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Project Based Learning: The Five Roles of the PBL Teacher: Rethinking the Guide on the Side

This article is republished with permission from IntrepidEd News

Thom Markham

The idea that a teacher today is a ‘guide on the side’ is now hardwired into nearly every conversation about the future of teaching and learning. Teachers don’t deliver information any longer; they act as co-constructivists and facilitators, sitting shoulder to shoulder with students.

This is particularly true for PBL teachers, whose job description includes coaching and facilitation. But it’s time to raise objections to this narrative. First, it’s disingenuous. PBL teachers often stand at the front of the room. They teach, using traditional tools and tapping their repository of information to share with students. They lecture. Yes, even sometimes too long. But students may need the information to proceed, and it’s hard to know how much or when.

But my objection is aimed more at education’s habit of settling for shiny new terms when facts demand a deeper commitment to truth-telling. And here’s a fact: The job of a PBL teacher is challenging because teaching is a complex profession. It’s time to capture and recognize that fact.

It’s also time to build out the particular skills required for success as a PBL teacher. The job of designing projects, personalizing instruction, teaching and assessing 21st-century skills, coaching for social-emotional growth, and attending to equity and social challenges, along with other complexities of teaching, can’t be captured by a simple ‘You’re now a guide on the side’ mandate. 

Instead, let’s recognize that teaching in a PBL ‘ecosystem’ calls upon a rich, demanding skillset that has transformed the term ‘teacher’ into something else. I won’t try to predict the label that comes next, but it’s clear to me that a new mental model is evolving around what it means to support young people to achieve the goals of project-based work. What’s the term for “meeting the needs of kids by helping them achieve the goals of the project?” It’s this new model that will eventually impact the quality of PBL in the future.

If you’re a competent, successful PBL teacher, you already operate in this new arena, but also likely see the skills gap. Despite the decades-old ‘guide on the side’ conversation, little attention is paid to developing the facilitation skills and coaching protocols that PBL teachers need for effective people management. Instead, the focus remains on classroom management, traditional behavioral tools, and preparing novice teachers to deliver content and encourage engagement through bell-ringers and other ‘strategies’.

Complex professions operating in dynamic environments left behind this kind of training a decade ago. Instead, they focus on the demand for the ‘T-shaped person’, who has both the breadth and depth to respond to variety and novelty. That is a good description of a PBL teacher and taking a few cues from industry shows us that transforming our mental model of a PBL teacher is not that difficult. This begins by breaking down the exact skill sets necessary to do the job in a project-based world. Undoubtedly the nomenclature will change over the next decade, but I can project at least six categories of teacher skillfulness:

  • Practitioner. No matter how much Google or AI invades the classroom, teachers will still deliver knowledge. But in PBL, teachers mainly deliver on the fly with ‘just-in-time’ information in response to student questions and wonders. Since knowledge can’t be easily scripted, prepackaged, or confined to shopworn lessons, PBL teachers need to do a deep dive into their subjects and know not just the subject, but the field. More importantly, they need to know when to balance extended lecture time or direct instruction with inquiry and investigation. This is a skill in itself that requires close observation and deep knowledge of your students.
  • Facilitator. Thrashing out the true roles of the guide on the side is the next step. A facilitator’s prime job is to set up the conditions for optimal learning by building safety, community, and relationships in the environment. Setting challenges, building successful teams, monitoring deeper learning, and combining design thinking with high-quality PBL practices come next. In many ways, the required PBL skill set is to know how to put all the pieces in place for deeper learning—and then get out of the way.
  • Coach. In a world with infinite paths to success, personalization is inevitable. Each student will start at a different place and end in a different place; each will bring unique talents and perspectives to the journey. A PBL coach teaches and models skills, listens deeply enough to know individual needs, and realizes that coaching is not just conversation but an exchange that succeeds through respectful protocols. The skillset? PBL teachers need explicit skills in offering feedback and techniques across thinking, creating, designing, collaborating, and communicating domains.
  • Mentor. The Mentor shares the skill set of the therapist. However daunting, PBL teachers need to expand their comfort zone and be willing to teach, assess, highlight, value, and offer support for empathy, curiosity, perseverance, and the range of positive strengths identified as successful behaviors in today’s world. This extends the Coach’s role into a much more personal and engaged relationship with students, requiring deep observational skills backed by empathy, deep listening, attentive presence, and an attitude of openness and nonjudgment.
  • Changemaker. Students will not remain silent or standards-compliant as the globe contends with climate change, inequality, or migration. As the innovation meme intensifies, they will want to find purpose, put the sustainable goals into action, and in general move way beyond the four walls of the school. For teachers, resistance will be futile. Rather, the new skill set of the future-ready PBL teacher is to become a co-learner and co-creator, working with students on service-learning projects or finding ways to apply classroom knowledge to authentic issues. This trend is already visible; expect it to accelerate.
  • Co-Learner.  This is a different level of skillfulness, but perhaps the most important to the future. Differentiating teacher-centered from student-centered is no longer useful. In the system to come, everyone plays a role as a learning partner holding respect for each other. In PBL, the teacher designs, guides, mentors, teaches, and evaluates—but also incorporates creative insights, student wisdom, and opportunities to produce new knowledge. All this cannot happen unless teachers take a similar journey as students; Toward more depth of awareness, acceptance of multiple talents, deeper empathy, a never-satisfied curiosity, and the experience of the joy of work well done and knowledge well applied. 

Next: Let’s really dive into the future. What lies beyond PBL?

Looking to take your PBL professional journey beyond the beach this summer? Enroll in the PBL Global School and join over a thousand teachers from all over the world. Three FREE online courses focused on designing and facilitating high-quality projects. And here’s insider information: They aren’t really courses. No eval, no proctor. Just you and your computer or device creating a Playlist of great tips, resources, and curated videos.

For schools embarking on the larger journey, check with me at [email protected] to bring me on board as a year-long coach for staff and leadership. Everything from individual project feedback to creating a powerful school-wide plan for PBL success. And for cutting-edge PD, try this: A three-day PBL Design Challenge, all done online through my partnership with the EdTech Award Winner Massive U. Learning while planning and having fun. That’s an idea!

Thom Markham, Founder & CEO, PBL Global, is a psychologist, educator, author, speaker, and internationally respected consultant to schools focused on project based learning, 21st century skills, innovation, and high performance cultures. He has authored two best-selling books on project based learning, the Buck Institute for Education’s Handbook on Project Based Learning and the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K – 12 Educators, as well as Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. Thom has worked with over 300 schools and 6000 teachers worldwide to help establish transformational inquiry-based programs that integrate PBL with social emotional learning and design thinking. His intention is always to work collegially with other educators to discover, empower, improve, and succeed.

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