The Beauty of PBL

Problem Based Learning, or PBL, is gaining ground with great momentum across the country as more and more states, districts, and local schools turn to various Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) initiatives.  And yet, some teachers appear to know very little about it.  While there is no way to give it a proper look-see in a single blog post, allow me to point out part of the beauty of Problem Based Learning.
Using PBLs in your classroom, even if it is just one or two a semester, generates a huge amount of self-learning on the part of students.  It begins with an “essential question” and is followed by students researching facts, identifying what information is important or irrelevant, and finally organizing a plan of action that will lead to the solution to the question.

These seemingly simple steps bring about deep thinking on the part of students.

At our school in Knoxville, the L&N STEM Academy, we exercise STEM Habits across all classrooms as students engage in Problem Based Learning across the curriculum.  For us, STEM is not a set of activities one can teach in a workshop.  STEM is a habit of mind as you work toward solving problems.  Our STEM Habits include:

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
  • Design
  • Innovation
  • Inquiry
  • Professionalism

But, these habits are only a small part of the beauty of Problem Based Learning.  The deeper beauty is that it is never done.  It is never complete.  There is never a time when you can put a PBL unit in the filing cabinet and say, “I’ll save that for next year and use it exactly as I used it this year.”

The true beauty of Problem Based Learning is that the teacher is truly engaged in planning, thinking, developing, changing, adapting, and growing as an education professional.

Don’t get me wrong.  PBL isn’t easy.  In fact, to do it well can be quite daunting and difficult.  However, just like our students, no one expects you to do it perfectly the first time out of the gate.  There is a learning process to creating great PBL lessons and activities.  Essential questions are refined through the process.  Pathways to research are generated and enlarged.  Each year there is a growing previous body of knowledge from which students can draw inspiration and ideas.  Rubrics are tweaked or overhauled. New teachers get on board.  Connections with other classes, schools, or even countries are made.  More and more professionals want to visit your class to help your kids in the process.

And that’s part of the beauty of Problem Based Learning, too.  This never-ending quest for better.

Teaching is a craft.  Learning is an art.  And neither can truly be standardized, even if some forms of assessments can be.  They are as unique as the human genome sequence.

There will be a tendency to say it is too hard.  Its too hard to come up with an essential question.  Its too hard to teach children to collaborate.  Its too hard to write a rubric.  Its too hard…

Well, allow me to let you in on a little secret.  Lean in close.  I can’t say this too loud.  Teaching is hard work.  Good teaching is even harder work.  Great teaching is the hardest job there is.

And that’s part of what makes it so much fun!  Ira Glass, the unique voice behind NPR’s “This American Life,” gives us great advice in the short video posted below.  When you think it is too hard, fight your way through it.

Fight all the way to the beauty of your craft.



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