children.


      What is your experience with PBL projects?

      Share your projects and ideas in the comments!

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    • #731


      PBL provides something, that, in my opinion, is a key to successful learning – understanding of WHY we are learning at all. As a language course student I am often facing a situation when a teacher asks me to “just repeat it” or “just learn it by heart” which gives me no motivation at all. I always project my learning experiences onto my students, that is why I am trying to provide practical tasks or projects alongside with theory. I believe it gives students understanding of WHY and motivates them to learn and apply necessary skills.

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