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.