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PBL – Who IS in Charge? What Tools can Help?

What tools support a socio-constructivist approach to Project-based Learning?


Traditional ClassroomWe believe in kids.  That’s why we are in this ‘business’ of education in the first place.  Yet, much of what we must face relegates us, and the students, to roles and responsibilities that are in discord with this belief.  Further to that, I believe that most of us would agree that people, including kids, naturally want to learn.

Students can ‘take charge of their learning’.  They have the ability to define driving questions within the context of curricular needs, to set their goals, to generate and implement strategies to achieve those goals, and to reflect on the efficacy of their efforts.  They understand intuitively that this can be accomplished best within a social context and with the tools at hand.

This era of information and communications technologies (ICT) is particularly conducive to a shift towards more natural models of learning and away from the factory model of education that grew out of the industrial era.   Powerful tools exist for accessing and manipulating information and also for supporting rich communications among people.

I have spent most of my career supporting project-based learning (PBL) because I believe in kids.  I trust in their power of self-regulation.  I have no doubt in their ability to work together for the betterment of themselves and others.  I also believe in teachers.  People enter this profession for noble reasons. We want to make a difference — to educate all children to the best of their abilities.  We want students to become lifelong learners and teachers understand that to achieve this they must encourage and support the development of self-regulatory skills — the rudimentary origins of which children had when they arrived in school!

Out of Line

Locus of Control

For years I have been frustrated with the school system’s inadvertent theft of a student’s locus of control.  Before children enter school, they are full of questions and make much sense out of the rich complexity of authentic situations.  Once a child enters kindergarten, the educational system begins to set the learning agenda.   Children are segregated into age groups.  The curriculum is defined — segmented and sequenced.  The activities are organized. The learning is controlled and measured.  As the years go on — and students acquire their new roles — their curiosity, passion and motivation to learn measurably decreases.

Neil Postman astutely suggested that,

“Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”

Project Based Learning

Kite BuildingI believe that teachers prefer project-based learning models but in these times of standards and testing they often withdraw to more didactic approaches.

However, I am not so naïve as to think that the use of a PBL approach is enough to cause a radical change in education.  But I recognize that such approaches to education are consonant with our deeper beliefs.  I am also confident that when schools systems adopt these philosophies and tools — and use them well — the evidence of higher student achievement will be overwhelmingly convincing.

I believe that we cannot raise standards appropriately until we adopt these methodologies.

ICT Affordances

And so, then the question is, what information technologies support these methodologies? We need to provide environments which:

  • encourage and support student-generated questioning
  • allow students to make their thinking explicit – both to themselves and to others
  • scaffold student learning
  • provide for multiple representations of knowledge
  • facilitate conversation among students

Many of these can be handled by different applications available to us.  Tools that ‘catch and allow for the organization of ideas’ are particularly useful for brainstorming and/or making sense of that which we already know.  Inspiration, Smart Ideas, and the outliner of most word processors can fulfill this function.  Word processors are also useful as diaries or journals – but likely serve best for a ‘personal’ form of those.   It has often been said that we are no longer in the ‘information age’ but rather have entered the ‘communication age’ or ‘creative age’.  There is a proliferation of environments in which people may hold discussions.  Many of these are web-based in the form of blogs, wikis, Twitter, Skype or Facebook. However, few of these are specifically focused on education (with the exception of Knowledge Forum). They are, therefore, not designed to incorporate multiple features as mentioned above – mainly because they are often used in ‘social’ ways, not for ‘cognitive’ gain.   Not a bad thing – necessary, as it’s said, but not sufficient.

Journal Writing

Cognitive Scaffolding – How Do We Support and Encourage Thoughtful Journal Entries and Comment/Discussion

Ah yes, herein lies the greatest problem.

I designed software a few years ago called Journal Zone to try to meet these needs.  It was a good first attempt – but didn’t do well commercially.  BUT, this is not about selling that product. It’s not available any more anyway. It is about the feature set that embraces a socioconstructivist philosophy and is designed specifically for students to become better learners.

Tools to support and encourage novice learners to think deeply about what they should think about or write about aren’t, for the most part, currently available. It is really up to the culture of the classroom to support deep thinking.  It should anyway of course.  <g>

Madeleine's Blog

But, to have some of these affordances built into the tools would be useful.

