Moving to PBL is a challenging (but worthy) task for teachers

DSC01337.pngChanging the way we teach is hard. At times, almost overwhelmingly hard.

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I was invited to sit in with a terrific group of New Richmond, Wisconsin, teachers who are using my book (Beat Boredom) for a book study.

The 20 teachers in the book study are meeting for two hours each week (4 – 6 p.m.) to discuss each interactive teaching strategy, then trying new ideas in their classes. The group includes teachers from a variety of disciplines — from phy ed/health to agriculture to social studies to special ed — and they are clearly passionate about their work.

It was fun to listen as they shared how they had implemented new discussion techniques in their classes in the past week. One said that instead of writing learning objectives for a class discussion of a story, she let students generate the objectives — and they ran with it.

Another got his students to have a calm, reasoned discussion about Parkland, walkouts and gun control by asking students to list “what you are afraid of” and “what you really want” first, so both sides were more vulnerable and willing to listen.

But when we turned to the week’s new topic, Problem-Based Learning, everyone had more questions than answers.

What background information do we need to give kids?

What is the teacher’s role?

What if the students shut down?

What if they just want to listen and do worksheets?

How will we address all of the standards they are supposed to learn?

The research shows Problem-Based Learning, or inquiry-based learning, is one of the most effective ways to engage students and create deep understanding.

But the “how” is a major barrier.

How do I take a class where I’ve always lectured on fiscal policy or inflation calculations or graphing monetary policy, and turn it into some kind of authentic, student-run, real-world inquiry?

How do I — even with all of the reading and practice I’ve done in this area — advise a Spanish teacher or phy ed teacher or special ed teacher on how to do this with their unique content?

As I sat and (mostly) listened, I realized again the enormity of the task at hand. Embracing PBL means stepping back from all of our assumptions about what school looks like. It means letting go of our expectations about who leads, who follows, and how learning happens. It means diving deep into what matters about our curricular area, and having to let go of some things.

Honestly, I felt a little panicked when I wasn’t able to immediately offer suggestions. What would Problem-Based Learning look like in a Spanish 1 or 2 class, when students really just need to build vocabulary? I don’t know.

It wasn’t until I started writing this blog post, today, that I realized the irony here. Why would I, as an outsider, be able to easily solve this implementation problem? If this was easy, if it could be packaged into a curriculum and sold, it would already be happening.

Figuring out how to implement PBL is, in itself, a perfect, messy, real-world problem. The teachers involved are the ones who can and must solve it, just as their students must be the ones solving inquiries in class.

That doesn’t seem like much guidance, but I do have a few suggestions for those struggling with how to implement Problem-Based Learning. My first tip is to step back from your day-to-day curriculum and ask yourself the big questions, like:

  • What questions are  professionals in your discipline trying to answer?
  • What are problems facing society (or your school or your community) that students are interested in solving, and how can they relate to your class or content area?
  • How can your students use the skills they are learning in your class to solve problems they’ll encounter in the future?

These questions help us identify and frame problems for our students, like “Should we raise the minimum wage to $15?” and “Do teens need more sleep?” and “How could you explain a medical problem if you were on vacation in Mexico?” And that’s where we have to start.

My second tip? Don’t try to do it all at once. Think of one unit, or even just one lesson that you can build around an inquiry this year.

Try it, see how it goes, and make it even better next year. That’s what this learning process is all about. And that’s why it takes passionate teachers who are experts in their subject areas, willing to stretch themselves — and willing to work together.

If you want to learn more about using Beat Boredom for a faculty book study, contact 

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush