How To Overcome PBL Paralysis: Sneak Peek Inside Hacking Project Based Learning

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PBL paralysis. That’s a scary phrase that makes many teachers run as fast and far as possible away from project-based learning.

Hacking Project Based Learning authors and PBL and inquiry learning experts Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy, though, explain how to overcome the paralysis and dive into project-based learning today.

Listen to what Cooper and Murphy say about PBL paralysis in the Hack Learning podcast episode above, as they explain the problem and how you can overcome it today.

From Hacking Project Based Learning


Baby Jo is a born inquirer. She doesn’t talk yet, but she questions her surroundings through sounds and gestures. She cries in different ways and experiences the reactions of the adults around her. As Jo becomes a toddler, her abilities continue to develop.

Now, she has more control over her gross motor skills and she can test and experiment in her environment. “What will happen if I push this cup off my tray?” she wonders. Jo is persistent. She pushes her cup off her tray as many times as possible and observes the outcome each time

Soon Jo turns five. Now she spews questions like an open fire hydrant expelling water. She is hungry for new information, and she has enough command of the language to question anything and everything.

In September of her fifth year, Jo begins school. During each year of her education, Jo has fewer opportunities to question, or even speak, during her school day. Even in adolescence, when Jo’s brain is primed for risk-taking and exploration, she is asked to engage in activities and answer questions that provide her with little time to stretch her creativity. As learning becomes associated with

As learning becomes associated with teacher-selected content and the memorization of facts, Jo stops looking for new problems to solve or ideas to test, and she becomes less interested in learning. Jo is not alone. In his 2006 TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson made his prominent claim that schools kill creativity.

The world’s most creative minds constantly question their surroundings, but our school system is designed to fill students’ heads with information regardless of their levels of interest.

As a result, student questioning diminishes. Adolescent brains are wired for creativity. Their emotional brains are kicking in full gear and their rational brains are still developing. This developmental process contributes to students being fearless risk-takers, a key component in the creative process.

However, they attend classes that do little to tap into this treasure trove of creative potential. As Robinson stated, “We don’t grow into creativity; we grow out of it.” Many of us have accepted our current system as broken. This system, designed to prepare workers for the industrial age, is no longer effective.

We are no longer training children for the assembly line. Their futures will require them to function as problem-solvers and critical thinkers, and a traditional education deafens these natural instincts.


PBL provides students opportunities to grapple with challenging experiences. This approach presents a conundrum for educators, as Dr. John Van de Walle described:

It is hard to think of allowing—much less planning for—the children in your classroom to struggle. Not showing them a solution when they are experiencing difficulty seems almost counterintuitive. If our goal is relational understanding, however, the struggle is part of the learning, and teaching becomes less about the teacher and more about what the children are doing and thinking.

Through this productive struggle, students work to uncover understandings of content as opposed to serving as bystanders while the teacher covers curriculum through lectures, worksheets, and disconnected tasks. However, creating an environment where students feel comfortable engaging in productive struggle requires a classroom culture established with intentionality.

A successful PBL classroom relies on a culture of inquiry and creativity to ensure students engage in deeper learning driven by their curiosities. We develop this culture by: building relationships, fostering learner agency through our physical environment, creating a resource-rich classroom, teaching students to ask good questions, and promoting risk-taking.


• Provide examples of inquiry-rich companies. We won’t pretend all of your students are going to embrace the inquiry experience right away. After all, it is hard work. It is certainly easier to sit and tune in (and out) of a lecture. However, there are pro table companies excelling in the real world where questioning is valued and promoted. Allowing students a glimpse into organizations like Google, Apple, or IDEO, may be the inspiration they need to embrace this work.

Use videos, blog posts, or product samples to engage students in conversations about how questions and creativity impact these companies and discuss how these elements connect to classroom learning.

questioning protocols - Hacking Project Based Learning

Questioning Protocols from Hacking PBL

• Make your classroom look less like school. As your students study inquiry-rich companies, have them pay close attention to the workspaces they observe. For example, cubicles at IDEO are transformed into princess castles or modified to provide space for bike storage, and large labs are available for group meetings and prototyping….

Read the remaining strategies from this Hack and the other nine hacks in Hacking Project Based Learning.

Ross Cooper co-author Hacking Project Based Learning 
Ross Cooper
 is the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. His passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. He blogs about these topics at Connect with Ross via email, [email protected], and Twitter, @RossCoops31.


Erin Murphy co-author Hacking Project Based Learning
Erin Murphy
 is the assistant principal of Eyer Middle School in the East Penn School District. She was a member of the Professional Development School at Penn State University — a full year collaboration between the university and State College Area School District focused on inquiry-based learning, conceptual math instruction, and project-based learning experiences. Follow Erin on Twitter @MurphysMusings5 and check out her blog at

Hacking Project Based Learning excerpt printed with permission from Times 10 Publications


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