How PBL Sets Students Up To Fail

It was the week before our exhibition, and our project wasn’t working. In our Engineering and Biology courses, we had researched and built a 6-foot-long model of a neuron to imitate the Sodium/Potassium channels opening and closing and transmitting the signal down the neuron. With an air mattress pump as a blower, the user would insert a ping pong ball on the left side of the neuron. From there, the ping pong ball would transmit down a clear tube and hit the “channel,” which was a simple Plexiglas panel. Our user would lift up the panel to allow the channel to open and to allow the impulse (a ping pong ball) to flow. Easy peasy, right? The problem, you ask? As soon as the first panel fell back down, there wasn’t enough airflow to transmit the air down the tube so the ball could keep traveling. Thus, our neuron/model wasn’t actually transmitting our “signal” down the path in an accurate way and the ball would never reach the end. Our model was failing and we were visibly frustrated…

Project Based Learning, PBL, Project-Based Learning

Now, in this situation, my engineering teacher could have told us exactly what to do. He knew how to solve our problem, but he also knew we would learn little to nothing from a “divine intervention.” He walked over to four frustrated and stressed out high school students and instead, he said: “You have two hours and all the tools in the classroom. Figure out what to do and come tell me your solution. We will get this back on track.”​​

I remember feeling frustrated and stressed about our time crunch, but also confident in my team, because he was right, we did know how to use everything in the classroom, and we had already solved some smaller problems. My team physically walked around the classroom and our project, talking about possible solutions, making a prototype and testing some potential solutions out, and making a decision about what we thought would be the best fix. Just like our teacher had said, in two hours, and using only the tools in the classroom, we did get our project back on track.

Our solution was the result of some adjustments to our model and some trial and error. We ended up drilling small holes in the side of the panel that needed to stay closed, so air would go through, but the ball couldn’t. Had we been told exactly how to solve the problem, we’d be doing exactly what traditional learning teaches us to do: follow instructions and retain information until we didn’t need it anymore, not thinking critically and analytically problem solving with the tools we had all along.

When I work with teachers thinking about transitioning into PBL, many feel anxious about whether or not their students can handle the self-guided learning, problem solving, and time management components of PBL or how PBL will allow them to cover everything their students need to know for standardized tests. I find myself quelling these fears by citing my above average performance on all standardized tests, including the SAT’s. More importantly, we find ourselves discussing how PBL beats coverage time and time again, because it actually prepares students for LIFE, not just tests – the traditional, and limited, measure of academic success.

Allowing students to experience real problems and real setbacks which naturally occur during projects incites deeper learning and valuable growth. PBL allows and encourages students to exceed their own expectations, while simultaneously setting them up for failure. I remember profound moments of self-doubt and frustration, prompted all too often by small failures in projects, and even some big failures. It taught me that sometimes, life deals you cards you can’t always read, and sometimes those cards hit you hard and knock you down, but you have to know how to get up and solve the problems that arise.

I had failures as small as multimedia projects not rendering. I had failures as big as struggling to lead and manage a team during group projects. I had really memorable failures, such as the biodegradable plastic we made in chemistry class not passing our self-designed stress test. These failures taught me practical things like how to research the technical problem I was having, how to delegate, and with the chemistry project specifically, how polymers work, and how we could make our plastic behave more like a synthetic polymer. Those failures taught me more than learning in a neat tidy package.

Through those experiences, failures included, I learned specific academic content I will likely never forget. I learned how to be a better, more equitable, humble leader. I learned how to answer my own questions to overcome setbacks. Through all of this, these experiences and failures were constantly reinforcing extremely important skills for college and life success, like critical thinking, self-guided time management, persistence and confidence in my own decisions and actions. While PBL's paramount focus isn’t “covering content,” I dove deeper with academic content and I even still remember what I learned.

Furthermore, by teaching students to learn from their failures, PBL helped me build a foundation for lifelong learning and success that prepared me for the failures and challenges that everyone will inevitably face throughout their adult lives. PBL taught me to fail early and often so that I will be ready to tackle life’s inevitable hardships and problems. Now I see failures with curiosity, with intrigue and with the idea that failures are opportunities to learn.

Learn more about Learner-Perspective Coach Jess Sloan here. Want to see the PBL difference for yourself? Visit our PBL Consulting Services Page to learn more about our immersive workshop on Project Based Learning.

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