Promoting student agency through PBL in STEM

Teachers working with academics from Monash and Queensland universities on a new Australian project researching Problem Based Learning (PBL) in school-based STEM education. In a 3-part series, Associate Professor Kathy Smith, Dr Jennifer Mansfield and some of the teachers involved have been sharing details of the 3-year project and reflecting on what they’ve learned so far. This final article discusses student agency.

The project Exploring Problem Based Learning in Schools has identified 4 principles which inform PBL in STEM education: a) flexible knowledge, skills, and capabilities; (b) active and strategic metacognitive reasoning; (c) collaboration based on intrinsic motivation; and (d) problems embedded in real and rich contexts.

Here, 2 participating teachers working as co-researchers in the project discuss how the experience of researching PBL in their STEM teaching has enabled them to consider student agency as a necessary condition for meaningful STEM learning. Melissa Gatt and Frank Fabri share their learning about how this pedagogical intention can be supported and further developed by the principles of practice which frame a PBL approach to STEM education.

Using PBL principles to empower student learning in STEM

Melissa Gatt – Learning and Teaching and Literacy Leader, St Peters Primary School, Epping, Melbourne

When planning STEM, I look for authentic cross curriculum links. I have moved away from STEM disciplines presented in siloed, ‘one-off’ challenges, which in my experience provide short lived engagement and minimal knowledge or skills retention.

Our school values learning opportunities which not only develop content knowledge but also cognitive and social skills and dispositions which are considered an asset for learning. STEM provides the opportunity to meaningfully integrate such areas of learning.

The PBL in STEM professional learning sessions prompted my colleagues and I to think about the principles of PBL in school-based STEM education, and how this approach might enhance our transdisciplinary approach to STEM education.

We kept circling back to a shared belief that STEM is for every student, in every learning environment. Our school has a very student-centred approach to STEM integration because we value opportunities for students to develop their critical and creative thinking skills while also building a sense of personal agency with their learning. These values made us think deeply about the PBL principles, in particular active and strategic metacognitive reasoning. We began to consider how such thinking might add value to our planning and teaching and our students’ learning, particularly as our school has a highly diverse (both cognitively and culturally) context.

We began to wonder if this principle might promote student agency, enabling students to gain more control of their learning by supporting them to more effectively process and express their thinking. These considerations caused us to develop the following research question: Does building student capacity for active and strategic metacognitive reasoning within STEM engage, enable and empower all students?

We began to consider how to address this question and what doing so might require of our planning and teaching. In the past, as a teaching team, we would plan an inquiry with an end that was already determined.

Last year, with our research in mind, we implemented a shift in our planning and instead we offered a PBL opportunity to our senior primary students (years 5 and 6). We did not have a pre-planned problem for our students to solve, instead we tuned students into a context, provided background information and we waited for them to design their own inquiry. By focusing on active and strategic metacognitive reasoning, we started to notice more carefully what students are already doing and what they need to develop to improve their thinking and reasoning.

As a STEM team we began to see how attending to metacognitive reasoning raised some important considerations for our planning and teaching, including a need to:

  • build students’ capacity to regulate their own motivation to learn
  • support students to determine how to approach a learning task
  • encourage students to draw on prior knowledge and skills to strategically and independently work through a problem
  • build students’ questioning capabilities, enabling them to decide what it is that they need to know in relation to a problem
  • provide students with opportunities to collaborate, and develop the skills they need to do so effectively
  • encourage students to make decisions with adult and/or peer support (reasoning)
  • empower students to direct and take responsibility for their learning
  • assist students to develop an understanding about how they learn best
  • encourage students to take action: enabling active citizens that can understand and contribute to the community and the world around them by taking action and making a difference

We have already begun to see some changes. At our school there are many Students With Additional Needs (SWANS), be it cognitive or social needs. Interestingly, as we have started to develop the PBL principles in our practice, the approach began to highlight the strengths of these students. We observed a positive change in many student’s perception of themselves as a learner amongst their peers.

We have started to unpack dispositions which we also consider as learning assets for our students and we continue to build these through PBL opportunities. As we move forward, we continue to consider our research question and the potential outcomes, and we continually ask ourselves, ‘what will we see in our students that we weren’t seeing before?’

Supporting staff to enhance student agency through PBL in STEM

Frank Fabri – Deputy Principal, Digital Literacies and STEM Leader, St Paul the Apostle Primary School, Melbourne

Our participation in project was a result of the need to investigate STEM through the lens of PBL. As we explored the 4 principles of PBL in the professional learning sessions, we began to consider how we might work to scaffold the thinking students require to undertake PBL, rather than scaffolding the task. We also wanted to allow for more learner agency and ownership of the learning.

The 4 principles of PBL in STEM education provided a foundation for us as a Leadership Team to review and prioritise current thinking and teaching approaches across the school. Using information from the project, we surveyed and reviewed current practices to see what elements of PBL in STEM were present in our Inquiry Based Learning. We also looked at our general practice in light of the principles of PBL for further insight.

It became apparent through discussion with teachers that many staff had a wide variety of teaching approaches, generally ranging from ‘teacher directed’ to ‘student directed’. We found:

  • Our current Inquiry Planner needed to include more scope and inclusiveness of learner agency
  • The learning experiences across the school are derived from authentic real-world problems that matter to the children
  • Collaboration and interaction could be enhanced by many of the Thinking Routines presently in use across the school. These could also be useful to deepen student thinking and, ultimately, learning
  • Staff were concerned about the ‘open ended’ nature of the PBL and the time that is potentially required within the context of the school day.

We agreed that a shared pedagogical approach amongst teaching staff was necessary and that this would acknowledge teachers as key stakeholders in the establishment of an approach that was more in tune with our Thinking Culture and Learner Agency aspirations. As a Leadership Team, we decided our starting point had to be: ‘You can’t have a thinking classroom without a thinking staffroom’ and, therefore, professional learning was needed which supported teachers to:

  • focus on learner ‘curiosity’ and shaping the learning to encompass learner agency
  • let go of previous approaches
  • map out a description of critical thinking and relate this information to STEM
  • look at different types of assessment – and consider how we map critical thinking
  • make a clear distinction between Project Based Learning and Problem Based Learning and looking at where Problem Based Learning resides in our current approach to Inquiry Based Learning

For 2023, we have mapped out a professional learning path which is designed to assist staff to:

  • identify a provocation that will lead to a series of problem-solving activities
  • incorporate different types of problems into our current Inquiry Based Learning Planner, including a sequence of short activities each ending in a solution to a short-term or ‘quick’ problem and a series of activities leading to a solution of one long-term problem
  • identify aspects of the inquiry that we can capture and reflect upon
  • build a story around how we have come to understand and enact these aspects of PBL to enhance our students learning and sense of agency

We hope that such a strategic approach will continue to develop the unique thinking culture and learning environment that characterises our school. By focusing on learner agency, we can continue to build a learning environment that allows ‘learner agency to become a living ecology’, with the goal of activating a ‘will and desire’ to be present in the learning (Collins & Raymond, 2020).


Collins, J. L., & Raymond, L. (2020). Learner agency as a living ecology: A way of being in the world and being in the world with each other. Connect, (245), 5-10.

Are there opportunities for staff at your school to develop a partnership with a local university? What about working with staff from another school? How could these partnerships benefit your own classroom practice?