Can you just tell me what to do?

An issues in education essay from the semester of Fall 2016, Literature for High School English Teachers course.

Most people agree that the real world is different from a classroom. Many modern jobs don’t have multiple-choice tests, rows of desks before a lectern, or step-by-step instructions for completing tasks. We no longer need a “factory-style” education to produce factory workers that simply follow orders. The modern workforce requires employees to be creative problem-solvers and self-starters. It is important to provide students with tools like teamwork, communication, self-management, and responsibility within the education framework. In his article, “The Banking Concept of Education,” Paulo Freire proposes “problem-posing education” as an alternative to this “factory-style” education. Problem-posing education empowers students to solve problems in order to gain skills, instead of absorbing knowledge like a bank account. This style of learning allows students to be fully engaged, and take ownership of their education. The method through which students are gaining skills is just as important as the content of a class, and classrooms should balance traditional teaching methodologies by incorporating elements of problem-posing education into their classrooms.

Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is a classroom structure that allows students to work on problem-posing projects more than the traditional classroom would allow for. Cindy Hmelo-Silver, in an article for the Educational Psychology Review, discusses several main goals of PBL to help students. First, it builds a broad and flexible base of knowledge, alongside effective problem-solving skills. It also seeks to give students life-long learning skills that are self-directed, and social collaboration skills. Finally, PBL seeks to help students become “intrinsically motivated to learn.” A movement has been building to implement PBL in classrooms, but there are still resistances and obstacles that prevent it from being fully embraced in today’s schools. Although most people would agree with this method theoretically, the difficulty comes in the practicality of applying this in a classroom setting.

In a PBL classroom, students are given open-ended instructions that depend on student creativity. These self-paced, self-directed projects allow essential skills and knowledge to be built through the completion of the project. The Buck Institute for Education, or BIE, is an organization that promotes PBL by providing training and resources for teachers and schools. They state that PBL “is an effective and enjoyable way to learn – and develop deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career, and civic life” (“Why Project-Based?”). Project-Based Learning creates an environment for students to self-initiate their own learning, and PBL classrooms are a safe place for students to fail. When something goes awry, the teacher can serve as a safety net, helping the student to fix their mistakes and learn from them. Students don’t run the risk of getting fired for a failed experiment like they would in the real world. The teacher’s role in a PBL classroom is unique; instead of a lecturer, or a holder-of-the-keys, the teacher becomes a resource, a facilitator, and a tour guide.

PBL projects provide an opportunity for the real world to invade the classroom. Many projects in the PBL methodology invite the community into the classroom, and vice-versa. Students are able to engage with real-world people through hands-on research and community projects. Instead of a math worksheet, students can plan and execute the launch of their own small business. The success or failure of their business depends on their math ability, and skill-building is embedded into the project. Instead of reading about conservation from a textbook, students can create a local commercial to promote environmental awareness in their community. Students can get their hands dirty, and make real change happen in their community. Students disengage because traditional learning seems impractical, useless, or inapplicable, but PBL can provide a context that reinforces the true value of an education, and encourages students to be involved and take ownership of their learning.

Not only do students become more deeply skillful and knowledgeable through PBL, they are also more motivated by projects. Student engagement in Project-Based Learning is higher compared to a traditional classroom. An article from the Educational Psychologist on Project-Based Learning says: “Motivational questions are often studied in isolation from questions of thinking and learning; however, the job of the teacher requires an integration of these two related, but often disparate, areas of study” (Blumenfeld). PBL creates a blended environment of both strong motivation and deep learning, instead of sacrificing one for the other.

One example of a PBL classroom is shown in Language and Reflection. Sarah, a teacher, allows her students freedom to work at their own pace, guided by their own interests and abilities. She doesn’t have lessons, but instead implements a more dynamic, fluid structure in her classroom. The projects her students work on are related to their personal lives and community, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. Volunteers and guests visit the classroom regularly to assist students with various projects. Sarah takes on a supportive, back-seat position as the teacher. She focuses on listening to and guiding her students. She respects them, wanting them to feel empowered in her classroom. The students set goals for themselves, and she checks in on their progress often. Many students are planning to publish, present, or share their work, and they see real purpose and real change as an effect (Gere 185). Of course, PBL classrooms don’t have to be as open-ended as Sarah’s, but her student’s ability to self-manage, and the volume of thoughts and skills they are learning, is truly astounding.

Many schools and districts have already adopted the Project-Based philosophy. The Buck Institute for Education is constantly publishing new articles about the success of PBL in schools and classrooms, and they curate hundreds of PBL resources. In the Austin neighborhood, the Hutto Independent School District (HISD) has recently taken the plunge into PBL, and they are currently in the midst of training teachers, students, and parents. HISD connected to the BIE, and have begun partnering with them to remodel the classroom structure of all HISD schools.

In many ways, PBL seems to be the future of education. However, it is not a magic potion that will fix everything. PBL has been a challenge to introduce to new schools and districts, and has been met with plenty of resistance. Teachers, schools, parents, and districts must reach an agreement, and it’s not an easy thing to agree on. Large projects can soak up a lot of classroom time focusing deeply on one topic, and on skill-based learning. Many are concerned about a loss of breadth and knowledge-based learning. They think that if students are not subjected to lectures and worksheets, they may not learn all the necessary information.

Traditionally-trained teachers can see PBL as a threat. They might resist simply because they fear feeling obsolete or useless. Language and Reflection says, “One of the reasons we teachers favor the big anthology is that it keeps our students dependent upon us, justifying our existence” (Gere 27). In addition, what will happen when just one classroom in a district or school converts to Project-Based Learning? Will students have difficulties transitioning between traditional and PBL classrooms? All of these are valid questions that parents, teachers, and schools have to consider.