I have made attempts at this – yes, with Journal Zone in the past – but more recently, with blogs, wikis and Diigo. It’s a hack, and not quite as integrated as I would like.  But if anyone wants to build something with me, please let me know.

I’ll describe the concepts more fully here.  Please read The Construction Zone website if you would like a more robust theoretical basis of ‘expert/novice learning behaviour’, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), ‘dynamic scaffolding’, and mindfulness.

I would like to see an online journaling environment that supports reflective learning within a social context.   It could integrate three common practices of exemplary teaching – journal writing, collaboration, and cognitive scaffolding.  Students would think more deeply, not only about the task at hand, but also about their own thinking and learning processes.

A Collaborative Classroom

It would be a place where students could write and illustrate their thoughts, plans and ideas over a period of time.  Sometimes journals would be ongoing – as a diary might be.  At other times journals might be kept during specific projects  – to track plans, thoughts, notes, questions, strategies, solutions and so on. The journal entries would be reviewed and commented upon by group members or project partners.

Because the environment would encourage and support social sharing and discussion of these thoughts, it would be an ideal place for students to work together to make sense of curricular or conceptual problems.  The distinctive tools (perhaps sentence prompts) would scaffold individual and group learning by helping students in planning, reflecting and commenting effectively on the work of others.

Imagine a student, Sarah, is beginning her investigations into her topic of ‘natural disasters’.  Normally, this occurs as an independent activity.  However, in this case, Sarah is part of a group of students – each of whom has his/her own topic of investigation.  Each student has a responsibility, not just for her own investigation, but also for the projects of the others in the group.  (Indeed, each student may have a sub-part of a topic, but not necessarily.)  In practical terms, this means that each student works on her own project, but also regularly comments on the progress of the others in her group.  As Sarah documents her plans and thoughts, others read them and give substantive feedback in an effort to ‘bump up’ the standard of work.

My research indicated that ‘prompts’ were initially essential to get novice learners to behave more like expert learners – to develop the metacognitive strategies of, for example, generating a number of solution strategies before embarking on one or, breaking a complex project into mind-size parts.  Prompts can also assist in elevating the conversation from a social one to a more substantive one.  For example, instead of a student merely saying, “I like your idea”, the student might say, “Have you considered…that we studied hurricanes all last month.  How has that affected the farming?”  The benefits of the advice to the recipient are obvious.

But the students who give the advice also benefit in several ways:

  • they intimately learn the subject content of the other students
  • they ‘see’ the learning processes of the others (how they ‘think’ – question, plan, solve problems)
  • they learn how to be part of a team – an important lifelong learning skill

Driving Questions are Essential

The first task for each student may be to work towards a ‘driving’ question for the investigation.  This may take several journal pages and much discussion with peers to develop a question that meets the criteria.  A ‘driving’ question (modified from Krajcik) is defined as one that:

  • integral to the curriculum under study
  • worthwhile
  • complex enough to be broken down into smaller questions
  • link concepts/principles across disciplines
  • feasible
  • contextualized
  • anchored in the lives of learners
  • meaningful
  • ill-structured
  • engage students in a state of ‘flow

In fact, the teacher – perhaps in conjunction with the students – may have developed rubrics for a ‘driving’ question.  This could be posted in a Teacher’s journal and referred to during these discussions.

Once Sarah has defined her question, she would need to develop her plans for investigation.  Again, she does this by ‘thinking aloud’ in her journal and by reading and reacting to the comments of her peers.  Over the course of the project, therefore, Sarah and her peers have regular, reflective conversations about every stage of their work.

It is in this way that students feel empowered over their own learning.   They set the agenda.  They identify and work through the planning, the development of strategies, the accomplishment of their goals.  They will be better prepared to meet the challenges of educational standards and of a life of learning within a social context.

Request of You

If you are interested in the processes I used in scaffolding students to think more deeply and to collaborate more substantively in these environments, I would be thrilled to have the discussion.  I will soon post more about:

  • the differences between novice and expert learners
  • dynamic scaffolding
  • effective collaboration

Please, share your thoughts.


Knowledge Forum – ‘an electronic group workspace designed to support the process of knowledge building.’

The Construction Zone – a theoretical overview of: expertise – the differences between expert and novice learners; the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD); ‘dynamic scaffolding’; and, mindfulness.

Diigo – a social bookmarking tool that allows for annotation of web pages

Project Based Learning:

About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid 1970s–particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter blogs at The Construction Zone.


