Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How School Leaders Set the Stage for PBL Success

May 28, 2015

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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