PBL Integration with Solve in time Pt. 1


So you wanna be starting something but experiencing mental block on how to integrate problem-based learning into your curriculum? See this prep guide to help #SolveiT!




PBL is the new craze, it seems like all the cool teachers are doing it. PBL in Math, PBL in English Language Arts, PBL in Physical Education, #PBL all the things! So what exactly is PBL? The answer is tricky, depending on who you ask. To many, PBL stands for project-based learning, a philosophy of instruction that requires students to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject by constructing a project. Project-based learning can take on various forms and some teachers set up projects as an alternative to traditional assessments or as a creative way to teach an entire unit of study. Examples include requiring students to create a diorama of the ocean floor to learn about ocean habitats or having students to build paper roller coasters to explain force and motion.


All problem-based learning involves a project at some point, but not all project-based learning defines a real-world problem to solve. It’s what you start with that distinguishes the two. For one, you start with a project in order to demonstrate learning. In the other, you start with a problem in order to learn what is necessary to solve it. The starting point is the focal point. Problem versus project is the base of the entire pedagogical approach (it’s all about that base, get it?). 

Without a doubt, projects are typically much more engaging than a standard lecture or text-based learning, as students are challenged to use both their critical thinking skills and creativity to construct physical and digital artifacts related to the classroom content. For most students, project-based learning is undeniably more authentic than worksheets and multiple-choice tests, but projects can still lack relevancy to everyday life. Without relevance, there is no connection, and if students don’t connect with what they are learning, then they will not likely retain the information long-term or put forth their best effort in whatever they create.


A few years ago I was in a third-grade planning meeting with a group of teachers trying to figure out a project for the quarter. One of the suggestions was that the students build a planetarium exhibit for the parents. Everyone was super excited, but one person, the principal. She asked the single-most important question that ended up dealing a critical blow to idea, “So what problem does it solve?” We all sat there and looked at one another. It was clear that the standard answer, “Well because, it’s cool!” wouldn’t suffice. After staring blankly and not coming to any consensus, we decided to choose a completely new project. In terms of asking the most critical question, “What problem does it solve?” I believe we did the right thing. But I cannot help but think that an opportunity was lost in the end.


Related to the above experience, I honestly wish we had a do-over. Though our team consisted of incredible diversity including one math teacher, one literature teacher, one scientist, and myself being an educational technology specialist, we were missing the most important voice at that table. Can you guess it? The student! Often times our imagination is limited, but have you talked to a kid lately? As educators, we are often pushing our limits to try and think outside of the box. Talk to a third grader, they often don’t know that there is a box! Maybe one of those third students would have suggested that the planetarium was an amazing idea because they would like to become an avionics engineer like her father one day, and she would like to know more of what that job would entail. Maybe we would have explored our galaxy as a class and found out about environmental problems like space debris or possibly global warming. There were so many problems that exist concerning planets and our solar system, we just hit a mental block. Often times that is where we need to stop and invite our students into the critical thinking process. Besides, it’s their learning and their experience, they should be allowed to co-write the curriculum.

Sra Diana Lugo interacting with Piedmont Middle School students in Charlotte, NC

Let it be known, riddles and puzzles are not real problems, so simply changing your lesson to include a fictional scenario doesn’t quite do the trick. The pre-work involved to make a problem both real and relevant to students can be an arduous task, but a rewarding one as well. Be on the lookout for Pt. 2 on this series on PBL integration for more tips on how to use Solve in Time for various content areas. If you’re unsure of the quality of your real world problem to solve, try asking the #SolveiT community or tag me directly @deelanier. I’m happy to help!

4 Responses to PBL Integration with Solve in time Pt. 1

  1. Charisse Robinson

    Dee, this is amazing! We need you down here in Stone County. The school is very good, but this would just add a little zip to things.

  2. John Larmer

    Hi Dee, Sounds like you’re doing great work! Excellent point about involving students and making PBL about real-world problems and issues that are meaningful to them. If you’d like to write a guest blog post for PBLWorks/Buck Institute, please let me please let me know.

    I’d quibble just a bit with your definition of project-based learning – e.g. a diorama of the ocean floor is what we’d call a “dessert” project, not “main course PBL” – and how you distinguish the “two PBLs.” Here’s a blog post I wrote about this, and a helpful page from our website:

    • Hi John, thanks for sharing your thoughts and these resources, especially the Doing Project vs. PBL. Excellent! I would love a friendly quibble, but I don’t think it’s necessary as I believe we are mostly on the same page. Sometimes the diorama is the “dessert” at the end of a unit, and sometimes it is the “dinner” as the students are building and adding components while researching and learning. Would you agree? And yes, I am more than open to writing a guest post in the future. Thanks again for reaching out!

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