Our first PBL adventure – why we’re trying it again even though it ‘flopped’

During my first few weeks of teaching in a primary school, I did not know what was about to hit me when our group of schools announced that we would be following a Project-Based Learning (PBL) approach and that our third term content should be transformed into a PBL module.

At first I was quite negative about this approach, as I am convinced by research that explicit instruction is more effective and that so-called innovative pedagogies can be a waste of very valuable teaching time. When I hear “Fourth Industrial Revolution” “The 4 Cs” or “Preparing students for jobs that don’t exist,” I zone out as I know that proper domain knowledge is required in order for kids to engage with it. However, after seeing the end result of our project, I would highly recommend the use of PBL, or at least some kind of hybrid version in the classroom.

What is regarded as Project Based Learning?

PBL is not just a fancy word for a project, there are a few important elements that make PBL, PBL:

Comprehensive project-based learning, according to Wikipedia:

  • is organized around an open-ended driving question or challenge.
  • creates a need to know essential content and skills.
  • requires inquiry to learn and/or create something new.
  • requires critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication, often known as 21st century skills.
  • allows some degree of student voice and choice.
  • incorporates feedback and revision.
  • results in a publicly presented product or performance.


We were fortunate enough to have had Lindsay Wesner, Chief Edumagineer at Teach.Learn.Innovate guide us through creating our first PBL unit. Over a few weeks (it was a bit drawn out) we were able to break down the silos of our curriculum and see how we could integrate our content into one amazing PBL unit. The most difficult part of this process was definitely the question setting aspect. Once you have your driving question, as well as the content that needs to be covered, the rest of the unit almost flows naturally into a masterpiece of interlinked activities.

My teaching environment includes more than 5 class teachers in every grade and since we teach at different schools, we have many different perspectives. This also helped us to create the project, as one school might have tried something before that another school hadn’t. Working together as a group of teachers really made a huge difference. We were also able to split up the preparation work according to our strengths. During our final design process, we also had extra input from our EdTech leaders in our schools, as well as Lindsay. This was the final push we needed to get everything ready for our big launch.


Our grade 5s were asked, “How can we make our school more energy efficient?” We worked hard to ensure that we had a cross-curricular approach. Mainly, however, this was between English and NST. We had a detective theme and called ourselves Energy Detectives. This enabled us to make investigations more fun, such as using clues to find out about new tasks, cracking codes at the launch to find out exactly what our theme was and investigating where and how electricity was being used at our school. 


  • It took too long to complete, we didn’t realise how many disruptions we have as a school, we lost a bit of momentum, we planned activities that we didn’t get to and while we were working through some of the activities on our roadmap, we realised that at times it was irrelevant or rather seen as a “filler”.
  • Because we ran out of time, we didn’t end our project as we had planned. One school managed to have an authentic audience to present their findings to, but we only had the principal and management team come in to view our kids’ final presentations.
  • We didn’t implement any of their findings.


  • As in any other school, we have children with a very wide range of abilities. Pairing the children (even though they think it is random) is imperative in this regard. 
  • We need marks! We were lucky enough to do away with reports in the third term. This helped us to focus less on getting marks in and rather on getting everyone to meet curriculum requirements. 
  • Behaviour. I would suggest tailoring the project on how well your children can work independently, without being policed. 
  • It takes time to change kids’ mindsets to “It’s okay to fail and struggle” – especially in an environment where they are used to being over-nurtured.
  • Due to some lawnmower parents, PBL was given the nickname “PBHell” which is unfortunate. Do parents not want their kids to be challenged? Do they prefer being sent home a task that they or their child’s tutor can do? 
<strong>Energy Detectives<strong>


  • Our launch was excellent and the kids enjoyed working through the clues to find out what their project will be.
  • If a visitor walked into the class and asked what they were doing, they would tell you “We are busy working out how we can make our school more energy efficient.”
  • Though we did very little formal teaching, kids really have learnt a lot. We know this because of the questions they can answer about the topic. I sat in on another class’ presentation about geothermal energy and if it would be possible to use this at all in our school. Their peers asked them many valuable questions about the topic that they could answer in-depth, for example, what is the impact that geothermal energy has on the environment? For a grade 5 student to ask and answer these questions accurately is quite remarkable.
  • Though we do not want our kids to be under too much pressure, pushing them to achieve more and to have high expectations enables them to produce excellent work. Our final presentations were judged by grade 6 teachers, the principal and deputy principal, we chose these judges as they have the perceived power to make a change in school policy. Having an authentic audience to present to is essential to the success of the project. It gives them a chance to be heard and their ideas to be implemented. It also teaches them to keep their new audience in mind.
  • When we usually do orals or some kind of project where our learners need to do verbal feedback or a presentation, we do not often give them a chance to do a practice run where we can give them feedback to improve and try again. I was amazed by how the learners took advice from “I like” and “I wonder” – watch your language – and then changed up their final presentations to include the recommendations. I found myself saying that their work was good and asked them what they need to do in order to make it excellent.
  • A good example of this was the way that kids always introduce orals – “Good morning Mnr Vermeulen and class, today we are going to bore you with our presentation.” I referred my class to some Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den episodes and asked them if they ever see anyone saying “Good afternoon, Sharks, my presentation is about…” when they start their presentation. One excellent example in my class was a group who worked on incorporating solar energy in our school. They posed a question to the class “How many hours of sunshine do you think we have in South Africa?” and the class was immediately engaged. After this group was complimented by the judges about their intro and we had a debriefing session, one member gave me a hug and thanked me for the advice with the words: “You know, Meneer, it helps to listen to your teachers every now and again!” See, we are still needed, and PBL is not just a process of throwing a topic at kids and making them learn skills and content through osmosis.
  • The kids actually solved the problem. Most suggestions were well-researched, they were and are implementable and will be able to make a real change. Some, of course, were not. However, this does not mean that the “outcome” wasn’t reached. Mostly it was because of a grade 5’s vivid imagination and dreaming big, and as our school motto says “If you dream it, it is no legend” – an idea might seem unattainable now, but it can develop into a solution that could prove to solve many problems in the future.


Investigation / Activity /
Application / “Work”
What should/could be learnt?
LaunchFinding out about solar energy
Definitions of key termsTypes of energy, learning key domain knowledge before deeper learning can take place
School energy audit:
What types of energy are used in
the school?
Formal email writing, making appointments, applying knowledge from types of energy, drawing diagrams, learning about symbols, plan view, collaboration, roles
School energy audit:
Electricity usage
Tabulating information from a different source, units of energy, energy usage of different appliances, calculating energy usage over time, calculating and comparing energy bills, where does the electricity come from
Finding out more about renewable energytypes of renewable energy, understanding how it works, advantages and disadvantages, practical and innovative uses of renewable energy around the world, comprehension about renewable energy, presenting information to peers without using technology, sketchnoting
Insulation experimentwhat is insulation, best materials for insulating, measuring temperature, reading and using thermometers
Solving the problem“How can we make our school more energy
application of content learned, problem solving, researching real-life examples of energy saving at schools, thinking critically about how we use energy, presenting to an authentic audience, getting feedback and using it to improve

My colleagues from all three of our schools deserve a standing ovation for their effort and perseverance to make this happen. When things are new, it’s scary, and after our feedback session to reflect on our projects it was great to see teachers acknowledging where and how they went wrong. We have learnt from each others’ mistakes and have adjusted the project accordingly for 2020. I’m excited to make the improved project happen this year!

Jean Vermeulen is a grade 5 teacher, the founder of Teacha! and the editor of Teacha! Magazine.


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