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How to Teach Authentic PBL in an Age of Uncertainty

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Hi everyone, and welcome back to the EdTech Classroom Podcast. Happy Tech Tuesday! I’m so happy you’re here. 

In today’s episode, we’re going to talk through these feelings of uncertainty that I have about the 2020-2021 school year. But you’re going to leave today’s episode with concrete takeaways on ideas for implementing PBL in your classroom – uncertainty and all.

I’ll be sharing my strategies with you, and I know that you’re going to leave today’s episode feeling empowered. That’s what we need right now isn’t it? A little confidence. Some tips. The tools we need to thrive.

So, like I always say, let’s dive right in, and let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators. 

This term “21st century” is… let’s be real… a big buzzword. 

So many educators these days, like myself, are constantly talking about setting students up with the 21st century skills they need to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution…

Which is basically a movement that is characterized by things like blended learning, new technologies, and all these skills. 

Now when I think about these 21st century skills, my mind first and foremost immediately turns to creative-problem solving. And then I start to think about these other critical skills like collaboration, authenticity, and sustained inquiry.

If you have a close relationship to project-based learning, you might have noticed that these terms I’m dropping are all some of the core pillars of project-based learning. 

These are also core tenets of my classroom and elements that I try to incorporate into my teaching practice as much as and as thoughtfully as possible. 

But now, I’m not really sure how PBL is going to look in the fall. Maybe you’ve had success with PBL in the past, but what is it going to look like this upcoming school year?

If you’re listening to this episode in the far off future, congratulations – you’ve hopefully made it out of this Age of Uncertainty. 

But I’m sitting here. On the floor next to my coffee table. In front of a microphone. Feeling overwhelmed at the thought of school in Fall 2020.

For those economic and history buffs out there, I’m deeming this time period – 2020 rather – a new age of uncertainty. 

Alongside this thriving fourth industrial revolution, we’ve been suddenly struck with so much confusion. From social to political to economic. 2020 is a new age of uncertainty. 

And when I think about what uncertainty exists in my life, and when I think about the stuff that really keeps me up at night, I think about the global pandemic. 

Above all, I am deeply troubled by this pandemic.

But I also stay up at night. I can’t sleep at night… 

Because I can’t stop thinking about learning loss. I can’t stop thinking about the widening achievement gap. Student social emotional needs. Reopening schools. 

And when I’m up all night, my mind starts moving like rapid-fire… 

I posted a meme about this on my Instagram the other day, but when my mind feels like it has 57 tabs open… I try to find a solution. 

Certainly not a solution that solves all the world’s problems. But a solution that might change the life of at least one child.

Today’s Episode

In today’s episode, I’m sharing my solution to ensure that 21st century learning – that project-based learning – can continue to happen in your classroom this fall – whether you’re in person or remote.

Beyond just the fall, I think that PBL sometimes has a reputation for being only accessible to progressive schools or to districts that can afford it. 

Today I’m sharing my solution for making real, authentic PBL happen, no matter the resources, because project-based learning should not and cannot be limited to just those who happen to live in a certain zip code.

Episode Format

For this episode, we’re going to start off talking about solving problems and some ideas on how I like to solve problems. Then, I’ll share a little bit about authenticity in PBL, and lastly, I’m going to share my three solutions to the biggest problems I foresee teachers facing when trying to implement PBL in the 2020-2021 school year. 

Solving Problems

Today we’re putting on our problem-solver hats. 

When I solve problems, I like to practice a mix of zooming in and zooming out. 

More specifically, I like to look at different parts of a system.

I like to zoom in closely to one specific element of a system – and then I zoom out. I take a look at how these interconnected parts are also a part of a larger whole or system. 

The system, in this case, is the project-based learning framework. 

The Buck Institute, which I’d highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already, has created a PBL framework that is typically considered the gold standard (PBL Works). 

This framework consists of 7 different core pillars:

  1. Challenging Problem or Question
  2. Sustained Inquiry
  3. Authenticity
  4. Student Voice and Choice
  5. Reflection
  6. Critique and Revision
  7. Public Product

These pillars are deeply interconnected as they are all rooted in the same learning goals: understanding, success skills, and key knowledge.

