Indiana Jones and the Project Based Learning

Reflections and Connections after Climbing Trees

Some thoughts on PBL after a day of team building activities with my colleagues.

This is a 6-8 minute read.



In my mind I was Indiana Jones (in The Last Crusade) standing on the ledge, waiting to take the step onto the invisible bridge – a deep breath, one step (looking at the steps!), a wobble and then onwards…


..or maybe I should have been the climber (in Everest) fighting the elements to cross a gaping crevasse by crawling across two aluminium ladders lashed together. And, as we shall see later, he required the efforts of his climbing team to save his skin.



In reality I was faced with a disaster movie style bridge – no handholds, missing floor boards, distinctly wobbly and suspended ten metres in the air between two trees. My goal was to get to the middle where I would meet a team mate at which point we had to swap sides across a seemingly massive gap. Although it felt like I was challenging the Grim Reaper, or at least my health insurance limits, a plunge to my immediate death, or even mild injury, was not on the cards due to the extensive safety equipment and procedures.

This was the final task of a day of team building activities I undertook with my wonderful colleagues last week. The team running the training were explicit in the fact that we were engaged in experiential learning and that each activity followed a clear cycle of experience, reflection and connection with real-life. I thought it would be fruitful for me to follow this cycle by applying my experience and reflection of experiential learning and connect it to our practice of experiential learning – PBL.




So here are some of my reflections and connections:

Reflect and Connect

I liked the clear link between reflection and connection. Our PBL reflection includes and encourages learners to make connections to real-life personal, educational and professional situations. However, this separation of reflection and connection unpacks and simplifies the process.




Modelling Reflection & Connection

The activities we did were physical, immediate and different from our everyday life. It was not difficult to reflect on what we did, the skills we developed and needed and how these could be transferred to our personal and professional lives.

Our learners do not naturally appear to find it easy to reflect. When we ask them to reflect in PBL it is on the experiences they have had during the project. However, although we encourage them to experience new areas of learning our project is placed within an academic context – a context with which they are extremely familiar. In this context recognising the development or learning of knowledge, skills, attitudes or language may not be so easy.

Maybe we need to give them a context which provides a clear examples to model reflection and connection. At the start of the project we do team building activities, the marshmallow challenge is popular, but maybe we could take greater advantage of these to encourage and encourage reflection and connection. Although we may not be equipped for tree-top exploits we could spend time at the start of a project on some immediate, physical activities which will enable straightforward reflection.




Planning & Safety

The day and activities were well planned and thought through before we arrived. This meant that once we arrived all that was required from the facilitators was that we understood our goals and we were safe in achieving them.

Our PBL context is similar. The overall project is staged through four phases, each with an overall goal. Once the learners have understood the aim of each phase, and any specific input has been given, it is then up to them, as teams, to achieve the aim. There is no physical danger involved in our PBL project. It is important that as teachers monitor each group’s progress and certainly provide guidance when necessary but do not interve unless there is a real problem.




Who does the Work? How?

I personally learned and developed through the day and the tasks we undertook. I think the key reason is that as mentioned above we, as teams, did all the work to achieve our goals. We were allowed moments of confusion and discussion in the knowledge that these were creative and important moments. We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. In the end our achievement was our own.

This raises issues for how we treat our learners as they undertake PBL. The more we allow them to find their own solutions and do their own work the greater their sense of achievement will be. Also learners should be allowed to make mistakes without fear of punishment, or lower grades, as long as they achieve their overall aim. They and we should also remember that the creation of order from confusion can be an important and creative activity.




Belief, Support & Challenge

All of the activities were underpinned by the facilitators’ often stated belief in our ability to complete the challenges. The challenges were not necessarily easy, in fact for us they were challenging challenges. Crucially, however, they were challenging, yet achievable, challenges.

There was a lot of discussion of comfort zones during the day and extending our own personal comfort zones. This was important an important point of recognition – what may not be a challenge to one person was to another. The facilitators recognised each achievement as equally valid, as it seems did we as teams.

Once again it is important that in PBL we set and frequently express our belief in our learners’ abilities to meet challenging targets with high quality work. Whilst we have standards and expectations we must recognise that these exist in relation to the learner’s current context. The challenge and expectation is related to personal work, development and growth. This is why the Quality of Work rubric refers to work of “a personally high standard”.




Comfort Zones

Comfort Zones expand. In a morning activities blindfolded teams of fifteen or so were required to navigate en masse around the grounds. Our first task was to locate a helmet and return with it to a specified rock – which we all had to touch. (There is an awful lot to say about teamwork here but for the moment I will not.)

The really interesting thing for me was how much easier the return journey was than the outward trip. I think that one of the reasons is that we had stepped out initial comfort zones into a new normal. This involved walking around together holding a long rope and cooperating to achieve the goal. Not to say that it was a cakewalk but it was much easier I feel we would not now shirk from being tasked with a more demanding trek.

In the afternoon I was in the third pair to undertake the tree death plunge activity and I am sure that it was easier for me, having seen four colleagues successfully undertake the task – my comfort zone had shifted a little. Also now I have experienced cheating death in this way I would feel more confident to undertake more challenging versions of the task – with safety equipment please!

Once again it is important for us as teachers to have to allow our learners have the opportunity to extend their comfort zones, in a psychologically safe and encouraging environment. In the case of PBL this is within an academic, not arboreal, environment – in a nice piece of research by my colleagues, learners who completed our first PBL course report the confidence it has given them in their undergraduate studies.

