What are the essential elements of #PBL?

The second question to #mschat this week had to do with essential elements of #PBL (project based learning for those of you keeping score at home). What does that mean? Well, the phase ‘essential elements’ to me simply means that any and all PBL classrooms should operate under a specific set of conditions and norms…I’m going with using the term ‘PBL classroom’ because when you think about it, PBL goes far beyond doing just one project as I mentioned in my last post.

Before I go on another sentence I have to give a big shout out to #mschat participant @MyTLee3 for her tweet half way through question two. She provided a fantastic link with eight essential aspects to a PBL classroom. I strongly suggest you check it out.

“Here is what I based my PBL units and my work with Tchrs. http://bie.org/object/document/8_essentials_for_project_based_learning … @BIEpbl#mschat”

I read through the article and discovered that we actually got all the aspects it was talking about in some form or another. For me it was an affirmation of my own work because I was never explicitly trained in PBL. I discovered this methodology on my own, instinctually. I always thought this was because teaching as a facilitator just ‘felt’ natural. I was fortunate to have teachers growing up who were engaging, funny, trusting, compassionate, and held high standards… who taught this way. I owe a huge debt of thanks to Mr. Bowden (5th), Mrs. O(6th), and Bresz (9th/10th).

Back to the chat…

As the question got underway there was quite a bit of agreement on the need to give students freedom, choice, and a voice in the process. I was among the people who stressed this need for PBL to work.


#stuvoice is essential. As are clearly defined norms for exploration and room decorum.”

I added the need for classroom norms because, let’s face it, they are still kids. In many instances they need to know where the classroom boundaries are. I let the kids create norms for classroom decorum. It gives them ownership of the process and helps them self-police any issues that might come up. I wasn’t alone in this thought, @OConnorAshlie also thought that ownership and self-evaluation should be part of the puzzle…

“Student choice, real life simulation, process, self evaluation and ownership”

@blocht574 chimed in with,

“Student choice of how to explore the essential question and how to present their answers/findings”

It’s self evident when you think about it. Asking students what they are passionate about or what questions they have about the world around them is a perfect way to get them to dig deep into content. The key here is to have good teacher support in the process as @paulemcneil simply put:

“Ss Choice | Ts Support”

What that support means is the real question at hand. Some people saw that support as being ‘tech support’ (me) and others thought it to be in the form of modeling behavior. Others thought to include the idea of the teacher being there to help steer kids from getting blown way off course like @8rinaldi said:

“Ss planning, collaborating and creating. Essential for Ts to model for Ss and be there for advice and guidance. Not to lecture”

There were really some great tweets about collaboration. How collaboration must be around questions that have no easy answers like @nyrangerfan42

“Ss must collaborate, ?s must be open ended, and the answer CAN’T be a google search away!” ,


“ALL #PBL projects need a great DRIVING question!”,

and @GeoSpiegs (me)

“real world problems with no easy answers=forcing students to learn how to argue from a perspective/FOR a perspective”

There was one line of advice I wanted to push back a little bit on.

@mrgranito tweeted

“Good Questions. Freedom to explore. Sometimes teachers need to get out of the way.”

To which I agree completely (to a point). Yes, teachers need to know when to get out of the way but also when to get in the way of students to force them out of a comfort zone or to help them from making a real train wreck of effort that blows up in their face. It is all about knowing your students and how to balance the entire class. @cheffernan75 also talked about,

Freedom. Free to find resources, collaborate, get outside help, whatever they need to solve the problem.”

to which @nyrangerfan42 responded,

“but the responsibility of knowing to ask for help – self-advocacy is a key to letting them go!”

YES. PBL is about creating a culture of student-directed, student-policed, student-advocacy based learning. The teacher in PBL is there to make sure it doesn’t blow up and to act as a moderator, mediator, manager, tech support, cheerleader, grandmother/father, and final arbiter of justice.

Best line of the question went to @FinkTeach who tweeted at me:

“Ss are digging in, not being spoon fed info.”

Love that image!

I have to give a shout out to @smartins3313 who exemplified what I love about this #mschat community of learning teachers.

“Really lurking, asking questions, and just trying to learn. This is not an area of expertise for me.”

#mschat has taught me to be open about the gaps in my professional knowledge. When I am up front about my own ignorance, I am more accepting of help from others… and others are more inclined to offer help/assistance/guidance. It is something that I put into practice in my classroom by making sure I say the words “I don’t know”, more than my students do.

@smartins3313 asked a really good question in the chat and I’m not sure he got an acceptable response to:

“Do good PBL projects involve some direct and explicit instruction of critical info ahead of time?

this question was echoed by @AnnSmart17 who asked

“Can you just “let them go” what modeling needs to take place?”

I tried to respond with a tweet

“We are coaches/ managers/ tour guides”, and @MrAllardSS had a good point with his tweet,

#mschat painful to watch Ss grapple sometimes, but so worth it when they push through. Have to facilitate and moderate”

The chat was moving fast and I got diverted into another thread so I never came back to it. I’d like to address that now…

In my opinion, PBL will have some explicit instruct at the beginning, but not about the critical information it self. I have had PBL experiences where I took an entire class period front loading where the information was, the layout of the website, some tricky links, etc… what the recording of the information might look like (what do good notes look like?), and what the reflection/feedback process might look like. Other than that, I did not give any background on the topic other than a quick gloss over of the question and a quick five minute break out of small groups to brainstorm more questions about the question.

I hope that gives @smartins3313 an answer that is worthwhile 😉

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