PBL in ELA: What’s YOUR Problem? 

PBL Whats Your Problem

PBL has been making rounds in educational research and constructivist classrooms for years, but the practices that ensure its successful implementation on a larger scale seem to continuously slip through our fingers.

Here, we will seek to bring clarity to four of the most pressing issues that often arise when trying to bring PBL to life.

1_Pstandsfor Wait a minute. You mean to say that you’ve made it this far into this article and you’re still not sure which kind of PBL we’re talking about? Is it problem based learning? Is it project based? Dare I suggest passion based learning?

Before we go ahead and tackle that question, here is a bit of transparency. I was schooled by some of the brightest minds in problem-based learning, and as such, I held a grudge against anyone who suggested that PBL might stand for anything else. Project-based learning, I believed, was a fluffy imposter. I’ve since reconciled that misunderstanding.

In practical terms, it doesn’t matter what you pretend the “P” in PBL stands for, because the tenets of good PBL (whether you’re drawing from the research on problem or project based learning) are one and the same. Yes, there are nuanced differences that matter from a theoretical perspective – but as far as classroom implementation is concerned, the best learning tasks that emerge in the world of project-based learning are derived from complex, authentic, and ill-structured problems – and vice versa.

If you’re looking for a bit more convincing, consider sinking your teeth into the Buck Institute’s “gold standard” rubric for project-based teaching – accessible here. This rubric describes optimal teaching practices for “PBL,” and while it is clearly labeled “Project Based Teaching Rubric,” it is sure to satisfy K-12 teachers who identify themselves with the problem-based learning camp.


One of the most widespread complaints about PBL is that it’s just too complicated or confusing, so let’s spare the fanfare and boil it down to a single sentence, shall we?

PBL is an instructional strategy that revolves around the process of engaging students in learning by prompting them to solve a complex problem.

In even fewer words, without the jargon? Kids solve a tough problem that they actually care about. That’s it.

Beyond the problem-based framework, consider the following essential elements of PBL:

  • Learning happens during the process of solving the problem and/or working on the project. The project isn’t simply a summative task (i.e. kids aren’t building dioramas)… the project is the lesson.
  • Students should have voice and choice! PBL is, by definition, a very constructivist style of teaching, meaning that students will be charged with forging connections, building knowledge, and making learning happen. Further, when striving for engagement and authenticity, student choice is paramount.
  • The problem should be appropriately challenging. It should be authentic, meaning it has real-world value that the students truly care about… and it should require sustained inquiry (i.e. research and critical thinking) when trying to solve.  


What does an authentic lesson, authentic performance task, or authentic assessment look like? The best teachers spend countless hours identifying appropriate real-world scenarios that apply to some element of their curriculum, and then embed those scenarios into their instruction.

Consider whether you think the following examples qualify as “authentic” instruction:

  • Create a playlist that you think Abraham Lincoln would listen to.
  • Writing a letter to the principal clarifying recent concerns about the dress code.
  • Build a video game that demonstrates your understanding of Newton’s third law.
  • Use Minecraft to built an architecturally accurate replica of the school building.

While some of the aforementioned examples might seem pretty compelling, in and of themselves, they cannot be considered “authentic.” Why not? Because there is a glass ceiling on authentic instruction – and as long as teachers are the ones cooking up the lessons, their authenticity will always be limited. (Consider that even the world’s most high tech flight simulator is still just a simulation… an exercise that imitates, but does not achieve, true authenticity.)

The only way to achieve true authenticity in the classroom is to look to the students. When profound questions are raised, whether they’re flung haphazardly during a lecture or pointedly during a full-class debate, you must allow them to be the compass for organic authenticity and PBL in your classroom.


Once you’ve wrapped your mind around the basic tenets of PBL, it’s easy to see how this kind of instruction can heighten engagement, bolster critical thinking skills, and even make teaching more fun… but one question remains. What does this actually look like in practice?

Spontaneous Organic Authenticity

The rarest, most sought after, and often most effective strain of PBL is that which organically arises from a student conversation. Why? Because these projects are driven almost entirely by student interest from the moment they are ushered forth into existence.

Here’s what it might look like. During a hypothetical class discussion about George Orwell’s 1984, a student says, “You know, our generation’s online privacy has been totally exploited. We should do something about it.” Rather than your usual response (“That’s good thinking, Margaret!”), you take things one step further by asking the class to brainstorm what they could practically do to address this real world problem. The class might settle upon an idea (i.e. a social media campaign that targets their age group, an assembly to raise awareness in the community, etc.) that ultimately becomes the project on which they collaborate, and through which they learn, in your class!

The biggest challenges? First, it’s simply waiting for – and recognizing – the profound question when it’s put forth by a student in class. Then, it’s a matter of ensuring the project holds academic integrity, is connected to your curriculum, and fits into what is likely an already tightly packed academic calendar.

Premeditated Organic Authenticity

Okay, so now that your radar is turned on and anxiously awaiting a “profound question” to throw itself at your feet, you may be wondering if there are any other routes to “organic authenticity” that don’t leave timing entirely up to chance.

The answer is yes, and it takes a familiar form. Simply asking students to brainstorm issues with which they would like to engage, or problems that they are passionate about solving, or dilemmas immediately pertinent to their own individual lives – that’ll do it. The recent popularity of “20% Projects” is a lovely example of this: an opportunity for students to choose an issue that they care about, and to aggressively research that issue on a regular basis.

This is kind of “pre-meditated organic authenticity” can fit nicely into your curriculum in the research-paper “bucket,” as long as you are willing to provide students the time they need to work on it, the freedom to problem-solve in an out-of-the-box manner, and the innovative guidance they’ll need to fuel their research!

If you’re looking for a flexible framework to integrate argument-based project-based learning in your classes, check out our PBL Campaign Project lesson bundle!


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The TeachArgument Roadmap: Engage Your Students All Year

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