PBL at the DMV

On Twitter, I recently saw this posting:

If the answer is yes, what would you learn? How would you know that you are reaching your goal? I bet many of us have recently learned how to do something. In my case, I had to master parallel parking in order to pass the road test to get my driver’s license from the state of Texas.  I had been driving for a long time back in Quito, but parallel parking brought a lot of anxiety because I never learned the skill in order to feel proficient.  But this time, I had an important reason—and a practical one—to get motivated to learn. To embark on this process, first I needed to admit that I am the kind of learner that needs to see exemplary models and clear instructions on how to do things.  I am not the person who just gets a feel for how things work by experimenting.  I started watching YouTube videos meant to instruct teenage drivers—such as the one below.  I memorized the instructions so I could practice with my car, but one thing is knowing it in your head and another is applying the knowledge.  Well, it took me about 15 tries and my husband’s coaching to be able to feel prepared.  But, the real evidence of mastery was to parallel park during my road test, and, thankfully… I passed.

I described my experience because it exemplifies what I think is pivotal in any learning process:

  1. A relevant reason to learn something, which increases engagement and motivation
  2. Access to the most accurate information about the topic
  3. Transfer of new information to an application stage
  4. Receiving helpful feedback or coaching
  5. Creation of final product or performance task which is shared with an authentic audience so we can see the purpose of our work

How does this experience compare to the elements of Project Based Learning?

Let’s start with a definition. According to the Buck Institute of Education (BIE) PBL is:

…a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

The Buck Institute emphasizes the Essential Project Design Elements for a successful PBL model:

Challenging Problem or Question: This is the reason why students are motivated to do the work.  There needs to be a problem to solve or to find the answer to an important question. In my case, I needed to parallel park in order to have a driver’s license. However, in the classroom, how would I  pose a question or a problem that motivates my students to feel compelled to learn? In my opinion, this is the hardest part to plan because its main purpose is to motivate and engage the student to want to endure the process of learning. Here is an entry event from Manor New Tech High School called “Gilgamesh-Ancient Espionage:

Sustained Inquiry: This is the research stage of PBL requiring one to be skillful about finding information relevant to the big question or the problem.  In my case, YouTube was a great resource to find videos about parallel parking. In addition, my husband provided information about how he approached the task.

Authenticity: Was my pursue a real-world situation?  Did it have a real impact? Of course, I needed to pass my driving test to have a license so I could drive my car and be independent.

Student Voice & Choice: Does the student have a saying on how they will go about answering the question or solving the problem?  In my case, I decided that I will use YouTube videos to learn and then practice.

Reflection: Was I learning? Were my methods working? When unsuccessfully hitting the curb when parking, I realized that I was having trouble judging the proportions of my car related to the surroundings.  I realized that I had to rely more on my built-in camera to see how close the curb was.

Critique & Revision: As a formative assessment, my husband observed me parking and gave me instructions on how to avoid hitting the curb.

Public Product: I had to parallel park without hitting the curb with a Department of Public Safety officer.

Moreover, even though the idea isn’t new, PBL has become a buzz word for a few years now, and, as Karen Cator, CEO of Digital Promise, quoted in this post, affirms that the popularity of PBL is due to the increased accessibility to tech tools.

“…technologies make challenge-based learning more possible; students can just do this work, they don’t have to sit and wait for a teacher to tell them the information—they can look it up, find experts who know something, or watch YouTube videos describing how to build something. Those are the resources we can leverage more and more for learning.”

PBL applied in Profesional Development

Now that we understand how to make learning more engaging and long-lasting, it only makes sense to replicate it when planning professional development opportunities for teachers.  For most of my experience as an educator, PD workshops have the obsolete model of  “sitting and absorbing” the new information.  However, Role-Reversal PD, as mentioned in the blog post, PBL Professional Development that Actually Works, may help teachers experience the role of a student by going through the same process of learning: pondering on relevant questions or problems, creating groups, researching, and designing a product that shows their deep learning.

