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How School Leaders Set the Stage for PBL Success

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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Man pointing out something to boy in wood shop

What does the effective implementation of project-based learning (PBL) look like within a school or across an entire system? There's no one right answer, according to superintendents and school leaders who have started down this path.

Some leaders want to see wall-to-wall PBL, with students learning mainly through projects in every subject. Others set a more realistic goal, hoping to see students taking part in projects at least a few times during the school year. For strategic reasons, leaders may choose to concentrate PBL rollouts in certain subject areas, such as STEM, or launch PBL initiatives at specific grade levels or pilot sites.

Whether the goal is for projects to happen occasionally or every day, in one building or across an entire school system, lasting results require thoughtful leadership.

"Why PBL?"

Before launching a major PBL initiative, school leaders need to consider a variety of factors, ranging from staff readiness for change to parent support for student-centered learning. Pre-launch is a good time to engage all stakeholders in a frank conversation, starting with, "Why PBL?"

Leaders can expand this conversation by asking:

  • What would a successful implementation of PBL accomplish for students, teachers, and the broader community?
  • How will PBL align with our mission, vision, and values?
  • What barriers might we anticipate?

"If you truly believe that PBL is valuable enough to pursue, then everything you do as a leader needs to focus on promoting this initiative," says veteran Superintendent Eric Williams. In his previous role at the helm of York County School Division in Virginia, he guided a 12,000-student district through a multiyear PBL implementation effort, with support from the Buck Institute for Education. The York County PBL story is one of several leadership case studies featured in Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning. Williams currently serves as superintendent of Loudoun County (Virginia) Public Schools.

Be Strategic

In hindsight, Williams can identify key strategies that have helped PBL to take hold in York County classrooms. Here are four field-tested strategies that other leaders can borrow and adapt:

Lay a Foundation

Before embarking on a PBL rollout, take time to build a collaborative culture. For example, encourage teacher cohorts to make regular use of protocols for collegial conversations, such as those developed by the National School Reform Faculty.

Encourage the same culture within the administrative team. As an educational leader, model PBL practices such as collaboration, consensus building, problem solving, and effective communication.

Build Teacher Ownership

If the goal is to implement PBL as quickly as possible, a district could take a top-down approach -- but Williams cautions otherwise. "We could have recruited a handful of our best teachers and paid them to develop great project plans over the summer," he says. Instead, the district has allowed time for project ideas to emerge more organically while teacher cohorts go through professional development to develop their understanding of PBL.

Early adopters are building a resource library of high-quality, classroom-tested projects that their colleagues can borrow, customize, and modify to suit their needs. "Give teachers voice and choice, and autonomy to flourish," Williams says, "while also having common expectations."

Share Success

Once PBL starts to take hold, cultivate a culture of sharing. York County began by inviting teachers to do gallery walks with colleagues. Those events have become more public over time, with schools regularly hosting project exhibitions for community members. Exhibitions offer opportunities for students to engage with authentic audiences and for parents and other stakeholders to build their understanding of PBL. To go even deeper, Williams suggests, a district might invite its school board members and parent leaders to take part in PBL workshops.

Stay Patient

"Patience is difficult," Williams acknowledges, but a reasonable timeline for a PBL rollout may require several years for professional learning and culture change. While giving PBL time to take hold as a core instructional practice, a school leader needs to maintain a clear focus on the work at hand. "If you believe there's a big bang for your buck in using PBL to achieve your vision for teaching and learning, then you need to be all in on that," Williams says. "That may mean not pursuing other strategies which offer potential benefits. It may mean making choices about great ideas you'll have to say 'no' to." If you do pursue other initiatives, he adds, "you'll need to show how they connect to PBL."

If you are a school leader considering a PBL initiative, what opportunities and challenges do you anticipate? What is motivating you to encourage a shift to PBL? What will success look like? Please share your reflections in the comments section below.

This post is based on the book from the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, Setting the Standard for Project-Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss 
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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

You are so right about teacher ownership! I have seen great ideas get ignored because they were handed down from above, but then I've seen one teacher's great project eventually get picked up by other teachers because they were allowed to see it in action and make the decision themselves to try it with their students. It takes a savvy leader to support teachers by letting them discover and develop PBL that works for them.