14 thoughts on “PBL – Who IS in Charge? What Tools can Help?

  1. Peter-
    This is a great frame for thinking about PBL and socio-constructivist approaches in the context of the current state of standards and testing. Even before the “accountability movement,” Neil Postman’s quote you used was the reality for the majority of kids. There are some things that 3 year olds are taught (mostly in context) but most things they figure out because the just want to know. When they walk through the doors of a school, the balance shifts and the context is often state standards and testing. How do we change this?

    Posted by Becky Fisher | January 8, 2011, 12:36 pm
    • Hi Becky,
      I am not sure how we change it. Honestly, I’ve been in the profession since 1970; been doing ‘professional development’ either full-time or part-time since 1982. In fairness, I will say that I have always avoided the political and administrative side of things – for good or bad. I have preferred to be bridging theory and practice closer to the learners/teachers.

      Many have called me a ‘radical’. Although I didn’t take offence, all I ever have really advocated was a more natural approach to learning – a realization that ‘out-of-school’ learning in which people engage can help us understand best practice for ‘in-school’ learning.

      A colleague then said to me that the word ‘radical’ derives from ‘root’ – so ‘getting back to the roots’ is not a bad thing. 🙂

      Posted by peter skillen | January 11, 2011, 9:22 am
  2. Peter, I hope community-based PBL becomes our national norm for educating kids and embedding their educations in their home communities, rather than in escape routes.

    I’d be interested in your take on Project Foundry and some of the schools it supports like The New Country School and Northwest Passage High School. Do you think the Expeditionary Learning model captures PBL well? Have you seen schools like Mike Ritzius’s Integrated Studies program? Have you look at Adam;s work with Maine Enterprise School? I am so excited about all this work – I can’t believe it’s not on our national agenda.

    Maybe we can all move to Minnesota and start a school/not-school?

    Thanks again for sharing your PBL insights and supports.

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 8, 2011, 3:39 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      Thank you for the links. I look forward to catching up with those shortly. Right off, I would say that expeditionary learning models are different from my typical view of PBL. But, as a climber, I must say – the parallels are evident. 🙂

      I do want to take a look though and think about this more deeply…because it is my impression (uneducated!) that there are overlaps but some significant differences too. Worth an expedition into the material!


      Posted by peter skillen | January 11, 2011, 9:25 am
  3. I really enjoyed this post. I like how real it seemed. Instead of simply talking about it theoretically, I felt like I got an honest, intelligent look at this concept.

    I think the three biggest barriers to PBL tend to be:
    1. A lack of time. Or more likely a perceived lack of time. “We need to cover” this when in fact, curriculum is not something you cover.
    2. A confusion about how it works. When I first went with PBL, it was difficult to figure out how to organize it. I’m still trying to figure that out and it’s been six years of using it as a framework.
    3. A lack of teacher and school autonomy. This is a big one. A micromanaging administration can stop really cool projects before they happen.

    Posted by johntspencer | January 9, 2011, 9:12 am
    • Hey John,

      Good points. Hmmmm…it is time consuming to ‘do it right’ – I think. So we go for depth instead of ‘surfing the surface’ of curriculum. That’s tough in times of standardized testing and all. It’s easier for us here in Ontario I think. We have some standardized tests and a defined curriculum – but, we have (if I understand it all correctly) more flexibility. I think part of that has been my good fortune in not getting caught. LOL

      How to plan PBL is difficult too. I have always had trouble with it. I’ll write up something and share some of my trials and tribulations about it all.

      I’ll say one thing here though. Some kids don’t want to bother. When I started teaching secondary school a few years ago for kids who are ‘disengaged’ I was all over PBL as the answer for them. Oh boy. One of the students, Nelson, said to me, “Peter, enough with the projects already. Too much work. Just give me a textbook, tell me what to read and answer and write. I just need this credit and can learn it myself. I plan to be a plumber. I’m in the apprenticeship program. I’ll get it done and then be making more money than you!” Then he smiled.

      I respect student choice and voice. I believe in ‘differentiated instruction’. So I set him up according to his needs and desires. He was extremely successful.

      The rest of us engaged in projects.

      thx for making me think!

      Posted by peter skillen | January 11, 2011, 9:34 am
  4. Peter,

    I would love to engage in the conversation. I am a novice 21st century educator but am on point for what you are talking about. How does someone like me engage and help others learn what you are talking about? I will be teaching a secondary teacher-education course this Spring and know what you are talking about works! Thanks for giving me a space to admit my newness to this mode of discussion. Hope I can learn more!

