I feel like I am coming ‘full circle’ in my teaching career. I am considering a move back to the US, and COETAIL is talking about PBL!  I started teaching in a school that was billed as a ‘PBL magnet school‘, and as I read statements like the one below, I realize that I may need to revisit PBL after a 6 year hiatus.

Traditional teaching and learning models are becoming increasingly ineffective…..students are often faced with assignments and assessments that lack a real-world context. Many of these students either learn to do just enough to get by or they lose interest altogether and drop out.  –Challengebasedlearning.org

I am fortunate enough to teach in what I consider one of the best schools in the world.  It is full of extremely talented teachers and incredibly motivated students.  But I won’t pretend that it isn’t ‘externally motivated’ and fully vested into curriculum produced by the IB and AP.  We have an an unwritten code that says something like this:  What you do in the classroom should support high achievement on IB/AP exams.

It is this context in which I ask this question:

How can I justify integrating PBL into time-crunched externally examined classes?

I will focus on one class in particular, my IB standard level chemistry class.

I see signs that they would embrace PBL.  They dug right into a video project.  They enjoy ‘spur-of-the-moment’ demonstrations, which have a way of feeling more authentic.

However, as is so often the case, theory and practice clash.

PBL has a lot of proponents and clearly a lot of potential benefits, but it also must be said that it takes time.  While class time is always the most valuable resource, we have found that our new schedule (we meet 4 out of every 10 days for 75 minutes) dictates what we are able to justify in the classroom.

We tend to see PBL embraced in contexts such as:

-Students from ‘at-risk’ situations (low-income, criminal history, under-acheiving districts, etc.)

-High-ability students in purely independent schools (i.e. schools where external examinations are not a motivating factor)

Using PBL in the chemistry classroom


The IA as PBL

IB-LogoThen it hit me:  The dreaded Internal Assessment (IA) could be approached as PBL.  The IA requires students to formulate a research question, develop an experimental method, carry out the experiment, analyze their results to draw conclusions, and evaluate their experiment.  It is about as close to “real science” as the IB gets!  While the “authenticity” of the research question might be questionable, there are several areas aspects where the IA does incorporate aspects of PBL:

  • Students work independently of the teacher
  • Students must use creativity and  iteration as they develop their procedure
  • A non-teacher audience exists (external exam

commoncoregraphicsfreeUnfortunately, there are a few aspects of the IA that are most-certainly “anti-PBL”.  Chief among them is a strict prohibition on collaboration, which would result in serious negative consequences if not obeyed.  Also, the end result must be a lab report of X number of pages–not exactly ‘multiple products’.  Finally, while a student may theoretically create a research question which is part of an authentic problem, historically they tend to pick strictly academic topics.

Therefore, it is this context in which I ask these questions:

How can I use the principals of PBL to improve the learning and achievement of my students during their IB internal assessment?

How can I leverage the commonalities between the IA and PBL?

How can I incorporate other (perhaps smaller, lower-stakes) projects into my chemistry course to prepare them for this project?

Over the next month, as we prepare to complete the IA, I will keep these questions in the back of my mind.