Project-Based Learning (PBL)

District Support Strategies for a PBL Launch

District administrations can help streamline PBL implementation by removing traditional barriers to change, crucially conversing with parents and other staff, and providing emotional support.

December 2, 2015
Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Paul Gustafson and Ben Pollock, both sixth-grade teachers at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minnesota.

At the time of this writing, we are in the second year of a sixth-grade project-based learning program in a public school setting. In our two years of working to implement PBL, we have fielded a multitude of questions ranging from positive support to queries about the efficacy of policies that we feel best support PBL (grading for mastery, group work, etc.). Our experiences have taught us that district administration can fill three distinct roles to help streamline the PBL implementation process, which we'll discuss in this post.

1. Remove Traditional Barriers to Change

The field of education is rooted in tradition. From grading systems to report cards, from behavioral consequences to our eight-period day, schooling is one familiar routine after another. It can be hard to argue against this, as the system currently in place has guided our children over the past decades to make the U.S. the economic powerhouse that it is. However, as educators, we have to prepare our students for the world that will be, not as the world as it is. Needless to say, attempting to change how things are being done can be a daunting task. So what can the district do?

Move ideas "up the chain of command."

If building principals do not have the ability to greenlight your idea, ask them if they'll take it to the district superintendent for information about the process required to make your idea happen. If the superintendent doesn't know, ask him or her to take your proposition to the school board.

Allow traditions to become "malleable."

We have often found ourselves feeling pressure to complete projects before a grading period is over, so that students' assessments can be placed on that particular report card. In other words, we rushed the students to complete their work. This led me to wonder: with more and more districts adopting online grading programs accessible to families outside of school, can grading periods be flexed by individual teachers? Or more broadly, is the tradition of grading periods even necessary any more? I would be very curious to know if families would accept a change in the way that schools formally communicate students' grades.

2. Crucially Conversing With Parents and Other Staff

Our journey with PBL has been (sans hyperbole) the two best years of teaching we have ever experienced. Working with students who are able to eloquently and thoughtfully elaborate on their thinking is a constant joy. However, in addition to these immaculate highs, we have also fielded more questions than ever before from parents and staff on our policies and teaching philosophy. While we don't believe that the PBL methodology itself is the cause of the questions, we recognize that people are curious about the additional practices we've adopted concurrent to PBL implementation. A majority of these questions have been supportive, although some of our policies have pushed against the traditional definition of school. So when it comes to crucially conversing with families and staff, how can districts support teachers using PBL?

Attend parent-teacher meetings.

Having an administrator in attendance effectively says, "We understand and appreciate your concerns, and will work to find solutions that everyone is comfortable with. However, I am also here to fully support my teachers."

Frequently observe you teaching.

It's much easier for an administrator to thoughtfully respond to parent and staff questions if her or she is aware of the requirements and atmosphere of your class.

Encourage you to share your practices and student products.

Although it can be a daunting task, sharing your practices at staff meetings, online, at conferences, etc. can help enlighten others about the wonders of PBL.

3. Provide Emotional Support

Creating systems changes can sometimes feel like trying to pull a semi-truck up a mountain. It can be tiring and confidence shaking. While our experience of working to implement PBL has on the whole been very positive, the amount of work that it takes to plan projects, gather resources, develop daily lessons, establish community connections, and create assessments can quickly sap you of time, energy, and confidence in your teaching ability. So when it comes to providing emotional support for teachers who are implementing PBL, what can districts do?

Provide positive feedback.

Teaching is hard. It can be especially hard when you're working to design a new curriculum from scratch. We're finding that short, positive notes, comments, or stories can play a significant role in recharging our batteries.

Remember the "J-Curve."

Sometimes teaching, especially when facilitating a new unit, can be an exercise in learning to "fail forward." Often, the lessons or units that we're trying for the first time don't go as well as we hope. Having our administration remind us about the J-Curve of Implementation has proven useful. It's the idea that new programs implemented for the first time experience a short dip in performance, but if continued will eventually reach above-average levels of achievement.

Do you have any other ideas for how districts can support teachers who are implementing PBL? If so, we would love to hear them! 

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Administration & Leadership
  • Education Trends
  • Professional Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School

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