But in order to understand how to tackle teaching PBL in this new age of uncertainty, I’m going to zoom in specifically on authenticity. 

Our Challenging Problem: Authenticity

So what’s the challenging problem for us that we are trying to solve as teachers? 

To me, authenticity is the trickiest part of the puzzle. Authentic PBL consists of real-world context. It focuses on exploring the intersection of standards, tasks, and tools with students’ lives – their interests, their passions, the issues they care about, the things they wonder about (PBL Works).  

But it can be difficult to make PBL authentic when you have limited access to resources. Limited access to materials, a budget that covers field trip costs or materials, high-tech solutions that work in a remote model.

Whether you’re learning in person or remotely this fall, school will look different. Students won’t be able to share materials. They won’t be able to go on field trips where they can meet with experts and professions in person. They might not even have access to a technology device at home, which would make distance learning in a remote environment particularly challenging.

And beyond that – no matter the learning environment – it can be really difficult to motivate students to engage in PBL when authenticity is the key pillar that really keeps students interested and motivated. 

I’ve summarized these thoughts into three different problems… or three different myths of what PBL will look like next year. I’m debunking these myths. I’m showing you that it is possible!

Myth #1: Teachers won’t be able to create PBL lessons that have real-world application.

When students meet with industry professionals or experts in a specific subject area or industry, authentic PBL is taken to the next level. 

If high school students are learning about gentrification and displacement of low income communities, students engaging in authentic PBL might meet with urban planners or local activists. They might conduct interviews. They might even pitch their solutions at the end of the project to a panel of experts. 

If third graders are learning about ecosystem science, they might take a field trip to a local ecological reserve where they meet with environmental scientists. They might partner with the site to display their final projects at the Information Center. 

Solution #1: Invite guest speakers on Zoom.

Students can still meet with industry professionals in a virtual environment. Zoom comes to mind first. Let’s say you’re having your students do a PBL unit based on a specific piece of literature – whether it be a children’s book or a YA novel. 

Maybe the students are doing a maker challenge to solve a problem or something like that. Invite the author to speak to your class for 30 minutes. Especially if they are an author just starting out.

You might be surprised to hear how willing and excited people are to speak to students. 

Or, maybe you do an annual field trip as part of a PBL unit. See if someone from the site will speak to your class virtually.

Zoom doesn’t have to be limited to online school. You can have experts Zoom into your physical classroom from across the country.

Now I do want to recognize that it isn’t always easy or reasonable to assume that all teachers or school districts or neighborhoods have access to these kinds of resources. It’s a privilege to be able to have an annual field trip – much less a PBL unit tied to it. 

You can build relationships with teachers at other schools. Maybe your students will lean into their role as experts. Maybe you can facilitate small group Zoom sessions with another school. Or, maybe you can have your high school students share their knowledge with elementary students in your district over a Zoom call.

Or maybe, another teacher at your school has experience in a specific subject area. Invite them to be a guest teacher. 

Myth #2: Students won’t be able to share materials, so PBL won’t work. 

Students won’t be able to share materials with each other. This part isn’t a myth. Now, this is something that really makes my head spin. 

In order to stay safe and stop the spread of COVID-19, students aren’t going to be able to share materials like they used to. Desks will be 6 feet apart. Students will likely have their own set of pencils and paper and materials. 

It’s just going to be so hard to collaborate – and especially using physical materials. 

If you’re teaching remotely, the challenge of physical materials still persists. You have to operate under the assumption that students don’t have access to any materials at home. 

In order to teach in a way that is accessible to every student in your class, you have to be really creative about the types of materials that students use at home.

Solution #2: Incorporating a mix of materials and giving students individual maker kits.

I have always been a big fan of the book Vintage Innovation, and in this book, the author talks about leveraging vintage tools in combination with the high tech tools.

He writes that “new and flashy” isn’t always synonymous with “better.” And that’s true. 

I think that teachers should really lean into this idea of vintage innovation in the fall – and even going forward too. Teachers should consider mixing high tech and low tech elements to make learning accessible for everyone. 