It was certainly the case that the first time we, as teachers, delivered PBL it was a step outside our comfort zones. And as with the team building activities what used to lay outside our comfort zone is the new normal and within our comfort zones. The next step is to find another challenge to extend our comfort zones.





All the activities relied on teamwork, in fact they could not have been conducted without the team. I could not have traversed the bridge of death had it not been for my team mates diligence in holding and manipulating my safety rope and shouting encouragement.

In PBL we like to emphasise the team based nature of the achievement and encourage each of the team members to recognise the key roles they can play in overall success. This should never be underestimated.

Teamwork also means doing your job as well as you can for your team mates no matter what your role. If the first person holding my rope had not been so diligent and alert to my needs high above I could not have achieved my aim. In the end my crossing of the bridge was a team achievement.

Our PBL component is assessed and each participant receives an individual grade rather than a group grade. This reflects the fact that no matter what roles you play in the achievement of your group your individual commitment and efforts to that role are key components of overall success and will be recognised.

Also, the success of our PBL project so far has been built on the teamwork of the teachers who have been involved in its delivery and support from our colleagues.





A Project Based Approach to Professional Teacher Development

In April 2015 I gave a presentation at the IATEFL in Manchester. I am very happy that my summary of the presentation has been published in the conference proceedings. I have included the report in this post.

This is a 4-6 minute read.



The primary focus of professional teacher development is, naturally, on becoming a better teacher. Mann suggests that “self-direction is as important in teacher development as it is in language learning” and that self-direction implies a “conscious orchestration of individual capacity, environment and available resources” (2005: 104). If this is the case, then we should also be paying equal attention to enhancing the skills, competencies and attitudes that enable us to seek, identify, undertake and evaluate the appropriate professional development opportunities facilitate self-directed practice.




Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning (PBL) is an educational approach firmly based in experiential and enquiry based learning. The key feature that differentiates PBL from project work is the reflection that takes place upon completion of the main project. This reflection has a double focus, the first being on the subject knowledge gained from the enquiry and the second on hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes developed or learned in order to obtain the knowledge (Markham 2012).




Project Based Learning and Professional Teacher Development

This project based approach to professional development draws on this twin focus. In the context of professional teacher development the subject knowledge learned equates to the knowledge or skills obtained, through the professional development activity, to become a more effective teacher. The second focus enables reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes developed through undertaking the developmental activity. These are the attributes which contribute to becoming a more effective and self-directed practitioner of professional development.

The approach is applicable to teachers at all levels of experience who wish to continue developing as teachers. Additionally, it is worth pointing out that although the focus is on building the capacity for self-direction this does not imply a solitary activity (Ryan 2013), and certainly the stages of setting the driving question and reflection may be most effectively undertaken with a constructive and trusted colleague.




A Project Based Professional Teacher Development Cycle

The choice of focus for a teacher’s professional development may arise from a variety of contexts and motivations. Once an area is identified it can be placed within a project based cycle. This cycle contains three broad stages: the framing of developmental area as a driving question; the choice, undertaking of and reflection on the developmental activity; and finally reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed as a practitioner of professional development. I shall look at these areas, particularly stages one and three which focus on aspects specific to this approach, in more depth.




Stage One

The driving question provides a focuses for the developmental activity and future reflection as “academic or professional reflection, as opposed to purely personal reflection, generally involves a conscious and stated purpose” (Ryan 2013: 4). Driving questions that ask “How..?” encourage the dual focus of growth as a teacher and also as a self-directed professional developer. Whereas, questions that ask “What…?” focus purely on becoming a better teacher.

A template for a focussed driving question may look like this:

  • “How can I/we ______ (develop, improve…etc + personal aim) to / for / in ______ (developmental purpose)?”

A question involving a developmental aim may look like this:

  • “How can I improve my ability to involve learners more in decision making in my lessons?”




Stage Two

The teacher identifies a suitable developmental vehicle, undertakes the development activity and reflects on the skills and knowledge developed as a teacher in relation to their specific developmental need. The choice of development vehicle may come from a range of professional development cycles that focus on becoming a better teacher (Mann 2005).




Stage Three

The final stage focuses, through reflection, on the recognition of skills, competencies and attitudes that have been learned or developed in stage two. Reflection is “a prerequisite of development” and “can happen individually or collaboratively” (Mann 2004: 108). Through reflection and recognition these attributes can be consciously added to the toolkit of the self-directed practitioner when undertaking future developmental activities.

This reflection may be facilitated through responding to two prompts:

  1. What hard and soft skills, competencies and attitudes did I develop or learn as practitioner of professional teacher development?
  2. How can I use these skills, competencies and attitudes to enhance my future self-directed professional development?





This rationale for, and the description of, the project based professional teacher development cycle is necessarily brief. Yet, I hope it provides a potentially useful tool for practitioners at all stages of their careers, empowering teachers by placing them at the heart of their developmental process.





Mann, S. 2005. ‘State-of-the-Art Article: The language teacher’s development’. Language Teaching 38: 103-118.

Markham, T. 2012. Project based learning: Design and coaching guide—expert tools for innovation and inquiry. California: Heart IQ Press.

Ryan, M. 2013. ‘The pedagogical balancing act: Teaching reflection in higher education’ Teaching in Higher Education. 18/2: 144-155.