    Posted by Barbara Pazey | January 10, 2011, 1:08 am
  5. Barbara,

    Let’s definitely chat some more.

    With permission from folks I’ll post some other ideas I have had about project-based learning – everything from the establishment of ‘driving questions’, to strategy generation, to ‘reflections’ and transfer.

    I won’t be too strong on the assessment/evaluation piece! 😉


    Posted by peter skillen | January 11, 2011, 9:37 am
  6. Hi Peter, I have saved this post to read until I had time to take it in fully. As the snow falls at a rate of 2″ an hour here in Boston, and all the world has shut down, I am now taking a pleasurable look. Thank you for this fine post. It reflects many of the beliefs and experiences of the folks who post/comment here, and our loosely collected ideas about what is required, and should be at the center of, the transformation of the sector. Project based learning in the US, as you know, runs squarely into issues of state, federal and local accountability demands under NCLB and RTTT–although there are great folks at work trying to align constructivist, PBL approaches to state and national curriculum frameworks and summative tests here in Massachusetts, for instance. (I can get you in touch with these people if you are interested–running a 3 year test pilot at 20+ schools under a federal grant.) This effort to provide some of the data around rigor, and the increasing levels of cognitive complexity these approaches may support, seems really promising to me. It will help us in the long run know more about what we’re doing, and how to demonstrate it to others.

    The 3 areas you describe at the end of the post as being about the center of your interests are also right where I am heading in my current work and book writing. A quick question. Your site seems to indicate that you do not make domain distinctions between expert and novice learners–that expertise seems a broad set of attributes, skills, habits and socio-cultural experiences. My understanding of Brown, et al (I studied with Brown and Campion in grad school briefly) is that expertise is developed in relation to particular areas, and is not a broad set of generalized skills.

    I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

    Thank you again and I look forward to engaging.

    Kirsten Olson

    Posted by Kirsten | January 12, 2011, 10:22 am
    • Hi Kirsten,

      Great to think about these notions more deeply. I have not made any domain distinctions regarding expertise. Not because I didn’t think about it, but because I do think that there are many skills/attitudes/procedures/concepts that are generalizable and cut across domains. The notion of ‘situated cognition’ in some ways is in disagreement with this – that knowledge of various types (declarative and procedural) is tied to a domain.

      My heart of hearts (not a very empirical model!) suggests to me that it is not an either/or situation. I think it is complex. In other words, one could say that someone is an expert in a domain without that person having generalizable expertise. One could also speak of someone as an ‘expert generalist’ in that s/he has expertise across domains.

      It seems that we might also need to address types of knowledge within this discussion. Can one be an expert in a domain without the requisite declarative or procedural knowledge? I don’t think so.

      Hmmmm…I need to review some things and think more about this.

      Maybe if one, as I have often done, considers the domain to be ‘learning’ or ‘learning how to learn’, my work on novice vs expert learners makes more sense.

      Thx for making me think on this very snowy day here in Toronto!

      Posted by peter skillen | January 12, 2011, 2:51 pm
    • Kirsten: 3 years of PBL at 20+ schools?

      If I wasn’t such a damned Yankees fan I’d move tomorrow and beg for a job. That’s an blessed eternity.

      Please forward me that pilot design if you can – maybe put me in touch with the principals for an edReformer interview? Any of them going to Educon?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 12, 2011, 6:58 pm
  7. I stumbled on your post. It resonated so much with where I am now in my career that I printed it out, so I could go over it several times. In my current situation, standards are present but not overwhelming, and I have the autonomy to create a class (of course with the possibility of having my neck chopped off in the process!). I’d love to know more about creating a fertile environment for quality PBL feedback and moving students from novice learners to expert learners. Prompts and feedback rubrics would be helpful; though I can imagine having students create these, a good starting place would be helpful. I’d also like to hear more about the rubric for a Driving Question(s). Finally, I too have searched for a good online place that combines project management, peer and teacher feedback, and a progress journal. I’d love to connect with you more. Though I have more than 20 years teaching experience, there are days (especially given media tools) that I feel like this is my first year!

    Posted by Saja | July 26, 2012, 2:46 pm


  1. Pingback: Lessons of the Long Tail for Professional Learning « The Construction Zone - January 11, 2011

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