What is the main role of a teacher in a PBL classroom?


“The teacher should be the coach, model, supporter, encourager, expectation setter, and cheerleader.”

When you start thinking about the way in which teachers are operating in the classroom these days, a number of interesting words seem to come up in the conversation. Teachers who are connected educators now see themselves more as facilitators, coaches, mentors, and even ‘lead learners’ (this term was new to me!). It is a remarkable shift from the way teachers saw themselves even just a few years ago. I welcome the change.

The fourth question of the #mschat from last week was all about the role of the teacher in the classroom. What traits do they possess? What skills do they need to have mastered? Important questions indeed and the chat participants found a lot of common ground with their responses. It is safe to say that most (if not all) of the participants were on the same page.

The two most common traits that teachers need to possess for PBL to work efficiently were patience and the ability to develop questioning skills in students.

Patience because a PBL classroom is one where the learning that is taking place looks, on the surface, to be a messy affair. Students are walking around the room, groups are forming and disbanding, some kids are working on laptops while others are clustered around a whiteboard flowchart.


“Patience, ability to see diff perspectives, organization, detailed flexibility and a smile on their face.”


“two part Q #mschat Role: facilitator, engaged student(also learning), tech support Skills: Edtech, patience, sense of humor, patience”

The combinations of PBL processes makes it so that a teachers MUST be able to get out of their students way and allow learning to emerge. If you don’t believe me, you should watch Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on learning as a self organizing system and the child driven education. I believe PBL fits into this model extremely well.

There was also some agreement on a teacher’s ability to facilitate questioning, question development, questioning student choices (being the Devil’s Advocate).


“Question students on their thinking ….. NEVER give away the ANSWERS learning has to be earned”


“Most important PBL skill is the ability to ask questions, and deflect them when Ss ask you!”

to which @mrgranito replied

Teaching the students how to ask those good questions is important too”

I offered a similar tweet on the subject about the need for students to learn how to create a good question in response to a tweet by @bivey who said:

“I find my biggest jobs are helping them find answers to process questions along the way, keeping them on track to meet deadline.” to which I responded:


“Also how to rework Qs into something other than a YES/NO. What is the difference between ‘good’ questions and ‘bad’ ones”

Middle school (and even elementary school) is a great moment in time to educate students in the process of developing a great leading question to base your inquisition on for a particular topic. It is imperative that students be able to understand why a good question leads to better research.

On that note, I liked how @nyrangerfan42 made sure to include the need for open ended questioning. It reminded me that the most interesting topics and discussions in class often come from questions that have no easy answers. Or, no answers at all… only differing perspectives. The most challenging problems the world has to solve comes from basic, but important, questions about humanity.

“good #pbl Ts leave no footprints – ask open ended questions – refocus groups when needed and provide resource ideas”

Resource ideas, not answers to their questions. This related to a tweet by @ezigbo_ who stressed the need for students to take the lead. It got me thinking about my own class and teaching philosophy. I was part of a team in my former district to create seven guiding questions for the middle school geography curriculum. The questions are:

  1. How do we use maps?
  2. How does where people live affect how they live?
  3. Why do people live where they do?
  4. How do people get what they need to live?
  5. What determines who gets to use the world’s resources?
  6. How are people around the world connected?
  7. How do you live as a global citizens?

These questions are intended to spark conversation and create more questions. They are vague on purpose so that students have to engage with each other to discover how the many different types of answers often start with “It depends…”.

All of the comments in the chat were summed up quite nicely by


“ Patience. Persistence. Positivity”



“wish#pbl skills were thought of as paints on an artist’s palette. All can B blended & used 4 learning”

but my favorite comment of this question was submitted by @ezigbo_

“Shepherd. “Here’s the objective & the boundaries; I’ll keep the wolves away while you work””

That’s as good mantra to teach by as you might ever find.

3 thoughts on “What is the main role of a teacher in a PBL classroom?

  1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Peter! One of the key struggles I have with many of the descriptors offered above is that they seem like more passive roles for the teacher- similar to the debate between Kilpatrick & Dewey on educational philosophies from back at the turn of the 20th century: http://bie.org/blog/the_importance_of_project_based_teaching

    I’ve been thinking a lot as of late between the roles of teacher as facilitator vs teacher as activator, specifically related to the work that John Hattie has been putting out there. Would love to chat with you sometime about your thoughts on that distinction, & how it applies to action steps.


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