Teacher2015's picture

As a teacher in the division that Dr. Williams worked at - I was dissapointed in the PBL implementation. The training was there at the begining, but there was no follow-through. Teachers were giving their students "PBL" projects that were not PBL. Many people in our division seemed confused by what was asked. In some classes, student learning suffered because of the required PBL project. In some classes and subjects, PBL is an easy fit, but it does not work for all. We were never asked our thoughts on PBL or given a chance to share our concerns or stuggles. It would have been nice if the county had made the PBL implementation similar to an actually PBL project - allowed for check points along the way, communication, individuality, final sharing, etc.

Evy Roy's picture
Evy Roy
Former Community and Social Media Intern at Edutopia

Teacher2015, what a shame!! :( I'm curious--Are you still trying to implement PBL? Have you found ways to make it work in your class(es)?

As you said, PBL has the capacity to be so exciting for students and teachers--I wish you the best!

Suzie Boss's picture
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate

@Teacher2015--I'm sorry to hear your frustration. You're underscoring a key message here: PBL doesn't take hold across a system quickly and requires follow-up and professional development long after the initial rollout. I hope you are able to share your enthusiasm for PBL "done well" with colleagues. Teacher buy-in will lead to culture shift and lasting change.

rleland99's picture

As one coming from the world of construction and building materials into teaching, the common question I heard and saw daily was,"Who is teaching these kids to work now days?" Reading a tape measure, changing a tire, making change and I cannot tell you how many 7th and eight graders can not tell time or read and write cursive. I know it is almost archaic but it is the language of many who write checks and call people for interviews. This is scary in "pre-ap" classes kids not knowing how to operate a scale or read a thermometer. I am not in any way knocking IT and all the wonderful things that come with a wealth of information technology something seems way off when kids can had ipads in a matter of minutes and be watching 50 shades of grey but cant tell time. If an assignment takes more than a 180 characters to do they have a hard time staying engaged. We want kids to be college ready and have that choice but are we being honest about the 50% unemployement rate for recent college grads and default rate because there arent enough jobs to pay for the loans taken out. Yet the demand for trades and skilled labor has not diminished and starting pay for those jobs is much higher on average. This to does not diminish the need in ones life for higher education. If I would have got my degree sooner it would have opened doors in management sooner but not necesarily increased my earning capacity in the fields I was interested in. Project based learning bridges these gaps in learning intelligence, provides real world problem solving opportunities and makes learning relevant. It answers the question,"Why do I have to learn this?"

Teacher307's picture

I am not a school leader but I found this blog very interesting. My school leader is working towards PBL for our school and I am all in! I want to implement PBL in my classroom specifically because of the current disengagement I see within my students. We currently have two 5th grade teachers that have started to focus more on PBL and they could not be happier. Our school leader has set up some professional development for our staff this summer to help ease us into the idea of PBL and I have done some browsing on the Buck Institute website. Since I will soon be receiving professional development I am curious about what I could be doing now as a classroom teacher to prepare my classroom and myself to begin implementing PBL? Are there wonderful resources out there that I do now know about that could help me wrap my head around the idea? I teach 2nd grade and as I mentioned above I want to jump in with both feet and increase my students' engagement!

David Minning's picture

What a great site and topic...I am not an Educator in the traditional sense as I am a mid-level manager in an Aerospace company. What I am very interested in seeing is better equipped job candidates coming into the workplace and not hearing about the mountain of student debt they've accumulated in the process. I have been talking about PBL strategies in our schools for the last two years without even knowing there was a term (PBL) that captures this initiative until just recently.

From a time and money standpoint, I believe PBL offers the most cost effective way to educate the minds of tomorrow.

The School Of Creative Thinking's picture
The School Of Creative Thinking
Owner @ School of Creative Thinking

Real-world learning makes perfect sense, because that's what school is supposed to be preparing students for. It's the essence of what I do with my organisation in the setting up of think tanks and in-school creative agencies. Students fly when they have a proper connection, particularly when it's free from all that edu-speak and criteria. Keep it simple and connected.

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