In my last post, I looked at Proficiency-Based Learning in Vermont — focusing especially on my surprise that it has lasted so long, and examining reasons why.
I also talked about several of the surprising things that stood out to me during the implementation.
Today I want to go a little deeper by looking at the pros and cons of PBL itself. I realize that with something as vast, nebulous, de-centered, and hazy about its origins as PBL, it’s hard to comment with any real certainty about what it really is. It’s not quite as bad as “Personalized Learning” — whatever that is — but it’s still, as I mentioned in the last post, a little like the blind man and the elephant.
That said, I actually think you can get to the heart of what PBL really is, especially if you’ve used it for a few years like I have. It’s taken me a while to get this far, but I think I’ve started to understand what’s really going on with PBL — both the good and the bad.
Let’s start with PBL’s main selling point, the heart of what it’s all about.
The Paradox of Clarity
PBL is focused on clarity. Its main tenet is that greater clarity improves learning. It promises sharper learning targets, distinctions between work habits and subject proficiency, more actionable feedback, and more specific data.
But here’s the paradox: Clarity requires both specificity and simplicity. It’s like good writing: as an English teacher, I teach my students they need to use specific details but also simple, effective organization and clear, jargon-free language. In fact, this balance is one of the perennial challenges of teaching itself: you must be specific with your expectations, feedback, and goals, but you must also be simple and targeted, too, so that you don’t lose or overwhelm students: Comprehensive, but also streamlined.
PBL embodies this paradox of clarity — both the potential benefits and the pitfalls.
First, the benefits.
Clarity of Goals
For starters, PBL’s push for teachers to more clearly define their goals has been positive for everyone involved, for all the reasons that greater clarity of objectives is always valuable. I think it’s safe to say that an entire generation of teachers has a much clearer understanding of what’s important subject knowledge in their discipline, and where the “bar” should be for high school graduation. PBL has asked some fundamental questions of teachers, and I think it has helped us come to greater clarity.
For example, here’s an awkward question we faced early on: If we set the bar at a place that can be reached by a majority of our students by 12th grade, aren’t there a number of students who can reach that bar two or even three years prior? If a student can demonstrate proficiency by the end of 9th grade, why is that student expected to stay around and finish three more years of high school classes? (We had to find a good answer!) Or, if you suggest that the bar should be raised . . . then you’re back to the classic “bar raising” challenges of any ambitious reform (for example, what happens when 20% of your seniors won’t be graduating in June?). Either way, having to clearly delineate what a graduation “proficient” skill level truly is, with so little room to muddy or to hide our answer, was deeply instructive for us as teachers.
Clarity of Assessment
I also think that the use of fewer gradations in our grading scales — 1 to 4, rather than 0 to 100, for example — has also helped teachers flesh out clear differences of levels of proficiency within their disciplines. I often find myself telling students, “Here’s what a 3 is — and here’s what a 2 is” in a really clear way that I was never able to do between an A and a B. Yes, there’s a far bigger range within each step on the scale (a 2 encapsulates a whole range of 70s and 80s under the old system) but the fewer categories allow teachers to draw clearer distinctions between levels, which in my view does give students greater clarity about what the next level requires. Not to mention that now teachers must carefully define what “exceeding the standard” requires.
Clarity of Standards
PBL has not only asked teachers for clarity, but schools as well. Because PBL requires a very precise enunciation of goals, schools have been forced to rethink what is important to teach. This too has raised positive questions: Should content determine graduation standards? Or should so-called transferable skills be included as well? How should work habits be assessed and valued?
One of the promising distinctions that many PBL systems make is that between subject area proficiencies and habits of work. This (theoretically) allows for clearer focus on prioritizing real learning rather than compliance, while also isolating exactly what habits of work schools expect (and hopefully teaching those habits). Once again, the promise is that clearer understanding on the part of schools leads to greater clarity of expectations and therefore better teaching and learning.
A Clear Focus on Proficiency, Not on “Passing”
Here’s another place that PBL is more clear: It focuses all of our conversations — with students, with parents, and with fellow educators — around the pursuit of proficiency, instead of around “passing.” This is positive because it keeps the focus on learning, rather than on compliance. Plus, because PBL prioritizes demonstrations of proficiency rather than the accrual of points, PBL keeps the focus on substantive and (hopefully) authentic demonstrations of learning, rather than on completing enough worksheets. This is incredibly promising. There is something so different about telling a student, under PBL, “You need to show me evidence” compared to saying, under the old system, “You need to do your work.” It’s a subtle but powerful change.
Now, for some negative aspects of PBL.
The Downside of “Clarity”: Too Much Detail
But here’s the problem. PBL aspires to make everything clear by being really, really specific. But that push for specificity fundamentally inclines PBL toward complexity. It pushes teachers to parse everything, to break it all down into skills and sub-skills, to enumerate standards and performance indicators, to describe more, to report more. Done wrong, this specificity leads to report cards with too many standards to digest, rubrics with too many words, data collection instead of assessment. Before you know it, you’ve sacrificed clarity in the name of detail and data. This fundamental problem can be seen in many facets of the system, some of which are described below.
