Change is unfamiliar and that can make it difficult. PBL is not currently in my comfort zone. I have never been a part of it from the student side, and I have never observed PBL as a teacher in someone else’s classroom for more than a 10 minute video clip. The uncertainty of what a PBL setting is supposed to look like makes me nervous.
As the teacher, my role in the classroom will change durng a PBL unit. For the past 8 years, I have run my classroom mostly with direct instruction. Parents grew up with this and the students have learned the process. This school year, my school is implementing a personalized learning model where learning should occur through stations and direct instruction only occurs in small groups. This makes me nervous a teacher to let go of some of the control, and it makes my students nervous as well since they feel like the teacher is not teaching.
For a PBL unit to be successful, the teacher must step back from being the center of attention and facilitate the students’ learning. The teacher must offer enough structure and guidance to the students to make progress without doing all of the work or investigation for them. Students will need to decide upon their research methods, decide upon their roles within the group, solve problems as they arise, and evaluate themselves and each other. Those all used to be part of the teacher’s job description, but that role and those responsibilities are shifting. The teacher acting as a facilitator can guide discussions and ask good questions to encourage thoughtfulness and reflection, but the teacher should not draw conclusions for the students.
One of my concerns about Project Based Learning is if my students will learn the material that I intended. When students have voice and choice to decide on their research and project, how can I guarantee that they will select a path that requires the specific algebra skills that I need them to discover and practice? What if I try to pose a driving question to have my geometry students investigate squares, but the students divide the shapes into triangles? There are certainly multiple ways to solve a mathematics problem, but it is my job as a teacher to guide them through all of the methods so that they can select the best approach for a given situation. I will need to select my guiding questions and scaffolding very carefully and specifically in order to make sure that students are on the appropriate learning path. I know that using PBL will better allow me to have soft skills (such as research, responsibility, communication, or collaboration) incorporated in my classroom instead of only focusing on the mathematics content. Those are the important life skills that can be applied to all jobs and courses outside of my math classroom.
Some of my students are afraid of math and enter my classroom with the stigma of “I have never been good at math.” Those are the same students that are also depending upon me as the teacher to help them through almost every practice problem. I hope that integrating PBL strategies more often will help my students become more autonomous and be more willing to search out answers from peers or appropriate research sites with less help.