In PBL, the Problem is the Project

In PBL, the Problem is the Project

When I worked for the Buck Institute for Education in the early 2000’s, we held endless staff meetings probing the distinction between project based learning and problem based learning. It was a necessary discussion at that point in the evolution of PBL. Many of BIE’s early offerings centered around problem based units in Economics, and no adequate definition of PBL itself had emerged.

That debate has faded into history because BIE offered a settled definition of PBL that has stuck. It’s a “teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.”

But the debate also lost steam because the staff ended up dancing on the head of a pin. Making a distinction between a project-based approach and problem based methods proved impossible. Basically, the process is identical in practice, but different in scope. Problem-based work tends to be more scenario-driven, shorter in length, and offers a more contained learning experience. But either way, students work through a problem to solve it.

And yet, somewhere in the intervening years, PBL has begun to lose the problem-solving focus. Partly, this can be attributed to the relief and pleasure that both students and teachers experience as kids get out of their seats, work in groups, examine some issue or topic that has relevance to their life or to understanding the curriculum, and then present their findings. It’s a welcome, long-overdue antidote to the front of the room lecture. So, we tend now to applaud every project regardless of depth.

Advocates of high quality PBL should hold their applause, however. Constructing a challenging problem or question that anchors the project and causes students to break a sweat as they critically inquire into the nature of the problem requires hard intellectual work on the part of the teacher. But without that effort, and the subsequent settling on a lazy Driving Question, there are consequences: Losing the problem-solving focus in PBL drains the process of its most vital ingredient, and without a meaningful problem, a project is headed down the track to mediocrity.

That’s a danger for PBL–and teachers know it. Though they love the enthusiasm, many feel uncertain about the learning that has taken place. That’s the core issue around problem solving. If we intend to succeed at offering learning experiences that engage young people at deeper depths than the industrial system promised–and in the process, extend and broaden human capacity–then we need to get better at setting the table with good problems.

PBL relies on the Driving Question for this task. But while the Driving Question is an amazingly potent tool for capturing a problem, it doesn’t  emerge spontaneously. It requires a process in which teachers probe their own thinking, ask questions of themselves, and move their focus to the minds of students rather than the objectives of the curriculum. Five tips for doing this effectively at the start of the design process:

Don’t start with standards. For some PBL practitioners, this is heresy. But my experience is that deep, meaningful projects begin with a vision and a challenge. I urge teachers to visualize how students will feel and behave at the completion of the project. What kind of project will elicit that joyful engagement? What themes will motivate students to tap into the best in themselves? Deeper learning requires emotional engagement, not merely cognitive inquiry. Once the vision and outline of the project is established, then it’s time to work appropriate standards into the project design.

Muse on the challenge. As education redefines the notion of rigor away from traditional metrics of academic accomplishment and more in the direction of successful skills and behaviors, PBL teachers need to think in terms of challenge. Meeting a challenge is a satisfying, even joyful, experience that lights up the body and brain, inspires focus and concentration, and marshals whole body resources in a search of figuring out an answer. Whether it’s a service theme for the project or an academic theme doesn’t matter. The why must be clear.

Test and retest the Driving Question. The first draft of the Driving Question never meets the standard. Too often, PBL teachers settle for the first iteration rather than probing the question. Is it authentic or does it sound like a question from a textbook? Does it really capture the challenge for students, or is it just a way to cover information that the teacher wants covered? Is it a compact, understandable, and impactful question that can be realistically answered by students, or is it a global question about the world that students can’t really address?

Think like an engineer. In any design process, parameters exist that impose constraints on the designers. These are the real-world limitations that require critical thinking to solve or overcome. The Driving Question benefits mightily from this approach, and often one word inserted into the question can make it more powerful. For example, in a 5th grade project, students designed a menu for a new, healthy choices, farm to table restaurant. The Driving Question: How can we design an appealing menu for a new farm to table restaurant? Why add the word appealing? Because that’s a constraint that every new restaurant owner has to consider.

Ask yourself: What is the problem to be solved? Once the Driving Question has been settled, ask one more time: What is the problem to be solved? If the problem can’t be articulated cleanly, it’s back to the drawing board for one more round on the Driving Question.


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