How PBL Changes the Teacher

Andrew Larson
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School
Columbus, IN
@andrewmlarson
At the end of this school year I will have finished my twentieth year in education and my tenth as a facilitator of Project-Based Learning. Practicing PBL as my “day job” has changed me in many ways that I absolutely did not expect. And I am not just talking about improving as an educator. So even though my PBL time is half of my career, it is definitely the case that far more than 50% of my personal and professional growth have occurred during the past decade.
I am not alone in this sentiment. My colleagues report similar types of impact from having been a facilitator of PBL. While this post does not offer a money back guarantee, here are some surprising ways that PBL will, over time, likely make you a different person than you are now. 
Taking more responsible risks in life. I can rattle off several responsible risks I’ve taken, which I believe are directly attributable to my PBL practice. The first is becoming a PBL instructor for adults in trainings run by Magnify Learning. While I always have felt like I had classroom practices and knowledge to offer other educators, having experience with the PBL model struck me as a fundamentally new approach that I absolutely believe in. So  I felt both empowered and obligated to share that knowledge. The same can be said for my career as a writer. While I did not start by writing about PBL, nor do I stick to that subject exclusively, something about being on the cutting edge of education back in 2008 empowered me to stick my neck out and put my work in the public eye. 

My fellow colleague and math facilitator, Josh Giebel, remarks,”PBL has made me far more aware of my own mindset. I’ve always been a reflective person, but I think PBL has magnified that reflection and has given me the tools to further analyze the results of the reflection. PBL has allowed me to search the endless possibilities and utilize every response to ask a new question. In short, PBL has ensured that I never become complacent in anything that I do.” Josh is the first person that I see each morning at school and his statement is evident in his state of constant revision of ideas. He is constantly on the hunt for ways to improve. 

This week, my wife and I closed on our first investment property– a huge and terrifying, yet also immensely exciting, undertaking. I cannot help but believe that the confidence I have developed over the last decade of facilitating PBL led me to this next step. In my current role, trying new things is not just what is expected; it is also what is necessary.  As educational researcher and scholar Sir Ken Robinson remarks, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” In our PBL facilitation roles, as we try crazy new things, we are wrong all of the time, but along with those failures are some great classroom successes. This mindset of risk taking in the classroom has spilled over into my personal life in a big way, and for that I am thankful.
Everything becomes a project. To some extent, I think most PBL educators start to view everything as a “project.” My good friend and humorist colleague, Rachelle Antcliff, is fond of saying, “Let’s make it a PBL” to practically everything from making a better cup of coffee in the morning to redesigning our master schedule. All jokes aside, the process that learners follow translates broadly to life challenges. Social studies facilitator, Matt Baker, remarks, “Facilitating in a PBL environment has made me a much better problem solver outside of the classroom. I find myself going through the PBL steps when problems arise: what am I trying to solve?, what do I know about the problem?, what solutions should I try and in what order?, what are my next steps?”.  Matt and I talk a lot about home improvement over lunch, and I have found him to be an ever- resourceful individual, always striving to learn and “DIY” whenever possible. He relishes the challenge and the satisfaction of building skills and being a lifelong learner.
Improving communication skills. The ability to interact with all types of people is an immensely valuable skill that, for most of us, takes practice. We practice speaking and listening to others in diverse ways at school, and the benefit is reaped by students and staff alike. Learning support specialist, Matt Morrill, reflects that “PBL allows access and equity in the classroom for all students, and it seeks ways to let students employ their natural strengths. As a special educator, the same is true for me. I can seamlessly interact with anyone” (in and out of the classroom.) Matt is such a gift to students because of his easy rapport and ability to motivate. Outside of school, he has that same effect on those around him. 
I know that my day- to- day communication with my wife, children, friends, neighbors and total strangers is stronger than it was before I embarked on my PBL journey. As a basic function of group work, students must learn to do “active listening,” share air space, paraphrase, and much more. We encourage students to always have clear goals for meetings and those next steps that Mr. Baker alluded to in moving forward. As a result, I find myself using those skills by default in everyday life. Perhaps my favorite example of a communication strategy learned at school, and now employed in as many settings as possible, is the 24- Hour Check- In Rule. The essence of it is simply that if a person says or does something that rubs you the wrong way, you are obligated to either a) address it within one day if possible or b) let it go and refuse to allow it to become a grudge. My wife and I use this guideline, and we would not have it any other way. 
Increasing community involvement. This is a big one. Because so many of our projects involve interacting with the community, organizing events, and networking, I constantly have my eyes open for new project ideas and partners with whom we can connect to bring authenticity to our work at school. As a result, I have forged many friendships and positive professional relationships and have also increased my participation in community service and the nonprofit sector. For the first time, I served as a board member for the Columbus Bicycle Co-Op and became involved in coaching youth sports in our community. While by no means does one need to do PBL in order to become more involved in civic life, for me, PBL was the catalyst for doing so. 
We all know that teachers are happiest when they incorporate their personal passions into their teaching. Personally, PBL added the spark to incorporate all of my favorite things into our content. Most of my colleagues will tell you that it is not that hard to find the connections between the content standards and personal passions. Over the years I have seen math projects that incorporate quilting, Spanish projects that involve dancing and physics projects where students learn to do electrical wiring, all with a focus on community involvement and engagement. Most recently, we hosted the Columbus Holiday Ride, a cold weather critical mass bike ride open to the public, where we promoted bicycling (a personal passion) as a means by which to impact climate change. 

Let me reiterate that by no means does one need to become a PBL facilitator to experience the kinds of personal growth that my colleagues and I have during our journey. However, it cannot be overstated how much the authentic and rich experiences that teachers bring to their students through Project-Based Learning will invariably impact themselves as well. PBL touches far more than students; it changes teachers as well, for life. 
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