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.





Motivation to Produce Outcomes of High Quality.

This is a 5-6 minute read.

“PBL must be designed around a process of excellence, using drafts, prototypes, peer protocols, thinking and brainstorming exercises, and clear performance standards.” (Markham 2012, p.xii)


This blog is still in its early stages, about a week old, and it is taking its character and shape along the way. Inevitably things will change – layouts, my writing styles, organisation of posts and pages, revising and editing pages, correcting typos…etc.

I have been working on the “What is PBL?” pages as a starting point and thought I had those pages nailed down. Yesterday I realised that actually they could be reorganised. This involved some rewriting, reorganising of text and three pages becoming four. And this started me thinking about how I value the work I do – and naturally how this relates to PBL.

I could have left the pages as they were – they were fine – but I knew they could be better. They would be easier to read and expressed my thoughts more clearly and concisely. I knew that it would take an hour or so – time I could spend writing the other things I want to add to the blog but I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I addressed these issues.

This is a common occurrence. Many is the time I have completed work on an activity, resource or worksheet for my learners only to realise that, although it is fine as it is,  it is not the best piece of work I could do at the time. It may only be a case of the layout or formatting of a document (not the content) yet I feel it is worth the extra time it takes. Naturally this also applied to my MA work and presentations I have given. It also happens with non-teaching administration too.



So why is this? When did I start to value the quality of my work? When did it stop being sufficient for my work to be good enough?

Looking back I don’t think I was that great a student. I think my higher education studies were good enough but not the best they could be – I was happy with that at the time. I had the same attitude we complain about our learners having to their studies.

The difference is I am doing a job I love doing. I love working with the learners and colleagues. I enjoy the challenge of finding the most effective way to teach English to my learners. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of my own professional development – this blog included. I could go on…


Sometime in the last 20 years of teaching – probably when I realised this was something I was good at, I enjoyed and could make a career out of.




The short answer would be intrinsic motivation – but where does that come from. Well from what I have said about my job – I obviously value what I do and place a great importance on the quality of the work I do. I have audiences:

  • my learners – I wish to give the best experience I can.
  • my colleagues – again I feel it is important to respect them with a high standard of work.
  • myself  – well, this blog may not read by anyone else but I still want to produce something I feel good about. Also I completed my MA two years ago with a Distinction. It was a distance course and I completed it in two rather than three years. I started the course just after relocating to Turkey and had started working in a new environment. I’m not trying to blow my own horn here but once again it would have been easy* to settle for passes in my modules rather than trying my absolute best – I would still have passed the MA.


In that last sentence I mentioned that it would be easy to settle – except it wouldn’t. I would have  found it very hard. In these situations, which matter to me, l feel good when I produce work I consider of high quality. Of course what I consider high quality may not be up to other people’s standards!

I have talked here about what happens outside the classroom (and in a professional context) – these comments could also apply to what happens in the classroom. They also apply to other parts of my life. That said there are parts of my life where good enough is OK. My office mates would probably think the organisation of my desk is not good enough but it’s good enough for me – it will only get messy again.



And what about PBL?

Well the point, of what was going to be a short post, is that it seems PBL is an opportunity to encourage learners to think about producing high quality work they can take pride in and that good enough is not actually good enough or satisfying. Of course there are many facets of PBL that can encourage this outlook and this is why, it seems, PBL should not be implemented half-heartedly.

Essential factors include need for an expectation of quality as well as help in guiding the learners to the creation of a quality outcome. It is also clear that the outcome should be one that is valued by the learners – learner choice and voices are important here. The outcome should also have a clear audience who will recognise and value the outcome.



Markham, T 2012, Project Based Learning. Design and Coaching Guide, viewed 1st May 2014,