15 Common PBL Mistakes | mistake #9: mandate it

16 12 2014

I have the best job in the world. On a regular basis, I’m given the extraordinary fortune to talk with teachers who are embarking on a PBL journey with their students. To dig into the smaller, everyday details of how to make this type of learning environment work. To answer the tough questions about sustainability, rigor, behavior management and then take the questioner further…that’s like chocolate to me! I can’t get enough.

Over the years of starting my own PBL school and learning in a baptismal fire, I’ve been able to find a way to talk with new or reluctant teachers about their concerns. Additionally, there are things that excited, energetic teachers might want to consider as they take their first steps into the PBL fire as well.

In the next month or so, I’ll be publishing a regular series to include 15 common mistakes that educators make and some solutions they might consider. Here’s the next one in the series:

Mistake #9:
Mandate that all teachers will participate. Right now. Period.

Problem: Sure, PBL is a great approach to learning and it’s wonderful that you want all your teachers to learn and practice it. But unless that’s a magic wand in your pocket, it’s just not going to happen by telling your teachers that this is how they will operate from now on. To truly make a change, your teachers will want to do it. And because they’ve been told that teachers TEACH and share information so all kids will get it at the same time, this requires a significant readjustment in what they’ve been told works. The good news is that good teachers — and there are a lot of them out there — want to go this route but aren’t sure how to get kids to where they want to be. They’re afraid of Mistake #1.

Solution: How we help teachers fully embrace this shift in teaching and learning, is to provide high-quality, role-modeled professional learning over time. This allows teachers to try out portions of PBL, eventually bridging to full student-independence. And this does take time. Some teachers will dive right into the deep end. Some teachers will splash around in the shallows. Some teachers will watch for awhile from the side of the pool. And that’s ok. The deep-end divers will surface with water up their noses and the rest of the teachers will learn from their mistakes. The shallows-splashers will scrape their toes as they try to swim and will quickly recognize the need to get out to deeper water. Eventually, the side-sitters will get too warm or too envious watching all the fun and venture in as well. As long as they all eventually learn how to swim in water over their heads, what does it matter how long it takes? Give them time, based on who they are. With the right supports, they will all get there…just like our kids.

Want to learn more about Project/Problem Based Learning and how to support it?


In 2006 with 12 years of traditional classroom experience and 2 days of formal PBL training in her pocket, Ginger Lewman started a middle school, grades 5-8, that was a 1:1 laptop and Project Based Learning environment. Five years later, the middle school had doubled in population twice and had expanded to include PBL in grades K-8. They were also in the process of opening a PBL high school the next fall. Ginger now works with school leaders in helping them learn how to support the PBL shift, and inspires their teachers to take the leap. Meanwhile, she also continues to co-teach with K-12 teachers in the training process, keeping her own teaching chops sharp and ready.  

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