PBL isn’t about right or wrong answers…

“Would we rather be known for our process, or our product?”

Albuquerque teachers discussing PBL


A few years ago I remember being stunned when Glen O’Grady of Republic Polytechnic and Australian National University opened a keynote address to 700 Australian educators with the declaration: “PBL is an epistemological commitment.”

Epistemology is a big word, wrapped around even bigger philosophical questions. How do we know what we know? If you’re a K-12 educator you may remember epistemology from one of your theory courses, but you also know it’s generally the kind of word that loses an audience. Probably not a good way to start a blog then, but I do so because it helps make a point. Epistemology may be a word educators are expected to know, but does it really have anything to do with what they are expected to be able to do?

Given the jet lag, I don’t remember much of the rest of Glen’s talk. But we’ve stayed in touch afterward, and I’ve come to understand that what he was arguing had a lot to do with accepting that project-based learning (PBL) doesn’t always result in right and wrong answers. PBL at its best, he stressed, is about the co-creation of answers to problems we don’t have answers to, yet. It’s a process, and we need learners to know and be able to do what we don’t know, or aren’t able to do, yet, because we’re not at the end of history, and we still have a lot of problems to solve.

Yet that’s where PBL gets into a bind. In every PBL workshop I’ve ever done, the response is something like: “This sounds great! It’s how I’ve always taught/wanted to teach. But what about what I have to teach?”

That’s a fair question. Despite several years of working within the framework that standards are the what, and PBL is the how, critics of PBL continue to argue that the how isn’t necessarily delivering the what. These critics want us to stay focused on the product as though it were something separate from the process, something by which the process can be assessed.

I’ve underlined those two words, how and what, because the more I work with schools on XBL (whether that X is projects, problems, challenges, design, inquiry or what have you), the more I’m convinced that the only measure of whether a school will successfully implement PBL is the degree to which it accepts Glen’s epistemological declaration with regard to both the what, and the how.

The What:

Seen from the perspective of adult learners, there are lots of things we know, and even more things we know from experience that young learners need to know. If you’re over 30, you know the things you know from school aren’t enough. Over 40? You probably have a different list. Past 50? Well, you may be a sage looking for a stage, but by 60 you’ll accept that what you’re sure young learners need to know is actually built on your own very narrow experience of reality. Dewey knew this when, in 1916, he wrote “In general, there is a disposition to take considerations which are dear to the hearts of adults and set them up as ends irrespective of the capacities of those educated.” He quite rightly labeled this “the vice of externally imposed ends.”

It’s time that we joined Dewey in labeling these external whats a vice. Young learners need to grow in attributes, skills and knowledge (ASKs), but these will always be most relevant when they come from the context of the authentic and relevant projects on which they work, not on lists of externally supplied ends. Learners will work on a select number of such projects during the course of their education, and each project will provide each learner with a different experience, and a different opportunity to shine. Yes, as a result each learner will learn something unique rather than all the “things dear to the hearts of adults.” Yet as Yong Zhao reminds us in urging the shift from deficits to assets, that’s life, and a good life at that.

I know many will argue that the current testing regime doesn’t accept that. That said, I also know that the current testing regime excepts it. Students, or even entire schools aren’t done for—forever—just because they don’t’ get the answers right. They become exceptions to the rules and maybe even exceptional. There are multiple programs in American education designed to meet the needs of these exceptional students and schools, and most of them make exceptions for alternative methods. With the recent Supreme Court ruling in Endrew F. vs. Douglas County, things are looking up for these exceptions. As more and more educators come together to support the “Untapped Potential” of exceptional students, we are beginning to see that the what isn’t about choosing the right answer from a list of outcomes “dear to the hearts of adults,” but about a right answer in which a student will take some degree of ownership. That’s where PBL’s epistemological commitment comes in. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what students learn, it matters that they become learners.

The How:

In Catching Up or Leading the Way, Yong Zhao made the argument that schools in the United States “worked” better than Asian schools because schools in the U.S. didn’t actually “work” the way they were designed to “work.” Conversely, Asian schools were worse precisely because they did “work” as designed. The word “work” has to be put in quotations here, because when we have a sentence in which something “works” because it doesn’t “work,” or doesn’t “work” because it “works,” the word “work is highly problematic in a very epistemological sense. How do we know what the word “work” means here?

The answer lies with the end in mind, but question is whose end it is we hold in mind.

Around the world, schools were designed by and for adults who were successful in schools. That’s who Dewey had in mind when he talked about concerns “dear to the hearts of adults,” and anyone working in education knows this to be true. The evidence is all around us, whether that evidence is in the practices, the data, or the outcomes. Successful parents demand, and teachers deliver a highly selective version of reality, even though others often mock it as an ivory tower caricature of the ‘real world’.

It doesn’t matter which one is the right description of reality. The learners who accept that version of reality are rewarded and becoming highly select themselves. They attend top colleges, land top jobs, and receive a whole range of intangible societal rewards. But we know that selective reality is not real, or at least, it’s not a reality in which everyone lives, or would chose to live for that matter. After all, we all know hundreds of real people who weren’t good students, but who are nonetheless living in different realities that are equally rewarding. They may not have been selected by the process of schooling, but they are highly successful, whether on society’s terms, or their own. Why don’t we build schools that select for these definitions of success?

To no small degree, the how of PBL is about transforming schooling in ways that admit the attributes and skills of other realities into the highly select reality of our schools. When PBL is viewed as a standardized vehicle for delivering standards to young learners for the purpose of cultivating and selecting the best, what Yong Zhao called “academic PBL” in World Class Learners, it becomes limited by the epistemological commitment of that reality. This reality is ultimately alien to the nature of projects designed to address problems to which we don’t know the answers, yet. As a result, “academic PBL” either leads back to more teacher-directed project-based or performance-based assessments, or to an artificial and ineffective “dessert” offered as a reward for accepting the epistemological commitment to selectivity upon which schools have been based for over 100 years.

What happens if practitioners of PBL accept a social constructivist epistemology or, if you don’t like the implications of that term, what Zhao called “entrepreneurial PBL” in World Class Learners? These schools work because they are working away from the work that the 19th century industrial and 20th century management cultures designed them to do. Instead of that drudgery, they are moving toward the work students are coming to realize they need to know and be able to do in the 21st century. PBL becomes less a process in which learners come to know and be able to do the things society expects them to know and be able to do, and more about how learners actually come to know and be able to do the things they find interesting to know and be able to do from among the options society hopes they will know and be able to do.

Yes, I know that sentence is a lot to know and be able to comprehend, but its formula is important. Read it again, and see how it shifts the focus of PBL from teaching, to learning. Learners aren’t being taught things; they’re learning how to direct their own learning to things.

If that’s true, then PBL is an epistemological commitment not only as a vehicle for student learning (the what), but also as an approach that prioritizes learning over teaching (the how). If we’re listening to our learners, we’ll learn that PBL doesn’t have right and wrong answers, and is not itself a right or wrong answer. It’s the answer to the problems our learners commit to work on with us because we don’t know the answer, yet. If we meet that commitment, the answers to all our problems will—and must—change from project to project.


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