In the classroom and at home, students can make prototypes using things like paper towel tubes and egg cartons. But they can also mix in storytelling apps like Stop Motion Studio and Book Creator.

Or, for older students, they can learn to make websites using Google Sites and present their cardboard prototypes in a high tech way.

And then – students don’t have to have a shared makerspace to grab these materials. Students can make their own maker kits – almost like mini-makerspaces – where they keep their supplies. All students need is a cardboard box. 

They can decorate their box and fill it with recyclable materials that they find. Or that you supply in a safe and strategic way.

Myth #3: Students can’t be engaged and interested because the idea of school next year just… sucks.

Authenticity, above all, focuses on ensuring that students are tackling problems that actually have real value to a student’s life. Of course they need to be real-world problems or scenarios, but students also need to be engaged and interested and invested in PBL.

How are you supposed to keep students engaged and interested when you can’t even imagine what school is going to look like? 

How can you plan for PBL when school just isn’t the same as it used to be?

You’re tired too – we can’t forget that. Whether it be Zoom fatigue or personal family situation or just the general weight of the world right now – you’re probably tired. 

I’m tired. It’s summer right now and I feel like I’m more exhausted than I am during the school year. So how can you make sure your students are still motivated, engaged, and interested despite all of these difficulties and obstacles in the way?

Solution #3: Lean into student interests.

One time during recess, a 2nd grade student sprinted into my classroom. Mind you – it’s recess…

And she came to me, out of breath, and first of course, I asked her how she was doing. Checked in to see if she was okay.

And she blurted out that she wanted to learn to make her own robot.

So I paused for a second. And I said, “okay… so what kind of robot do you want to make exactly?” 

And she went into an in-depth explanation of the robot of her dreams. 

I’d also like to add that this student never really engaged in any conversations with me about academics before. I really struggled to get her to feel motivated and excited in my classroom.

It just seemed like school just wasn’t her thing, and I had trouble figuring out how to ignite that spark in her. I think what I love the most about teaching STEM, and PBL for that matter, is that I can help students learn to love learning. 

So I took this as an opportunity to ask her to find a friend to brainstorm with and to come back to me the next day with a drawing of an idea for a prototype.

So the next day, like clockwork, she arrives, but this time, she’s brought 5 or 6 other friends with her. And they all show me their robot drawings. 

At that moment, I decided to scrap my curriculum for the next few weeks. Sure, I had core competencies and standards that I needed to meet with my students. But, I reworked my curriculum.

For the next 6 weeks, I conducted a PBL unit with my 2nd graders on how to design and build a robot that would make the world a better place. 

Was it messy? Absolutely. Did the lesson have flaws? Sure! But were students engaged? Yes. They were motivated. They were excited to learn about topics that they cared about.

In both a remote and in person environment, I advise you all to lean into these interests. Listen to what your students want to learn about. 

When school feels different and the world feels scary, students, no matter their grade level, benefit so much when they feel a deep connection to their work and their learning. 

Now that we’ve come up with these three solutions to making PBL authentic in an age of uncertainty, let’s try it out. Let’s experiment. 

Solution #1: Invite guest speakers on Zoom.

Solution #2: Incorporating a mix of materials and giving students individual maker kits.

Solution #3: Lean into student interests.

Let’s learn and grow together.

Will the problems of the world still keep me up at night? Probably. Do I still have concerns and fears about learning loss and equity and the health and safety of teachers and students and families and human beings?


But I have faith and hope for PBL. I believe in the power of PBL and the power of authentic learning to change students’ lives. We can do this together. One step at a time. After all, we’ve already debunked three of the myths we tell ourselves. 

Thank you so much for listening to the EdTech Classroom Podcast today. I hope you learned a little bit about how to teach authentic PBL in an age of uncertainty. 

If you liked this episode, be sure to leave a rating, write a review, throw me some love. One listener recently wrote: 

“As an executive who is always in search of the latest technologies and their impact on education, I find this podcast to be very informative.” 

So if you’ve made it this far, if you love my podcast, what are you waiting for. Throw me some love. It helps new podcasters like me SO much. 

Let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators. I’ll see you back here next week on Tech Tuesday!

Bye friends!


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