The challenges of PBL in a traditional school structure

I’ve been trialling project based learning for about a year. Last year I was lucky enough to have a year 7 class for 14 hours a week for 5 different subjects so I was able to easily design and implement cross-curriculuar units of work that were framed  by project based learning. This year I’m back to traditional high school teaching where I see kids for 60 minutes at a time. I had to change my game plan for project based learning. What I have found most challenging is balancing the students’ passion for learning with ‘getting through the syllabus’.

I’ve just finished a unit called ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’, which is basically a unit on ecosystems and food webs. I modified the unit with a PBL framework. Instead of just looking at food web diagrams in a textbook or playing with interactive food webs online, students acted as scientists and produced a product for a shark scientists conference to convince the community whether sharks are our friends or foes in the midst of all the media attention on shark attacks.

The project was done throughout the unit in different stages and students also had to learn about population sampling techniques, food webs and how energy flows through ecosystems. During the unit they also had a real shark scientist talk to them.

From the results in the students’ pre-tests and post tests, all students made huge progress in their understanding of ecological relationships. On average students improved over 40% between their pre-test scores and their post-test scores.

In comparison to last year, the students’ teamwork skills and self-regulation skills have massively improved. My main challenge this year is time. PBL takes time. A lot more time than traditional teaching. The unit that ‘Sharks: Friends or Foes’ is based on is supposed to take 5 weeks maximum, but my modified PBL unit took 8 ½ weeks. There were times that I was feeling pressured to rush my students to make sure I don’t fall behind and so that I can get through the syllabus in time. Last year, I saw my students for large blocks of time (5 hours straight twice a week) and they can use these chunks of time to work on their movies, posters and other products for their projects. This year I see them for 3 separate hours a week and this lack of continuity makes the product creation process a lot more challenging.

But does it have to be this way?

This term I realised that I wished high schools did not to have separate subjects. I wish schools didn’t require students to walk in and out of classrooms like they are on a conveyor belt.

I wish every unit was cross-curricular so that subject experts can work together as a team and students can have more time to develop their passions for learning and be knowledge creators rather than just consumers. If you need 4 hours straight to work on a science/maths/geography project then you should be able to do it without being prevented by a timetable structure. Is there a reason why we need to have separate subjects? What is the reason for timetables?

I don’t have the answer or solutions to these questions, but I hope education is moving towards this direction. In the meantime I’m going to take small steps. I’ll continue with PBL with my year 8s and have already approached another faculty at my school to design and implement a cross-curricular PBL unit.

12 thoughts on “The challenges of PBL in a traditional school structure

    • I have heard about this school and I think they are in the right direction. I think we need to re-think how we design education in all schools. This is the 21st century. There’s no need for students to receive transmitted knowledge in a particular place at a particular time.

      • Well worth a visit next time you are in Adelaide during a school term. They do organised tours.

    • Lolz … It’s easier when it’s a year group that doesn’t have a high stakes exam. In year 8 they have to do ESSA in term 4 so sometimes there is that pressure to get through the syllabus.

    • That seems to be the attitude across the board in schools with educationally disadvantaged students. What do you do, rush through the syllabus, tick all the boxes and have a cohort that hadn’t really learnt anything, or teach them a few things in depth? I know what I choose.

      • It’s not about rushing through the syllabus in a ‘disadvantaged setting’. The class that I do PBL with will be way ahead of the syllabus if I taught in a traditional transmissible way. It’s more about getting a balance of surface learning vs deep learning, and a balance between knowledge consumption vs knowledge creation. PBL requires students to develop skills to learn and think, and in a traditional high school setting this is done ineffectively as each subject does its own thing in isolation with a rigid timetable structure that says you have to learn something in a particular time.

  1. GBHS was working on a project like that during 2011 for 2012. It might be worth seeing how they managed to integrate learning across several faculties throughout 2012. The pilot program was for year the new year seven enrichment stream. They are putting a lot of work into redefining what school is.

    • I think it’d be better if teachers from different subjects worked in teams. Eg a team might have an English, maths, science, geography and PDHPE teacher and they all teach the same group of students with a PBL unit that spans across all those subjects. The team will see the students for most of the week but when students learn a subject isn’t dictated by school bells.

  2. Pingback: Hold it right there. We learn about black holes in Year 10, not in Year 8 | Alice Leung

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