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(Ed. note: In our workshops we used to explain PBL by comparing a project to the task of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner. This post is in the same spirit.)

As a founder of a school with “wall to wall” Project Based Learning and a member of BIE’s National Faculty, I am obviously a convert to PBL’s educational benefits. Done well, projects inspire and engage students, teach meaningful content in ways students are more likely to understand and remember, and require them to use and refine 21st Century skills such as collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication.

Much has been written about how practicing these skills through authentic learning experiences will produce students who are college/career ready and how employers are desperate for a workforce proficient in these skills. But it has occurred to me that PBL can help prepare students for the projects they will encounter in their personal lives too.

We all face challenging, complex tasks at home, with family and friends, and for personal growth that could be thought of in terms of the Gold Standard PBL Essential Project Design Elements. For example, in my own life I’ve got a to-do list of projects such as:

  • Planning for a transitions from parent of teenagers to empty nester to eventual retirement
  • Adopting a more healthy eating/exercise routine
  • Working to keep up with new technology and social media
  • Converting to a more environmentally friendly household

By way of illustration, here is how my more environmentally friendly household project would include these essential elements:

Challenging Problem or Question: I appreciate framing a specific to-do item in the form of a question. My driving question might be: “How can I shrink my ecological footprint?” or “What steps can I take, to model to my students how to be an environmentally conscious consumer?” Using the BIE model, projects are launched with an entry event to get students engaged in the process. In my case I might start with some intentionally inspiring experience to help me stay committed to my project. For instance, I might watch the documentary, “No Impact Man” in which a New York family abandon their high consumption 5th Avenue lifestyle and try to live a year off the grid making no net environmental impact.

Sustained Inquiry: Next, I would define the scope of my research. In a school setting, significant content and 21st century competencies determine our curriculum—what students need to know and learn to do. In my real life example, the “curriculum” will not be established by state/federal standards, but by my driving question and what I would need to know to answer it. I could create a list of question topics that I would research. Here are some possibilities:

  • How environmentally impacting is eating meat?
  • How significant is eating locally? Grass-fed? Organic?
  • How much more will changing my diet cost?
  • What are other viable options for commuting to work?
  • How much energy is used by leaving appliances/technology plugged in?
  • How much do solar panels cost? / What is the process for getting them?
  • What is the process for composting food?
  • Are there things that I am currently throwing away that I could recycle?
  • Are there places that sell products with less packaging?

I love this idea of framing the everyday work we do as adults as sustained inquiry, starting with one set of questions and then moving on to new areas of investigation as I become more informed and practiced. It gives legs to the often overused notion of “life-long learner.”

Reflection: PBL requires students to reflect and revise their projects as an integral part of the learning process. I could also schedule reflection points in my project to check how I am doing and revise my plan as needed. This would make it less likely that I experience the “New Year’s Eve Resolution Phenomenon” where 92% of resolution makers fail to follow through with their plan. I submit that if people were more practiced at designing reflection into their personal lives, they would enjoy a much higher rate of success attaining their personal goals.

Critique & Revision: Equipped with new knowledge from my inquiry, I would then create a plan for incorporating environmentally sensitive steps into my life; thinking through the pros and cons and prioritizing each of them. I would find friends, family members, or other similarly committed people to assist in giving me progress feedback. Not only would I receive valuable and timely insight, but knowing that I would be sharing my progress with others at scheduled times would be a substantial motivating factor. For example, I could check in with a vegan friend, or the science teachers on my staff, to assess my thinking and help revise my plan. 

Public Product: Sharing a completed personal project may feel awkward, but why not celebrate a job well done?  I have always admired a particular friend of mine who hosts annual salons where she shares a practiced piece on the piano and invites friends to share their own musical performances. If I plan a celebration at the end of a completed project it would serve as both a reward for a job well done and also make my work public (with family and friends), thus providing greater accountability. Perhaps it would inspire others to share their accomplishments as well.

I had not previously thought of my personal “to-dos” as a set of projects, but speaking as a typical American, overwhelmed by an unending list of goals to accomplish, I now see how this process can provide a helpful structure for me. PBL teaches how to use project management skills so that complex, lengthy tasks can be tackled effectively. I look forward to applying these project design elements to my “life projects” so that I might complete them successfully. No need for an “A” grade; the finished product is reward enough!

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