Context, context, context…

I was recently spent a day working with a school on Flipped Learning and Project Based Learning. In the second session of the day I was asked to run a session to help teachers with little or no understanding of PBL to have somewhat of an understanding of the broad strokes of the approach.

For teachers to really ‘get it’ the session really needed to model PBL, as much as possible in such a short time frame. I’d done this in PBL Project Design workshops over two days before and have used a day-long problem to model Problem Based Learning, but the catch with this session was that we only had one hour together!

Some brainstorming with a recent colleague Gavin Hays (if you don’t follow him on Twitter, you really should at @gavhays) and we had a solid foundation for something that would serve as an intro to PBL for the uninitiated in one hour or less!

I’ll link all the resources I used below and a list of the contents in the mystery box.

The Mystery Box…

The goal…

With only an hour together, I really wanted these teachers to experience a modified form of PBL from the students point of view. This was an immersion into the processes of PBL without a true grounding in the specifics. With the short time, I needed to be clear on what I wanted them to take away and what were experiences I was willing to leave out due to time pressures. Here is what I came up with:


  • Sustained Inquiry – with not enough time to do this justice, it was left out.
  • Group Norming and Contracts – again not enough time to do this justice I’m afraid.

There were also some non-negotiables that I knew I wanted the teachers to experience. This list was very long, which would make this a bit of a challenge.


  • Learning – This should ALWAYS be the goal! I really wanted them to leave with some tangible learnings from the immersion experience, so they could see that their students could learn this way too.
  • Minimal teacher-led work – the last thing I wanted was for them to listen to me for any more than 5 minutes.
  • Presentation – Teachers needed to experience what it is like to present in front of their colleagues.
  • Time Pressure – I hoped they would feel the slight pinch that comes with meeting a deadline.
  • Group Work – Even in the hour, I hoped that they would experience the excitement and challenge of completing a task which was impossible for them to do on their own in the same time.
  • The Importance of a Marking Guidelines – they needed to see how these helped to guide students towards their end products (more on this later…)
  • Learning the Language of PBL – I hoped that this might be a good introduction to the PBL vernacular. The language of PBL is what helps to demystify the learning process for our students
  • Fun! – The immersion needed to be a fun experience

The Sustainable House Project

The Entry Event…

The context for the project immersion was the European Solar Decathlon for 2017. This is a real-world event where university students work together in teams to design sustainable houses. The challenge was to design a model to be submitted for consideration for entry into 2017s Solar Decathlon. I borrowed from their video to make the short entry event video below:

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.42.47 pm

This context was a good idea from Gavin as most teachers have at least some prior knowledge around sustainability in housing. This would at least get us started when working through the knows and needs to knows.

The Driving Question…

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 9.46.36 pm

This was designed to provide some clear parameters for the teachers to work in as well as providing some needs to know for them to work towards.

The Launch…

After showing the Entry Event, introducing the Driving Question and a short discussion, our teachers were placed into teams, given their marking rubrics, mystery boxes. In lieu of research, I provided each group with some infographics on sustainability and house design to draw ideas and inspiration from. We then put 5 minutes on the clock for teams to work on their know and needs to know lists.

The Rubrics… A curve ball…

It was so important for the teachers to see how close reference to the marking rubric can help to guide students to better end products. To highlight this more effectively in the short time we had together, the teachers were thrown a curve ball…

Of the 6 groups, 2 groups received a rubric focused on the content knowledge displayed and the execution of the model:

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 10.18.15 pm

Another 2 groups received a rubric focused on presentation and critical thinking.

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The final group were not provided with a rubric at all. I hoped to see whether the lack of guidance had an impact on their project work…

Some Guidance with Group Work…

While we didn’t have time to formalise group roles or to collaboratively design group contracts, I still wanted the teachers to be mindful of their group roles. I referred the groups to the slide below and suggested a couple minutes should be spent developing a plan of attack.


Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 8.23.55 am


Project Development Time

I then put just 35 minutes on the clock! Needless to say this time limitation created a strong sense of urgency among the participants!

I spend my time working my way between the groups. Questioning rationales and design approaches, asking about role responsibilities, challenging hypothesise, redirecting groups back to the Driving Question and asking them to reflect on how their progression towards the End Product was being reflected in the elements of the rubric.

The time went very, very quickly! Below is a snapshot of the teachers working on their End Products.

Presentation Time

With about 5 minutes left on the clock, I suggested that team prepared for their presentation and reminded them of the expectation that all group members be involved in presenting their models.

Below you can see the slide which was the focus for the presentations.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 8.30.39 am

Groups presented in round robin style, to save time. We only had 5 minutes for each presentation, including 2 minutes of critical friends feedback in the form of likes and wonders.

For the presentation, feedback was focused on the dot points of the rubric and for this I have all participants the full rubric. 


The session, despite being a bit rushed, I think met the design intention. While the participants were by no means ready to start introducing PBL into their own classes at this point, they had at least experienced a taster of PBL so that they could better understand the work their PBL colleagues were undertaking in their classes. The feedback from the experienced PBL teachers who were also engaged in the session was that they also gained something from the experience and were reminded of some practices in facilitation that they may have been neglecting.

Interestingly, at least in my observation, those teachers who did have the rubric focused on model design and content (and who actually used it!) were a little more ‘tight’ in terms of how they approached the End Product. Similarly, those groups who had the communication rubric were much more polished in terms of their presentation than those groups without it, or those with the content focused rubric. This was interesting to unpack with the participants at the end of the session.

The session was a lot of fun to facilitate and I’d love to hear how you think it might be able to be improved! Leave your comments below.


Mystery Box Contents: – for 6 groups, this cost around $200

  • From Office Works
  • From the Bargain Shop
    • Mini glue guns  and glue sticks x 3
    • Modelling Clay
    • Paddle Pop Sticks
    • Foam shapes
    • Small mirror things
    • Pipe cleaners
    • Small containers and boxes
    • Metallic paper
    • Party favours (little windmill things)
    • Utility knives