Reinventing PBL to Focus on Human Performance
Brightness now matters more than test scores
by Thom Markham
Watching fourth graders working in a team on a creative PBL science project (Their problem to solve: Educate parents and community about how common devices like TV’s and phones rely on wave technology) reminded me that great project based learning aims to produce brightness. That’s a non-evidence-based term unrelated to the repetitive mantra of more rigor.
Brightness is hard to define, but certain markers identify it: Big eyes, with greater than usual sparkle; wide grins; lots of excited chatter; deep concentration; and body language that signals increased confidence and maturity—exactly what those 4th graders were demonstrating.
The underlying cause of brightness is no mystery. It’s a natural byproduct of exceptional human performance driven by the opportunity to thrive and shine, and a state of being reached by learners of all ages when they accept a challenge, engage in creative work, experience intellectual mastery, trade ideas, find joy in trying and persisting, craft an acceptable solution, discover new facets about themselves, sense their growth, and share the whole process with someone who cares.
Do educators like brightness? Of course. It’s a fuzzy outcome, but it warms the heart of every teacher because it’s direct evidence of internal awakening. ‘Iceberg’ traits such as curiosity, creativity, and openness have been stirred. Visible joy equals meaningful learning, and often leads to higher test scores. And, as most educators sense, the tide of history is flowing toward fuzzy outcomes. At some point, they will be considered primary outcomes rather than chance byproducts of an academic system.
Here’s the argument: We’ve hit that point. Brightness now matters more than test scores. The globalized, networked, just in time world invaded classrooms a decade ago, but has finally forced upon education the Great Shift: People’s strengths count more than credentials. Many hard truths emerge from this new reality. Knowledge without application has less value. Attitude matters. Openness and flexibility determine success. Skillfulness, discernment, engagement, and creative impulse become the rulers of the land. And, the final fact: Today’s system, with its focus on content rather than human performance, will be tested until it breaks.
There’s a lot of noise in education right now, but only one signal: The need to invent a system designed for brightness so that inner strengths routinely surface in children. Can it be done? Yes, if we weave together three dominant trends in schooling today—the rise of PBL, our growing commitment to social emotional competency, and the refocus on student agency and inquiry—into a coherent human performance system.
Transforming PBL: From High Quality to High Performance
Advocates for ‘high quality’ PBL push teachers to adopt best practices that go beyond traditional ‘projects’ and engage students in authentic inquiry, deeper problem solving, and applying core skills such as teamwork and communication. This is good work, but slow—and there’s a reason: PBL relies on an outdated platform. It’s built on teacher methodology, tying it to a behavioral worldview which presumes that standards-based thinking and ‘strategies’ provoke deeper student awareness and problem-solving. While a great deal of lip service is paid to authenticity and student-driven work, most PBL doesn’t really begin with the student. It’s seen as an educational method, not a system to support human growth.
This was not always the case. In fact, PBL is a method for brightness. That’s what it’s intended to do. PBL began as ‘problem based learning’ in Canadian and Dutch medical schools in the 1960’s. Not coincidentally, this was the exact dawn of the human potential movement, in which pioneers like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers began developing a humanistic approach to psychology that emphasized self-aspiration, inner reflection, and a ‘person-centered’ approach to life. This cultural shift influenced early adherents of PBL, who wanted to move prospective doctors in the direction of deeper learning through less textbook diagnosis and more communication with patients.
If we want a replicable model of PBL that incorporates standards and knowledge, but also reliably yields successful fuzzy outcomes, the first step is to reclaim the belief that PBL is designed to facilitate personal growth and unleash human potential. It’s a psychological process as well as an educational tool.
With that mindset, PBL takes on a different hue. The principles of high quality project design are familiar to well-trained PBL teachers, and a reinvented PBL retains those principles. But each can be infused with a higher purpose by intentionally eliciting social emotional strengths and supporting growth while learning takes place. This requires systematic design, not lesson planning. The principles function as parts of the whole, creating a continuous set of Petri-like conditions that work synergistically to shift a student’s awareness in the direction of openness, curiosity, flexibility, perseverance, discernment, deeper engagement, mastery of content and—eventually—wisdom. Consider a transformed PBL process that can be put in place right now:
From standards to purposeful challenge. Every great project begins with a ‘why’ that starts the engines of the inner life and spurs openness. Preparing for a test is not a ‘why’ nor do standards stir the soul. Begin with powerful, meaningful ideas that invoke meaning, purpose, and service. Go deep, then import standards into the project. The times demand it.
From a Driving Question to a ‘wicked’ problem. The true test of the quality of a Driving Question is whether it forces discernment and flexibility. A wicked problem with multiple solutions and clear constraints—the kind that dominates life today—invites powerful critical thinking that invokes deep inner resources. PBL is NOT a brain-based exercise; it’s whole body learning experience that yields appreciation for the richness and complexity of knowledge and lingers throughout a lifetime as curiosity.
From fast to slow learning. PBL oriented to human performance requires abandoning the folk myth that fast learners are smarter and that coverage equals learning. The quality of the work should include attention to detail, perseverance, reflection, and creative effort. The underlying change is from a ‘hand it in’ classroom culture to a design, draft, fail and perform culture that values depth over coverage.
From groups to intentional collaboration. Group work inspires chat, but when interacting in well-organized teams or cohorts students must stretch communication skills. Those skills manifest as good listening or visible support of teammates. But ultimately, communication succeeds in the presence of empathy, tolerance, kindness, and self-awareness. Since working in teams brings out individual personality, teamwork gives teachers a grand opportunity to observe students and coach them on behavior and self-restraint.
From educational rubrics to human performance measures. PBL has birthed a set of excellent performance rubrics that describe skills as well as content, but the new generation of rubrics must add measures that focus on the strengths underlying the skills, such as confidence, resiliency, and other factors that support the growth mindset. It will not be enough to hope that students develop strengths; the next generation of rubrics must show and tell.
From teacher to co-creator. Differentiating ‘teacher centered’ from ‘student centered’ is no longer useful. In the system to come, everyone plays a role as a learning partner holding respect for each other. In PBL, the teacher designs, guides, mentors, teaches, and evaluates—but also incorporates creative insights, student wisdom, and opportunities to produce new knowledge. All this cannot happen unless teachers take a similar journey as students: Toward more depth of awareness, acceptance of multiple talents, deeper empathy, a never-satisfied curiosity, and the experience of the joy of work well done and knowledge well applied. The goal for both teacher and student? Brightness.
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