I was in grad school in 1992 and was being told that we needed to get students to think critically. We needed to have them working in cooperative learning groups. And, we need to have our students writing in all subject areas (communication). Let me see: collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. 21st Century competencies that the education department of Old Dominion University was pushing over 20 years ago!
Every teacher needs to allow their students to work collaboratively. We all need to push our students to think more critically about the world around them. And, through daily reflection, our students can respond orally or in writing. How hard is it to do this? Not very. How hard is it to do this well? That is the million dollar question and the question many school districts are asking before they hire people to come in and conduct professional development.
We can call this process anything we want to call it. And you can keep the three letters and call it PBL. But whether you use PBL, PrBL, IBL, or Good Teaching, matters not if there isn't any learning going on in the classroom.
Some other things to think about when you are reflecting on your own teaching practice: Are you providing an opportunity for curiosity and wonder in your classroom? Is there inquiry? Students are naturally curious. How about creativity? Do they have an opportunity to show their natural creative processes? Don't tell them that being curious and creative is for a time outside of the classroom.
Do you have a daily routine in your classroom? You might be the type of person who likes to script out every minute of the day. You might be the type of person who likes to script a certain flow (from entry to exit) to the class period. But every day, the students know the expectations and, every day, there are set procedures that must be followed - from when they walk into your room until they leave for their next class or for the day.
If you provide a daily routine and, within that routine, your students are allowed to be curious or to wonder, then you are doing good things. If you provide an opportunity for students to communicate with each other and/or with you, then you are doing good things. If you allow students to work collaboratively then you are doing good things. And if you are asking your students to think critically, then you are also doing good things.
Congratulations. You are doing good things and you (probably) have created a culture of learning in your classroom. But how does that relate back to PBL? I like to look at what BIE calls the 8 Essential Elements for Project-Based Learning. (As I select direct wording from the BIE article I will use quotation marks.)
I will make a broad assumption that you are using content that is derived from certain standards. That is the first essential element (EE). The 2nd EE is developing a Need to Know about a topic. If you encourage wonder and curiosity and you set expectations for thinking critically, then your students will have questions about any new topic you bring up. If you are transparent with learning then you will want them to create a list of things they will need to know to learn about a topic and you have the 2nd EE.
Teachers who encourage critical thinking will often allow risk taking. Students will feel safe as they explore without fear of being wrong. These same teachers can quickly learn to craft questions that are "provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked" to what needs to be learned. Having a Driving Question is the next EE and it is designed to give students a "sense of purpose and challenge."
The next EE is to give students "voice and choice" in completing the task at hand. Students will be more connected to the work if they get a chance to decide how they will learn and what they will do to demonstrate they have learned. Having students doing multiple expressions of learning can be difficult to manage and can look chaotic to the uninitiated, but this element can give teachers the biggest bang for the buck. Are you truly providing this opportunity to your students?
The 5th and 6th EE's are to incorporate 21st Century Skills, which have already been mentioned, and to provide opportunity to foster Inquiry and Innovation. You already do that because you have curious, wondering students who are allowed to be creative. It is starting to look like you might be doing this PBL thing.
Allowing for Feedback and Revision (#7) and Publicly Presented Products (#8) are the two EE's that separate PBL from just "Good Teaching." There are a lot of teachers doing good teaching, but they don't always allow time for students to reflect on their work, assess their work, and then, revise their work. The feedback loop is critical in the design world and it is critical in real life too. Students need that opportunity to fix what isn't working.
Finally, it really does make a difference to student buy in when they have to present their work to an outside audience. Don't treat this step lightly. Have someone or a group of people ready to be an audience and to ask questions. The students will proudly present their findings and they will up their game so that they don't under perform.
No, I'm not ready to get rid of the letters PBL because it is just good teaching practices and nothing special. PBL is good teaching practices and much, much, more. It is a way to help students own their learning. If you are at that level, then you are doing GREAT teaching practices and not just good ones.