Which P Was That Again?

What’s PBL? Do you do PBL training?  What’s the evidence that PBL works?  

 If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard those questions (or some variation on the same) I’d have a whole mess of nickels.  The Common Core looms closer and wise educators are starting to recognize the opportunity inherent in the change.  As someone who spends every day working for change, I’m more than happy to do what I can to help!

My first question is always, “Exactly what P are we talking about here?”  There’s nothing new about problem and project based learning (though there is lots of new thinking about both of those) and place based learning has even been around long enough to have spawned a lot of good thinking.  But why choose one over the others- or any of them, for that matter- and what do any of them have to do with Critical Skills?

All of them (plus service and inquiry based learning) have the same idea at their core- Experiential Learning.  Rooted in the idea that we learn best when we make meaning of something we actually do (as opposed to read about, see, or hear), experiential learning asks teachers to move into the role of facilitators, doing the big work before the students ever arrive on the scene.  By artfully connecting curriculum to a project, a problem, a need or a place, these teachers move the effort of learning onto the shoulders of the students- where it belongs.  No matter the catalyst for the work (problem, project, place, etc), the basic process remains the same:


Teachers plan the experience, they introduce the work to be done (without giving too much away, mind you), they coach (asking good questions and remembering to watch rather than do), and they debrief the experience with students in order to assess what they know and what they’re ready to learn next. 

Students engage in the task given (be it a problem or a project), exhibit their learning), they reflect on their experiences, and they connect new understanding to past experiences, creating a deeper understanding of the content. 

Together, through meaningful work and intentional choices, teachers and students build and maintain a safe but challenging collaborative learning community.

That’s it.  It’s both elegantly simple and vastly complicated- and it works.

So what makes Critical Skills different?

Critical Skills allows educators to “plus” their PBL efforts- no matter what P your talking about- because it moves beyond the content and provides scaffolding for teachers and students as they practice (and assess) new process skills- we call them skills and dispositions– on their way to a deeper understanding of content.

Make no mistake- teachers are learning just as much as students in Critical Skills classrooms.  While kids are learning the “what” of school (math, reading, etc), teachers are learning the “what” of their students and everyone is learning the “how.” 

Students are figuring out:

How does one collaborate? 

How does one communicate? 

How can I/ we stay organized? 

How can I/ we manage large, multipart tasks? 


How will I know that they really know and can use this content?

How do I ask the right question to help my students arrive at understanding on their own?

What skill or disposition am I targeting?

What am I looking for as evidence that kids are doing the skill or disposition that I’m targeting?

 Ultimately, that’s the “plus” of the CSP.  When teachers and students can articulate what skill or disposition they’re practicing, what it will look like when it’s done well, and how it will help us understand the content, then we move beyond PBL into something else.  Something deeper and more powerful.

For Critical Skills teachers, the P isn’t just problem, project, or place- it’s power.




One response to “Which P Was That Again?

  1. Music to my ears! Critical skills training totally re-energised my teaching. I was “born again”! Can’t do without it now. Use it every day. Teachers in Aberdeen screaming out for training! Doing a summer school in August. It’s full and it’s in the holidays!

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