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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

High School Teachers Meet the Challenges of PBL Implementation

Teachers at Sammamish High in Washington share their difficulties and triumphs as their school moves from traditional delivery of instruction to schoolwide problem-based learning. More about this school.
Transcript

High School Teachers Meet the Challenges of PBL Implementation (Transcript)

Suzanne Reeves: If I was to imagine creating a school from scratch, I would look at “What am I preparing my students for? What is this world that they’re gonna be going into?” and “how can I make their experience in school feel more close to that outside world? How do I sort of turn the school inside out?”

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: We are in the process of re-designing thirty courses, which affects nearly seventy-five teachers. This is not easy, we’re engaged in work that asks teachers to really examine classroom practices that have been things they’ve done for a really long time, and so helping teachers to re-define curriculum is a really challenging mental shift.

Suzanne Reeves: So we’re really focused on giving students a problem-based experience across the whole school and we’ve had to think about “How does that really look?” and “how does it apply?” There are places where it’s less intuitive and where it’s a little bit more challenging. English and math are ones where people don’t think about problem-based learning.

Danielle Lynch: I was very unsure, I didn’t know, “What does this look like in a math classroom?” I think overall that there’s a little bit of apprehension, just when you’re talking about doing something completely new. It’s really exciting to see all students engaged in your class, and I think that the difference of having PBL in classrooms really is helping overall engage our students.

Alicia Kallay: I think there have been varying levels of acceptance of PBL. What I think has worked for teachers to buy in to PBL is having teachers create their own courses by giving them the voice and also giving them this time to try to figure out what it looks like within their own subject area.

I think we really struggled to find a way to inject PBL into English. We didn’t want the study of literature to be lost. I don’t want to lose what inspires people. For literature it is harder because the authentic problems are these really big philosophical questions. Being able to see what else students could do and moving beyond the traditional essay that follows reading, it was a challenge.

Suzanne Reeves: One starting point for all the courses is thinking about what professionals in this discipline really do and then say, “How do we give students more of that experience?”

Alicia Kallay: Before, it was all about the text, but I feel like now it’s about them engaging with the text in a different way, and it’s engaging them with a text as a writer themselves. A book that students read is Eli Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir "Night,” as they’re reading they’re seeing what are the consequences of remaining silent. We ask them to start to look for groups or individuals who are silenced in some way and, like Eli Wiesel is doing, is give voice to a voiceless population. So what you’re actually asking them to do is apply the themes that they’ve seen in the text themselves.

Emma: I think using PBL in English classes, or in any other class, really kind of changes your perspective on what that subject is and what that subject entails. You really see how the subjects you’re learning at fifteen years old, how you can use them for your future and for the rest of your life.

Teacher: Making a tool would be to have a--

Danielle Lynch: Our leadership team said, “We don’t know what this looks like for math. You guys need to, by trial and error, figure out what does it look like? What’s gonna work best?” I think each group of teachers that works together to design functions a little bit differently. We wanted to be able to not lose any content in our course and still really enrich it with problems or projects. We don’t have a PBL-based unit for every concept that we teach in Algebra 2. We really just looked at where it fits and I think that is our best approach in math.

Suzanne Reeves: This problem-based learning isn’t gonna look the same in every class and so if we’re just trying to kind of shoehorn the way that we teach into this kind of mold that we think is trendy or that we think we’re supposed to do because the administration told us, then, yeah, it won’t work.

Danielle Lynch: Well, I think that the idea of problem-based learning is to engage those students who normally in a traditional math classroom wouldn’t be engaged. So one example is in our probability unit: We have students create games. For students who may not be pro-math, math may not be their favorite subject, I think when they think about “Okay, I have free rein to create a game,” that’s something that can kind of hook them into the unit. Then you can connect that saying, “Okay, how can we find the probability of what you created?”

Angelo: The project helps me, like, to be focused more. Making the game project it’s fun and then there’s, like, a connection to it. It makes me more engaged through math.

Teacher: Do your best to work around that.

Adrienne Curtis Dickinson: I am so excited about the progress at Sammamish. We have really seen some enormous outcomes for our students already.

All of that is coming through the hard work our teachers are doing.

Suzanne Reeves: It’s exciting professionally to be pushed, to have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in a new way.

Danielle Lynch: It’s like anything. You have days where you can get a lot accomplished. There’re days where you feel stuck, but we’re working together, we’re a team we’re all working towards the same goal of learning.

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Credits
  • Producer/Director: Gabriel Miller
  • Editors: Gabriel Miller, Daniel Jarvis
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Director of Photography: Gabriel Miller
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Executive Producers: Steve Arnold

Editor's Note: This video showed year three of this five-year process. For periodic updates on the Sammamish story, visit our Sammamish High School page.

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