In his article for the BIE, Benjamin Stern writes about his experience transitioning students into PBL. “Students who had mastered the version of school that defines success as memorization of content […] struggled with the openness of this new format. I’d often hear, ‘Can’t you just tell me what to do?’” The students themselves have to adapt to a new system, especially because it requires them to be engaged and work harder than in the traditional “school game.” The success of the PBL system relies on student involvement. Loose and flexible expectations for projects may become difficult for certain students to navigate at first. Getting students on-board is essential to the success of PBL, and can be a source of struggle in many schools.

Another factor weighing in to the PBL discussion is technology and access. Projects in a PBL classroom often depend on the use of the internet, computers, projectors, printers, camera equipment, and other technologies. Of course, most teachers have already integrated technology into their classrooms. However, in order for Project-Based Learning to truly work, students require one-to-one access to technology, and a central, shared computer lab may not be sufficient. A teacher’s computer is easy, but investing in classroom sets of laptops can become a large expense. Field trips are also a large part of a PBL classroom. The practicality of transportation, supervision, and safety for students working on projects in the field may become unmanageable. Not every teacher has the ability to take their class outside their four walls regularly. Logistics and management of a PBL classroom can become complex, and many teachers may not want to bother with the difficulties involved.

Another concern, especially for school administrators and policy-makers, is testing and evaluation. Standardized tests have been part of school culture for some time, and most likely will not go away. It is important to have benchmarks, assessments, and evaluations so that all stakeholders can have quantitative indicators of student success. Test-preparation has consumed classrooms, but how is test-preparation implemented in a PBL classroom? Andrew Miller from Edutopia.org addresses this exact conern, and answers the question by saying:

I suggest that a better way to think about it is ‘How will PBL prepare them to rock not only the test, but more?!?’ […] Our fantastic PBL projects can not only serve as a scaffold for these tests, but also prepare our students for college, career, and life! […] If you truly want to leverage PBL and capitalize on its strengths, use it to teach content that will be on the test. […] Use PBL projects to aim past the test, not teach it! (Miller)

This approach incorporates test-preparation into the PBL method. However, the effectiveness of PBL on standardized testing is still controversial. Standardized testing focuses on broad, general knowledge, and there is no guarantee that PBL will cover every topic on the test every semester. Research is currently inconclusive on the effect PBL has on standardized test scores.

Grades and grade level are also concerns for the PBL classroom. A multiple choice test is a great way to obtain quantitative results, but they don’t take into account the humanity of students. PBL allows the teacher to gauge true skill and ability. However, having standardized expectations across all classrooms is necessary. A teacher can become biased or subjective when evaluating work, and may not apply the same standards to every student. Accountability for teachers and students will be needed for PBL to work well. One solution may be to change the system of grading on a large scale, in order to accommodate Project-Based Learning. In a blog post for Education Week, Starr Sackstein writes, “When I realized that grading wasn’t helping my students, it was time to get rid of the numbers and letters and start focusing on true achievement.” Sackstein conducted an interview with Mark Barnes, author and founder of the “Teachers Throwing Out Grades Movement.” This style of alternative assessment might allow for PBL, but again has obstacles. It will need standardization, so that a transcript will be a reliable source of data on a college application. Again, the implementation of PBL must be accompanied by complementary systematic changes before it can be fully embraced.

A quote from Alexandra K. Trenfor states: “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” Through PBL, teachers are simply tour guides during a small chapter of a student’s life. They no longer need to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Project-Based Learning has the ability to empower students, to help them think creatively, independently, and critically, to give them experiences that a traditional classroom can’t, and to be a place of freedom and expression for students as they progress through adolescence. My goal as an educator is to prepare students for the future, to motivate them to approach the world in a new way, through literature and composition. The content may not matter nearly as much as the way students encounter the material. I still believe in traditional learning, and I would not throw out the “old school” for the sake of modernity. Freedom, however, is part of the philosophy I want at the core of my future classroom, and I think Project-Based Learning will be an essential element to that.

Works Cited

Blumenfeld, Phyllis, Elliot Soloway, Ronald Marx, Joseph Krajcik, Mark Guzdial, and Annemarie Palincsar. “Motivating Project-Based Learning: Sustaining the Doing, Supporting the Learning.” Educational Psychologist 26.3 (1991): 369-98. Web.

Friere, Paulo. “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 68-78.

Gere, Anne Ruggles, Colleen Fairbanks, Alan Howes, Laura Roop, and David Schaafsma. “Language as Social Construct.” Language and Reflection: An Integrated Approach to Teaching English. New York: Macmillan, 1992. N. pag. Print.

Hmelo-Silver, Cindy E. “Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?” Educational Psychology Review 16.3 (Sep 2004): 235-66. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Miller, Andrew. “PBL and Standardized Tests? It Can Work!” Edutopia.org. N.p., 01 June 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

“PBL – Project Based Learning.” Hutto Independent School District. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Sackstein, Starr. “Teachers Throwing Out Grades: It’s Happening For Real.” Education Week. N.p., 09 Apr. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Stern, Benjamin. “Can You Just Tell Me What to Do?” Blog post. PBL Blog. N.p., 3 June 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.

Trenfor, Alexandra K. Original context of quote is unknown by the internet community. Author appears to have vanished. Many internetians are on the case. Stay tuned.

“Why Project-Based Learning?” Buck Institute for Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Leave a Reply