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TBL and PBL: Two learner-centred approaches
Submitted by Sally Trowbridge on 23 July, 2013 – 11:27
Many newly qualified or inexperienced teachers tend to base their lesson planning on the traditional PPP approach (Presentation, Practice, Production) because it is reliable and it is a valid framework around which to base a series of classroom activities.
It is also usually the best way of covering all the lexical areas and grammar points in the course book or syllabus. All good and well. The problem is that PPP serves the teacher’s needs but it is debatable whether or not it fulfills the needs of the learner.
The language presented and practiced does not take into account the particular needs of each learner; the language content is almost always dictated by the coursebook and/or syllabus. For this reason, many teachers, having experimented with the PPP approach turn to more learner-centred approaches where the needs of the learner are central to the lesson content. Two such approaches are TBL (Task-Based Learning) and PBL (Project-Based Learning).
What is TBL?
In task-based learning, the central focus of the lesson is the task itself, not a grammar point or a lexical area, and the objective is not to ‘learn the structure’ but to ‘complete the task’. Of course, to complete the task successfully students have to use the right language and communicate their ideas. The language, therefore becomes an instrument of communication, whose purpose is to help complete the task successfully. The students can use any language they need to reach their objective. Usually there is no ‘correct answer’ for a task outcome. Students decide on their own way of completing it, using the language they see fit.
Different teachers use TBL in different ways. Some integrate it into the existing syllabus, some use it to replace the syllabus altogether, some use it as an ‘extra’ to their traditional classroom activities. But generally, teachers using a TBL approach divide their task-based classes into three stages:
Stage 1: The pre-task. The teacher introduces the topic and familiarizes students with situations/lexical areas/texts (reading and listening)). This draws the students into the topic and brings up language that may be useful. The teacher then explains what the task is and sets up the activity.
Stage 2: Students perform the task in pairs or groups. They may then present their findings/conclusions to the rest of the class. In this stage, mistakes are not important; the teacher provides support and monitors. The learners focus on communication, perhaps at the expense of accuracy, but this will be dealt with in the next stage.
Stage 3: The teacher works on specific language points which come up in stage 2. (During the monitoring stage, most teachers make notes of common errors and students’ particular learning needs). Students reflect on the language needed to complete the task and how well they did. This is their opportunity to concentrate on accuracy and make sure they resolve any doubts or problems they had.
Tasks can be as simple as putting a list of animals in order from fastest to slowest and then trying to agree with a partner on the correct order. Or it could be something more complicated like a survey to find out which parts of town your classmates live in and how they get to school, ending in visual information presented in the form of pie charts and maps. Or it could be something really complicated like a role-play involving a meeting in the Town Hall of the different people affected by a new shopping centre development and the consequent demolition of a youth centre and old people’s home. Whatever the task, it should always have some kind of completion; and this completion should be central to the class – the language resulting naturally from the task and not the other way round.
The advantage of TBL over more traditional methods is that it allows students to focus on real communication before doing any serious language analysis. It focuses on students’ needs by putting them into authentic communicative situations and allowing them to use all their language resources to deal with them. This draws the learners’ attention to what they know how to do, what they don’t know how to do, and what they only half know. It makes learners aware of their needs and encourages them to take (some of the) responsibility for their own learning. TBL is good for mixed ability classes; a task can be completed successfully by a weaker or stronger student with more or less accuracy in language production. The important thing is that both learners have had the same communicative experience and are now aware of their own individual learning needs.
Another advantage of this approach is that learners are exposed to a wide variety of language and not just grammar. Collocations, lexical phrases and expressions, chunks of language, things that often escape the constraints of the traditional syllabus come up naturally in task-based lessons. But this can also be a disadvantage. One of the criticisms of TBL is this randomness. It doesn’t often fit in with the course book/syllabus, which tends to present language in neat packages. Some teachers (and learners) also find the move away from an explicit language focus difficult and anarchistic. Many teachers also agree that it is not the best method to use with beginners, since they have very few language resources to draw on to be able to complete meaningful tasks successfully.
What is Project-Based Learning (PBL)
The PBL approach takes learner-centredness to a higher level. It shares many aspects with TBL, but if anything, it is even more ambitious. Whereas TBL makes a task the central focus of a lesson, PBL often makes a task the focus of a whole term or academic year.
Again, as with TBL, different teachers approach project work in different ways. Some use it as the basis for a whole year’s work; others dedicate a certain amount of time alongside the syllabus. Some use projects only on short courses or ‘intensives’. Others try to get their schools to base their whole curriculums on it. But there are generally considered to be four elements which are common to all project-based activities/classes/courses:
1. A central topic from which all the activities derive and which drives the project towards a final objective.
2. Access to means of investigation (the Internet has made this part of project work much easier) to collect, analyse and use information.
3. Plenty of opportunities for sharing ideas, collaborating and communicating. Interaction with other learners is fundamental to PBL.
4. A final product (often produced using new technologies available to us) in the form of posters, presentations, reports, videos, webpages, blogs and so on.
The role of the teacher and the learner in the PBL approach is very similar to the TBL approach. Learners are given freedom to go about solving problems or sharing information in the way they see fit. The teacher’s role is monitor and facilitator, setting up frameworks for communication, providing access to information and helping with language where necessary, and giving students opportunities to produce a final product or presentation. As with TBL, the teacher monitors interaction but doesn’t interrupt, dealing with language problems at another moment.
The advantages and disadvantages of PBL are similar to those of TBL, but the obvious attraction of project-based learning is the motivating element, especially for younger learners. Projects bring real life into the classroom; instead of learning about how plants grow (and all the language that goes with it), you actually grow the plant and see for yourself. It brings facts to life. The American educational theorist John Dewey wrote “education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself”. Project work allows ‘life itself’ to form part of the classroom and provides hundreds of opportunities for learning. Apart from the fun element, project work involves real life communicative situations, (analyzing, deciding, editing, rejecting, organizing, delegating …) and often involves multi- disciplinary skills which can be brought from other subjects. All in all, it promotes a higher level of thinking than just learning vocabulary and structures.
Both TBL and PBL focus primarily on the achievement of realistic objectives, and then on the language that is needed to achieve those objectives. They both treat language as an instrument to complete a given objective rather than an isolated grammar point or lexical set to learn and practise. They give plenty of opportunity for communication in authentic contexts and give the learner freedom to use the linguistic resources he/she has, and then reflect on what they learned or need to learn. Finally, as EFL teachers are eclectic by nature, teachers often use a combination of TBL, PBL and traditional techniques such as PPP. Some teachers use TBL and PBL as a small part of a more conventional approach and many teachers on 100% TBL/PBL courses resort to PP type activities when dealing with grammar or vocabulary problems. As always, the important thing is to use what works best for you and your learners.