The Real Reason It’s So Difficult to Start Project-Based Learning

Dr Suess quote about education

My colleague and I looked at each other on Tuesday of this week. She had a look in her eyes of pure exhaustion. I could sense a call for help, but I think we were both too tired to send out an SOS.

I let out a deep sigh and said, “Man, is it June yet!”

The past two weeks had been a whirlwind of non-stop problem finding and problem-solving. It was good work, but tiring work.

As a Director of Learning and Innovation, I got to live out the highs and lows of another school year. Just this month alone:

  • Seeing our teachers partner with a Forensics lab to provide an authentic final assessment as a crime scene. Unbelievable experience.
  • Developing project-based performance tasks to replace traditional assessments. Also an unreal experience!
  • Piloting a new math program and hearing real, live feedback from all of our Elementary teachers. Impactful experience.
  • Trying to navigate all of the new state mandates so it doesn’t turn into initiative fatigue. Tiring experience!

The list could go on, but in walking around the schools and talking with teachers I quickly found out that this sense of exhaustion was not only me.

There was a general excitement around the work we are doing this school year, yet every teacher I spoke to felt a bit tired after a full semester with students in their classrooms.

One veteran teacher who has led the move to project-based learning and authentic assessment said to me, “I keep thinking things might get easier. But, they never do. I guess I’m hoping for the wrong thing. Instead, things are getting better for our kids. They are having new experiences we could never have offered 5, 10, 15 years ago. It’s not easy for us, but it’s the right thing to do.”

That last line stopped me cold. I had forgotten why we are here.

We aren’t here for the new and shiny. Sure, the learning spaces, technology, and all kinds of updates are great.

But, that’s not what it is all about.

Innovation, as my friend George Couros says, is new and better.

But, it does not matter if it is new and better, unless it is better for our learners.

The rest of the day I went around and asked teachers, administrators, and kids all the same thing: How’s it going? How can I help?

The Exhaustion Is Real…But It’s Worth It

It’s 2019.

Communication is changing fast (my 9-yr old daughter and I just exchanged Snaps while I am in California and she is outside of Philadelphia in different time zones, with real-time interaction).

Collaboration has evolved to a point of instantaneous feedback loops (my colleague and I are on a shared Google Slide presentation changing and adding to slides for this week’s presentation in real-time, able to modify and go back to old versions if need be. We also shared this with someone who is going to be in the presentation to get their feedback on a teacher perspective.)

Critical Thinking has become a necessity in order to not only solve big problems, but everyday issues (we know teachers learn best from other teachers, but it is increasingly harder to get teachers into each other’s room due to sub shortages and other factors. We bought a 360 camera and are using it to film to elementary teacher’s lessons this week in order to share with other staff while they watch using VR headsets to see the entire room as if they were in the classroom on a visit.)

Creativity is a part of our everyday lives. No longer reserved for the few, we must all be creative and innovative in order to do our daily work (with all of the great work currently happening in my school district, I’m working with a small team to create an innovative and simple way to share out the stories of teaching and learning with our community!)

Yes, those bolded terms are what we commonly refer to as “21st Century Skills”, yet I’m fairly certain that these were always NEEDED skills.

But, developing these skills in students, and creating/facilitating learning experiences where our learners can demonstrate these skills is exhausting.

It is really easy to teach from the textbook.

It is even easier to hand out a multiple choice test. Grade it with a scantron or online grading tool. Record the grades.

Move onto the next chapter in the textbook and repeat.

That is why it is so difficult to get started with Project-Based learning experiences.

They take time to develop. They take time to plan. They take hours to put together and work through the kinks and variations.

We know Project-Based Learning engages our students, empower them to do authentic work while in school, and ultimately leads to deeper understanding and knowledge.

Yet, often when push comes to shove, we don’t have enough time to make it happen as much as we’d like.

This is the reality of teaching.

And the easy thing would be to head back to the traditional methods of stand and deliver, whole group instruction, and one-size fits all assessments.

But, it’s 2019 and most teachers I see working around my school, this country, and the world…aren’t teaching like that anymore.

It’s why we are exhausted. It’s why school leaders are exhausted from supporting this type of teaching and learning. It’s why parents are wondering how to help their kids because the answers to their projects aren’t in the back of the book. It’s also why I’m smiling more and more when we share our stories of frustration, desperation, and exhaustion.

These stories of authentic learning, project-based learning, real-world assessments, and creative work are also the stories of teachers and leaders who have said, ‘I’m not going to take the easy path. I’m going to take the right path.”

Yes, teaching is tiring. Yes, leading change is tiring (as Trevor Muir so perfectly points out in the video below).

But, wow, it is worth it.

When we innovate in our classrooms and schools we shouldn’t expect it to make life easier. Instead, we should expect it to make the learning experience better for our kids. That’s the goal.

I don’t know about you, but I’m heading into our second semester, a bit frustrated, a bit tired from the stress of working through problem after problem.

Yet, I’m heading into this second half of the school year fired up because all of this work, frustration, and exhaustion is going to make it new and better for our learners.

And to me, that’s a win.

You know what makes it even better? When we share these stories of exhaustion (and triumphs) together. Make sure you are talking about the realities of teaching and leading in 2019 with your colleagues. And please share in the comments below!

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Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Karen Corbell says:

    The connection I made to your thoughts here is that when you are faced with groups of students who have been “spoon fed” for years getting them to simply accept that choice is an option can be a huge leap! So I am reminded to celebrate small steps in the exciting direction of Personalized Learning! @CorbellHiAk

  • Gary Gruber says:

    What came immediately to my mind is that too often when we started something new, we did not stop something old and the list just got too long or too big unless we found what we could remove and was still be there but really, honestly we could do as well or better without. Some things are there just because they have been for a long time and some traditions aren’t worth it for kids’ sakes. Not the same kids, not the same families, not even all the same teachers.

  • Lisa Manni says:

    Fantastic blog! I always find something interesting….  Thanks for the share

  • AMEN to this! When I was a superintendent, our teachers experienced this as well. We talked about valleys (pure exhaustion and many times with tears) and mountain top moments when the learning was rich and powerful! It is soooo worth it! Thanks for calling this what it is, hard but worth it!

  • I love this article. However…I can’t help but think maybe we need to rethink how we treat teaching professionals. Should we be OK with people working themselves to exhaustion just because it is the “right thing to do”? Is the exhaustion a result of good teaching practice? Or is it a result of poorly structured work environments that assume the only “work” teachers do is when they’re in front of kids and that the hours of preparation that go into a good PBL project have to be done outside of “work” hours? What would this profession look like if we really honored ALL of the real work instead of just the performance part of it?

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