One thing that is a constant in our profession is that nothing is constant. Pedagogy, technology, assessments, and even the students themselves are ever-evolving, and it sometimes feels like there will never be enough hours to teach everything we want and need to teach. Teachers have come to rely on instructional methods that deliver the maximum bang for their buck, and as such, we’ve seen Problem-Based Learning (PBL)* grow in popularity over the last decade or so. Maybe you’ve been thinking about trying a PBL experience for your students. Or maybe your district has adopted PBL instruction, but you’re feeling like you cannot possibly handle another new thing on top of all you’re already doing. As an Instructional Coach who plans and implements PBL units throughout my building, I’ve got some tips to make PBL doable AND, dare I say, even enjoyable for teachers and students alike. 

#1. In my opinion, the most important thing is to start with the standards when planning your PBL unit. I’ve actually contemplated tattooing this on my forehead, because I say it over and over ad nauseum when I’m planning with teams. I’ve found that when teachers look at PBL as an extra component of instruction that they have to “squeeze in,” it becomes a four-letter word. But when we flip the script, and I ask them which standards they’ll be teaching while utilizing PBL as an instructional strategy, it changes everything. Starting with the standards allows teachers to pull in current events, tap into student interests, and get out of the rut of teaching the same thing year after year. And because we build our PBL units from the ground up, we can control the length, content, and assessments, so teachers know that they’ll be able to tweak the process to get exactly what they need from their students. 

#2. When possible, plan a cross-curricular PBL unit. This is a fabulous way to showcase how content areas authentically connect while giving students the opportunity to practice utilizing their cross-curricular thinking. There’s no downplaying just how important this skill is for their futures. In our school, we’ve blended obvious content connections such as social studies and literacy, but we’ve also made great content connections in less obvious ways,  such as a PBL unit in art and science. Our 8th grade science teachers collaborated with the art teacher on a unique PBL unit dealing with nuclear semiotics. In science, students learned about nuclear particles, what they’re used for, and how to dispose of them. Then they brought in art skills because they had to design a way to warn generations thousands of years into the future of the hazardous materials without using written communication. The science teachers tackled the nuclear chemistry and radiation while the art teacher talked about using design to convey a message without using words. 

cross-curricular planning template option when planning with multiple content-areas.

With planning and coordination, you can involve many content areas within one PBL unit.  Our entire 6th grade level created a CSI-style PBL which culminated in a court case to determine the guilt of a suspect in an egregious  donut heist! The science teachers taught about the use of experiments to test unknown substances; math teachers instructed about using genetic data and statistics to rule in/rule out suspects; literacy teachers worked on writing using evidence to support claims; and social studies classes studied the judicial system as well as running the trial of the convicted thief. An important thing to note is that in both of these examples from my building, the amount of class time devoted to the PBL unit was not equal among subjects, AND THAT IS TOTALLY OK! Sometimes it feels like there’s an unwritten rule that class time within a PBL unit has to be divided evenly among classes, and that can lead to the feeling of jamming a square peg into a round hole. But if each content area sticks to the standards they’re looking to teach and assess, it frees teachers from feeling like the time has to be used equally in all content areas. 

#3. PBL is a natural opportunity to incorporate social-emotional instruction. We all know how much our middle schoolers need social-emotional support, and yet, it can be so very hard to make the time with all of the other demands on our instructional time. PBL is a natural way to provide your students a chance to think about SEL while simultaneously focusing on content standards. Last winter, our 7th grade literacy teachers knew they wanted to focus on an SEL-based PBL, and were also looking to use their PBL unit to address research, sequential writing, and speaking standards. They chose to have students research the science behind Dementia and Alzheimer’s with the end result of developing games or activities that could be used by dementia patients. The students presented their ideas to Activities Coordinators from several local residential memory care facilities who in turn were so impressed that they invited the students to come in and lead the residents through the activities they had designed. The literacy teachers were able to hit every content standard while having meaningful conversations about empathy for people suffering from memory loss. The PBL experience also had the bonus of creating deepened interpersonal relationships as students and teachers alike shared some personal stories about loved ones suffering from dementia.

PBL units provide a myriad of opportunities to reach and engage students while hitting content standards. It allows teachers to move away from tired, pedantic instructional strategies. When planned thoughtfully, this method of instruction really packs a wallop, and can seriously infuse your teaching for your students. While the evolution of education can at times lead to frustration and overwhelm, utilizing the tips outlined above can make Problem-Based Learning effective and manageable for all teachers. 

*PBL can be used to describe both Problem- and Project-Based Learning. For the sake of this blog post, PBL refers to Problem-Based Learning, although the ideas outlined here may help with Project-Based Learning as well. 

Alison is an Instructional Coach for problem-based learning and inquiry at Hadley Jr. High in Glen Ellyn. She loves wearing the many hats that her job requires, from planning with teams to co-teaching in the classroom to networking within the community to connect partners and problems with our students. When she’s not at school, you can often find her at a hockey rink somewhere in the US with one of the two young hockey players she lives with.
agirling@d41.org