Y'all Ready for This? (Part 1)

I was chatting with a teacher from western Sydney recently and she described how her school went “full on into Project Based Learning for two years and it was a train wreck”. “The kids were feral and our NAPLAN scores went down.” We both agreed that the students “weren’t ready for it”.

“PBL” (Problem/Project Based Learned) seems to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity at the moment. PBL is quite unique. It is one of the few types of teaching that has evolved without commercial education providers or government bodies driving it. This is rare in education.

I finished university in 1992 and my fellow graduates and I became part of the first wave of Australian teachers earnestly trying this new “PBL”.

Catch a piece of our wild graduation ceremony at Lismore City Hall:


We wanted more for our students than just the ‘pour and store’ and ‘chalk and talk’ that we endured as kids in the 70s/80s. We didn't want to be 2 (un)Limited by the past. (Heck, I even got the students attention by playing my 'keytar' in the classroom!)

Project Based Learning was not a curriculum edict of the time – but a movement embraced by adventurous and open-minded teachers. It was, in theory, a way of teaching the curriculum in a more engaging and purposeful way. I employed a PBL approach with various Years 3-6 classes through the 90s with various degrees of success. Some students were “ready for it”, some were not. I mostly abandoned it in the following decade (and sold my 'keytar').

A rare picture of me, with keytar, on stage at a Gold Coast nightclub - before I "got a real job" !

A rare picture of me, with keytar, on stage at a Gold Coast nightclub - before I "got a real job" !

This current wave of interest in PBL has been building since around 2005. This time its growth is less organic, being driven/supported internationally by not-for-profit organisations like the Buck Institute and Edutopia and sustained by the enthusiasm and commitment of tens of thousands of teachers who swear by the PBL approach and who don’t like to ‘teach to the test’. Many Australian schools are now (re)embracing this way of teaching.

Some teachers have raised some very good (and hard) questions about this on the MWO Facebook page.

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What are your experiences or perspectives (positive or negative) concerning the use of “PBL” as a teaching methodology with primary and secondary students?
And how old should students be before they are ‘ready for this’ kind of learning?

And... should there be a law against teachers playing a keytar in the classroom as a cheap gimmick to get students' attention?

James Phelps


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