Challenges and Rewards of Teaching: PBL Edition

Project-based learning, also sometimes referred to as problem-based learning, is a teaching method that has been gaining traction the past, uh... while. (I don't know how long ago this whole thing started.) The link above is a short & sweet explanation of what PBL is, but essentially it is a system in which a teacher provides a driving question (example: "How can we, as historians, use historical documents to analyze how civilizations rise and fall?") and an end product, perhaps provides some background information, vocabulary, and the like, and then stands back and facilitates. The idea is that if students have a real-world problem, and they go about researching it and executing it in an authentic way, they will be more likely to really learn it and be able to use it in the future (vs. learning for a test) than by rote memorization or by lecturing. I research and learn stuff by reading books or, more often, online via articles, blogs, and watching YouTube tutorials/talks, and so on a bajillion times more often than someone stands there and lectures me about a topic in-person, don't you?

I wrote a little bit about the mechanics of planning a PBL and using this method in the art room here on Teachers Pay Teachers (it's free!), but I wanted to reflect a little here about how the actual day to day teaching part goes. 

It can be really frustrating, for both the students and myself, because a big part of PBL is independent student inquiry, and that's new for a lot of kids. They're used to teachers feeding them a lot more information, and it's hard for me to resist the temptation to just answer them. It's a lot easier for me to just rattle off (what is for me) basic information than it is for me to formulate a thoughtful enough question to direct them to coming to the  right answer without coming off like I don't like them (or teaching), or that I don't have time for them, or that I don't know the answer myself. I try and channel my inner Tim Gunn and be a thoughtful and kind mentor, but it is genuinely hard... Especially when a kid will ask you a question with an answer that (should be) so obvious, perhaps something you just taught them three and a half minutes ago, or that you feel certain if they just thought about it for like a second that they'd have an answer. Some students do this self-inquiry really naturally, but I have to train most them to try and figure it out on their own before coming to me with direct questioning. It's worth mentioning that I have mostly sophomore students -- they have been doing PBL-style learning for a year now.

Right now in my Art I classes, students are learning about using color theory and making a self-portrait using two color schemes. (Side note: I'll be adding this project to my Teachers Pay Teachers list soon!) I started out the project by teaching them some new vocabulary and information, like about warm and cool colors, different types of color schemes with examples, and then told them about the end product I wanted. 

Sample questions I've been getting:
"Do I have to color this?"
"What's the complementary color of blue?" (and similar)
"What's a color scheme?"

Answers I wish I could have given:
(I am a snark monster in my head. I try not to let it creep out to my students. This is perhaps the hardest part of my job.)
"Yes, dummy... It is a color theory project."

 (pictured: Leonardo Dicaprio playing me)

(pictured: Leonardo Dicaprio playing me)

"Orange."
"Using colors together in different ways to create different effects." 

Instead, I try and (patiently) give questions back to students, or point them to where they can get the information.
"Have you looked at the rubric?"/"What's the driving question, again?"
"Complementary colors are across from each other on the color wheel."
"Remember that slideshow I showed you earlier? It's online for you to look at."

They're still learning to learn this way, though. A typical conversation goes something like this:
"Miss, when's this due?"
"The calendar is online and posted on the wall for you to look at."
"...You could just tell me!"
"You could just look at it. The idea is that I shouldn't have to answer questions you can easily find yourself. I would have to answer this question probably 20 times a day otherwise."
*teen sigh*

 Eye roll optional.

Eye roll optional.

All this being said, I do really like it. I'm kind of jealous of my students. I don't know that I would have loved the teamwork aspect that PBL often brings (most projects are group projects), but I think I would have thrived in the self-directed-ness that PBL allows for. It's more challenging and "real" for the students, I think. I do a lot more online research on topics I'm interested in or need to know about than I am able (or willing) to attend lectures or lessons on those same topics. The skills to be able to find that information, assess/analyze it, and then use it is so, so important. 

Sometimes you hear teachers talking about how much they like that "lightbulb moment" they see in students when they finally get something. That lightbulb is megawatt in a PBL student.


Getting something done because you figured out how to do it yourself and made it happen is one of the most satisfying experiences you can have. My students don't always get there every day, but when they do? It. Is. Awesome.