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Project Based Learning as Mindset

I had a fascinating conversation with a few teachers the other day. Though their school leadership viewed Project-Based Learning (PBL) as a pathway to student-centered learning, these teachers explained that many of their colleagues viewed PBL as a "box to check" before going back to their traditional practice. As one shared, "they do their PBL and then shut the door again."

I could empathize with these teachers. On a number of occasions, I have listened to others talk about "implementing PBLs" as stand-alone units. Often, these experiences involve large amounts of time, extensive effort, and a tremendous commitment of resources. At the end of the PBL, teachers "check the box" to indicate completion of the activity feeling exhausted by the experience. Because of projects and experiences like these, many teachers feel as though they just do not have the time or the opportunity to even attempt such an undertaking.

This post by no means intends to criticize gold-standard PBLs designed by educators at the Buck Institute for Education or those made available by organizations such as BizWorld. Instead, what if we consider those pre-designed experiences as an entry point into the world of PBL rather than a finite unit to be implemented. In other words, what if we considered PBL not as a type of activity but as a mindset.

3 Tenets of the PBL Mindset

Carol Dweck - researcher, psychologist, and thought-leader in the field of motivation - argues that mindsets govern how individuals tackle three tenets of learning: goals, effort, and setbacks.

First, depending on mindset, a person possesses different goals for learning. A person with a fixed mindset strives to appear smart at all costs. Their ultimate goal is to demonstrate expertise. Meanwhile, one with a growth mindset strives to learn at all costs. They view the process of learning as the goal itself. Within this goals concept, a teacher with a PBL mindset strives for student-centered learning at all costs. This teacher wants the students to ask the questions, engage in inquiry, and choose the means by which they demonstrate their understanding.

Next, Dweck describes the role of effort in learning. Someone with a fixed mindset feels as though learning should come naturally and may express frustration when required to exert effort in order to achieve the desired result. Conversely, a person with a growth mindset recognizes the correlation between effort and ability. They acknowledge the need to work at something in order to achieve proficiency. A teacher with a PBL mindset accepts that learning requires effort and perseverance - especially when students look for an easier pathway and want a "right" answer.  These teachers look for ways to provide scaffolding and support as students grapple with tough problems, self-direction, and the ambiguity associated with not having a single answer. Traditionally, schools have presented students with problems that rely on convergent thinking to find a "right solution." Teachers with a PBL mindset encourage students to engage in creative problem solving and divergent thinking to design new solutions.

Finally, according to Dweck, mindset dictates how individuals respond to setbacks. Those with a fixed mindset may try to hide from failure rather than admit it, but someone with a growth mindset finds ways to capitalize on their mistakes. When teachers assume a PBL mindset, setbacks present collaborative problem-solving opportunities as well as the chance to allow students to become the expert. In leading PBL workshops with teachers, a common concern is that teachers do not feel comfortable with the lack of control over the process that comes with student-centered learning. They worry that without control over the precise content and procedures, then they cannot guarantee that students will attain the desired goals, objectives, and standards. However, a teacher with a true PBL mindset recognizes that the responsibility to model lifelong learning is greater than the need to maintain control and appear as the only expert in the room. They acknowledge when they do not know how to do something and share their strategies for gaining the new knowledge rather than try to wrangle the situation back to familiar territory. When students demonstrate new expertise, they celebrate that success and allow other students to learn from their peers. A teacher with a PBL mindset shows students how to seek out experts in the community and encourage their autonomy.

At its heart, Project Based Learning provides a strategy to engage students in creative problem solving and frames learning within a real-world context. Teachers with a PBL mindset understand the power of these learning experiences and try to find ways to ignite curiosity, inspire creative problem solving, and engage students in deep inquiry in every class. In other words, a teacher with a PBL mindset does not "check the box," close the door, and go back to traditional practices.

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