PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can Teachers Effectively Facilitate and Coach in PBL?

If you’ve ever been involved in organized sports, I hope you had a good coach. It’s almost impossible to succeed without one. If you did, think about what an effective coach does:

  • Motivates and focuses athletes by sharing a vision of success
  • Shares expertise about how to play/perform
  • Organizes practices
  • Gives feedback
  • Pays attention to emotional well-being
  • Cheers on athletes and celebrates success

That’s a good summary of what a teacher does in project-based learning when they play the role of a coach. They play other roles, too, such as subject-matter expert, assessor, provider of lessons and scaffolding, and facilitator–more on the latter in a minute. 

Here’s another parallel between coaching in sports and in PBL. The game or performance is where athletes put it all together and show what they can do. The coach has gotten them as ready as they can be, and now they play or perform on the field or court or wherever, in front of spectators, as the coach watches on the side. This is just like the culminating event of a project when students create their final products and make their work public, often presenting to an audience. Their teacher steps back and watches, trusting (or hoping!) that all the learning and preparation paid off and resulted in high-quality work.


6 Coaching Practices a Teacher Uses in PBL

Teacher and PBL consultant Myla Lee, in a 2018 blog post, described the following six practices of teachers acting as a coach during a project: 

1. Questioning

A coach knows how to improve performance by asking the right question at the right time. A good coaching question is one that makes a student think. The goal is to promote student independence, not give them the answers or hold their hand every step of the way. For example, a teacher-as-coach might ask, as they circulate around the room checking in with students and teams:

  • What makes you think (or say) that?
  • How do you know…?
  • What’s another way you could…?
  • What would happen if…?
  • What would someone who thought otherwise say about that?

2. Listening

A coach listens to what their athletes are saying (“I’m having trouble with my timing on jump shots.”)--suspending judgment, not interrupting, and showing empathy through eye contact and body language. A PBL teacher does the same, because it’s important to get accurate information about how well the student is understanding or performing, to inform teaching moves.

3. Providing Feedback

A coach gives athletes an opinion of their performance, and asks them what they think of it too–it’s the key to improvement. Formative assessment, whether informal (“How’s it going?”) or formal (“We’re having a quiz tomorrow.”) is also key to student success in PBL. A teacher/coach gives effective formative feedback, provides opportunities for self-and peer assessment, and perhaps arranges for feedback from mentors, outside experts, or end-users of a project’s product or service. Feedback should be, in the words of Ron Berger, “kind, specific, and helpful.” Or as Grant Wiggins puts it, effective feedback is “goal-referenced, actionable, user friendly, and timely” among other criteria.

4. Creating Opportunities for Reflection

A coach asks athletes to stop and think about what they're doing, and look back on a practice or a game to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Reflection is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality PBL, as I explained in this PBL Pro Tip. A teacher/coach should encourage and provide structure for students to think about what and how they are learning, and how well they are meeting the demands of the project.

5. Gradually Releasing Responsibility

One of the hallmarks of project-based learning is greater student independence compared to most traditional instruction–and the culture of the classroom reflects this. The teacher/coach, like an athletic coach, does not ”play the game” for students. They might model how to do a task, manage a guided practice, and give directions or provide scaffolding only as much as necessary. Routines and protocols are established that students, over time, follow more and more on their own.

6. Affirming and Trusting Students

This also has to do with the culture a PBL teacher builds. When athletes sense that their coach has faith in them it can have a powerful effect on their performance, and the same goes for students. Projects are often challenging, and students can better overcome challenges if their teacher communicates confidence in them. I’ve heard teachers say that “trusting that their students can do it” is a sometimes-challenging but key step in becoming a PBL teacher. The role of “warm demander” is a helpful stance for a PBL teacher/coach. As described by Lisa Delpit, these are teachers who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them reach their potential” by pushing them, warmly but firmly, to do better. 


I would add three other practices of a teacher-as-coach. One, they observe and check in with students to see how they’re doing emotionally: Is the project stressing them out? Is their team getting along? Are they facing challenges? Two, they offer encouragement, especially during the challenging parts of a project, or when students’ energy is waning–by reminding them of the progress they’ve made, the importance of what they’re doing, or by making adjustments in the project if warranted. And along with encouragement, a teacher/coach celebrates progress, and leads the celebration of success at the end of a project. You can see the parallels between these practices and what an athletic coach does.


Facilitation in PBL

There’s a lot of overlap between the roles of coach and facilitator in PBL. Both roles are different from the traditional role of teacher-as-deliverer of knowledge–they emphasize student independence. You could think of facilitation as more of a “project manager” role that goes hand-in-hand with being a coach. Students should learn how to manage themselves too, of course, but a PBL teacher typically facilitates project work in a variety of ways. If students are not experienced with PBL or are younger, the teacher may need to facilitate more than they would for older or more experienced students.

During a project, facilitation might include:

  • Leading a discussion of what students need to know to complete a project or what questions they have about a topic, to drive the inquiry process
  • Setting up and managing student teams
  • Establishing checkpoints and benchmarks
  • Managing critique protocols and other formative assessment
  • Helping students find resources
  • Making sure technology and other materials are available and accessible
  • Arranging for work with outside experts or organizations, if possible
  • Arranging for public presentations or other displays of student work


The Importance of Relationships

To coach students effectively, a teacher needs to know them well and form close working relationships with them. Education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, in a January 2021 online presentation I attended, shared two principles from the science of learning that support this aspect of being a teacher-as-coach:

  • Relationships are the essential ingredient that catalyzes healthy development and learning.
  • Students’ perceptions of their own ability influence learning.

Getting to know students well can be challenging for teachers in middle schools and high schools, if they have a traditional schedule and a high number of student contacts. Structural changes such as block schedules, 4x4 schedules, advisory programs, and team teaching can help. Even in a traditionally-structured school, though, where there’s a will there's a way. It may take time–perhaps the whole first quarter of a school year–but a PBL teacher who wants to work more closely with students and not just be the “sage on the stage” can make it happen.

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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