In a way, as Michael Resnick’s book, Lifelong Kindergarten, suggests, we must re-create an experience of inquiry, exploration, and collaboration for our students. This would be a tall order to accomplish with educators, especially if we could argue that there is usually a time limitation when providing PD.  However, shouldn’t we also aspire for our teachers to reach deeper learning?  If the answer is ¨yes¨, then we need to not only inspire teachers to use PBL in their teaching, but we need to also tie their own professional development opportunities to strong interests and motivation.  And, ideally, their own PD opportunities should also be constructed with all the components of PBL.

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6 Responses

  1. Megan Looney says:


    Oh my goodness. I had a good chuckle while reading your post, mostly because we both had driving challenges while living abroad. My driving challenge was learning how to drive a manual transmission car while living in Mumbai, India. Previously I had only driven on the right side of the road. I never viewed it as an PBL experience before reading your post but it was!

    While I was reading this article by Heather Wolpert-Gawron” she said that “The learning happens along the way towards the presentation of the solution.” I think both of us experienced this in our driving lessons. We were able to create a learning story that helped us to achieve our goal as we developed skills along the way. You from watching YouTube videos and your husband and I from a good friend who spend Sunday mornings on the quieter streets of Mumbai teaching me the basics such as putting the car into drive and eventually navigating around rickshaws and cyclists. We also like Heather used this approach to develop our skills. Have you had other PBL in your own life recently? I think my recent hobby of embroidery also applies to this!

    Thanks for sharing PBL for PD post too. After sitting as a participate in a recent faculty meeting, I was reminded that we need to strive for higher goals for teachers as learners. If we want to do it with children, then we need to model and create conditions for the educational facilitators, teachers, as well. When I think of what Suzi Boss shares about perfecting practice in PBL” I think our own professional development has potential to be so much richer by building a buzz, confidence while helping to lay some foundational skills and knowledge amongst our colleagues.

    • Megan,
      Thank you for your comment. I am glad you were able to relate to my story about getting a driver’s license. Even though I lived in the US before (18 years ago), moving back and learning how to navigate my new life has encompassed many mini PBLs. I have enjoyed reading your posts as well. I am glad you are part of our cohort.

  2. Sara McAllister says:

    Hey Carolin!

    Another great post! I enjoy your writing, I hope you keep it up after COETAIL! I love how relatable you made this post with your story of the DMV! What a learning experience!

    You bring up a good point in this post (and also in your previous one) that students need the intrinsic motivation or the desire to learn something. It’s such a great reflection to look through your DMV experience and I think if more teachers actually reflected on what it’s like for themselves to learn then they could empathize more with the students they are designing lessons for. Instead, I think it’s more often the case that teachers think they need to teach the way they were taught in schools and so the cycle of not-so-great-teaching continues. Pausing and reflecting and then really trying to relate to the students’ experiences (especially in their tech saturated worlds) is really something that could help teachers do better (and many are already, I’m not saying they aren’t by any means).

    I love how you broke it all down into the PBL framework here too! Honestly, I think this would be a helpful PD session for teachers to have to think about something they recently learned to do and then break it down into the framework and use that to help them reconsider the types of assignments and tasks they might give their students in a unit.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Carolin,

    I enjoyed reading your post about PBL and thought your connection to your personal learning experience was a clever way to show the desired stages of an impactful PBL. One of the biggest challenges you mentioned is finding a problem to solve or challenge to answer that will really resonate with the students. This is a very difficult task . I think an important part of being able to have successful PBL experiences is establishing a class culture and environment that facilitates discovery. Taking time early in the year to really get to know the students and giving them to get to know and trust each other is vital. Knowing them better can help us to facilitate what will connect and resonate with them. As mentioned in the BIE article building a classroom culture around trust, respect, and risk taking also leads to more successful PBL. Students need to be able to trust each other when working in groups and it’s important for students to feel OK about taking risks and trying again.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! I agree with you when you say, “I think an important part of being able to have successful PBL experiences is establishing a class culture and environment that facilitates discovery.” I think is all about the climate that is established in the classroom. In my case, as a tech coach, it was about the relationship that I established with my teachers. It is difficult to take risks when there isn’t a foundation of trust. I have enjoyed reading your posts too!

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