Losing the Big Picture
Along those lines, PBL can engender a kind of myopic focus on minute sub-skills — rather than on a holistic, authentic approach to the wider goals of growth and learning. The old system had this same issue too, of course. And I actually think that the simultaneous implementation of Act 77, a piece of legislation very much focused on holistic educational success and authentic learning, has helped buffer this issue. That said, the old system, with its “hodgepodge” grade calculation, watered down by a (sometimes oblique) mixture of content and work habit grades, did incline more toward holistic conversations about a student’s progress than any system whose business it is to monitor well-parsed, well-differentiated standards and skills. Again, that’s not to say that the new, PBL-inspired conversations aren’t more focused on learning than on compliance, just that too often “learning” can mean “Math subskill 482.4a” rather than “critical thinking” or “reading ability.”
More Data Is Not Always Better
I often think that opening up online portals for parents and guardians and students to view, which most Vermont schools did relatively recently, created a new expectation of transparency that has subtly shifted our thinking about scoring and reporting. The question of to what extent gradebooks should be decipherable to the layperson is an interesting one that I don’t think we have fully sussed out. That said, PBL does market itself as providing clarity laypeople — especially students and families and colleges — about exactly what a student knows and can do. One of its strongest arguments against the old system was the “black box” critique — the old system told us very little about what a student knows and can do.
But part of the problem with PBL is that in its push to more carefully define everything, PBL creates new complexities in scoring and reporting. There was something simple and intuitive about the sole course grade derived from a simple average. It had a clarity to it (flawed as it was): it allowed both students and parents a quick, easy way to judge how a student was doing. Yes, some of it was focused on compliance (is a student turning in work?), but it was a simple way to tell if a student was learning. It was not only the fact that daily assignments were built into the grade, but also the differentiation of 0-100 grading scale. That made it a lot easier to tell just how well a student was really doing. Whereas a system with fewer levels really lumps a lot of students into the same designation. It’s nice for clarity of learning objectives, but it’s less instructive for parents wanting to understand how their child is doing.
Yes, many schools still give students course grades under PBL, but if the student must still complete a portfolio of proficiencies within a variety of standards, the simplicity of the course grade is undercut by the complexity of the portfolio.
Think for a moment about the complexity: Each student (and parent or guardian) must keep abreast of progress on, at the very least, three standards for seven disciplines, most of which require at least two different demonstrations. That’s 42 different items that must be reported and understood. There is simply a lot of room for confusion on the part of everyone involved. Don’t get me wrong — I think portfolio demonstrations are important, but their inherent complexity can be at odds with the notion of clarity that PBL was designed to engender about learning in the first place.
Portfolio-Based Reporting Systems are Hard to Maintain, and Hard to Report
Again, not all schools report this way, but generally a Mastery- or Proficiency-based system lends itself to being scored as a portfolio. It makes sense: anytime you need to demonstrate skill on a specific kind of task (rather than just accumulating points in a points-based system), teachers must keep a record of these specific performances, rather than just a running average of your scores. This is, at heart, a portfolio system.
But unless you’re just assessing students on a single standard within a course (“Geometry,” or “Physics,” say), portfolios can quickly become very complex to score and report. Normal grading systems must report date, assignment title, and point value; portfolio systems must also report which standards were met, and — this is critical — how many times they were met.
This gets particularly challenging when students are able to address certain standards across multiple years. Such a system demands that you have a central place where you can “house” the portfolio: next year’s English teacher needs to know how many times Johnny was proficient in my class, so where do we house this information? And how to get the data to this central location (without spending lots of extra time)? Such a system can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare, with lots of places for human error, and indecipherable to outsiders.
Of course, you can avoid some of this problem by restricting proficiencies to single courses (all Geometry proficiencies must be done in Geometry class, etc.), but then you run into the old problems of students needing to take classes over again (which is not in the progressive spirit of PBL, and which can come perilously close to simply asking that students merely “pass”). And you also risk having far too many standards because each course now has its own, separate ones.
But go in the other direction and you’ll quickly realize that the fewer standards you have, the more you need a centralized portfolio — which is . . . tricky to create and to report.
This all sounds like something a computer should be able to handle, but very few grading systems are actually set up to accommodate such requests at all, let alone to convey them in a visually appealing, intuitive display for the layperson.
And any coherence is predicated on the notion that all departments expect the same number of proficient demonstrations. At my school, one department requires three, while another requires just two (though each must be from a different class). In some departments, 10th grade or even 9th grade courses present graduation-level opportunities, while in other departments, they don’t. How could one grading software accommodate all this?
In the next post, I’ll explain some last thoughts about PBL.