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PBL Pilot: 4 Strategies to Implement and Spread PBL in Your School

Matt Weyers

7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools
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Students gathered around a table playing a board game
5th graders testing games designed by high school "Art of Game Design" Course.

Editor's note: Matt Weyers and co-author Jen Dole, teachers at Byron Middle School in Byron, Minnesota, present the eighth installment in a year-long series documenting their experience of launching a PBL pilot program.

Implementing PBL in our middle school this year has been a journey of love, labor, and professional growth. We have found throughout this journey that a close working relationship with families and district administration has proven essential to building trust and securing the level of success that we feel we've attained this year. However, the group that we've struggled to fully engage has been our fellow staff. In the true nature of dichotomy, we have been extremely public about our adventures within our community and on social media, but have stayed relatively private within our school.

We felt that the online education community was the perfect venue to begin sharing our practices while we were gaining PBL experiences and gauging our district's readiness to embark on the PBL conversation. This leads us to one of our most interesting questions yet -- how do we safely gauge interest for PBL among our colleagues? As suggested in Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, et al, we feel the answer lies within the previous question -- we need to make the conversation safe.

Student at computer station in class
Student making a zombie apocalypse survival map using ArcGIS.

Strategies to “Make It Safe”

1. Make It a Two-Way Street

All teachers are experts, so when you enter into conversation with another teacher about PBL, make a specific effort to learn something about how this teacher runs his or her classroom. This will facilitate learning by all involved parties, as well as ensure that everyone leaves the conversation feeling wanted and valued.

2. Recognize Previous Efforts

Professional educators are notorious for allowing their extreme passion for their students to translate into long hours on the job. Many of the lesson plans, units, and classroom routines that teachers utilize are the product of multiple years of fine tuning. It would be a daunting task for anyone to assume that the only way to bring PBL into their classroom would be to throw out the majority of the lessons and routines that they've worked so hard to generate. John McCarthy, our mentor from the Buck Institute for Education, recommends that teachers who are interested in PBL plan one PBL project per semester.

3. Utilize the Word "And"

This strategy, also taken from Patterson's Crucial Conversations, has proven particularly powerful. Patterson and his co-authors expertly describe how to use the word "and" to avoid getting caught in an either/or decision. For example, many of the teachers with whom we've discussed PBL have expressed concerns that if they were to utilize PBL, they would be forfeiting their ability to teach all of their essential curriculum. We feel an appropriate response would be, "Do you feel there is a way to teach your essential curriculum and engage your students in a meaningful, authentic project?"

4. Make Your Classroom an Open Door

It took us awhile to get there ourselves, but opening your classroom door to anyone and everyone once you're comfortable with PBL is a powerful tool for continuing the PBL conversation. Some of the best professional development that either of us has ever experienced was the "meeting after the meeting." This is the dialogue that often ensues after an important meeting, training, or observation, an opportunity for participants to break down and assimilate new information into their educational philosophies.

Our Results Using These Strategies

For the first few months, we had little interest from other staff. Now, seven months into our school year, we finally have teachers seeking us out for information and ideas on PBL. We were recently approached by staff from two entire grade levels expressing their interest in utilizing PBL next year. For us, this is profoundly exciting. Our tiny seed that we planted last summer has started to sprout. It has a long way to grow, but with the right nourishment, we will see a beautiful bloom in the not too distant future.

Please feel free to follow our journey at our Byron 5th blog. And we look forward to hearing about how you and your colleagues share your thinking about PBL practice in the comments section below.

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Launching a PBL Pilot Program
Launching a PBL Pilot Program: Follow two middle school teachers through their first year with PBL

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

These are great tips, Matt, especially #4. I know how resistant teachers can be to change in their own classrooms, and the best way to share possible changes is to ask teachers to give you feedback on how it looks in your classroom. That humble request allows the visiting teacher the opportunity to see and comment on the change without feeling pressure to join in the change. Now if only we all had more time to visit other classrooms...

Tricia Whenham's picture

Excellent points. I think #3 - tapping into the power of "and" instead of "but" - is particularly interesting. It's such a simple change (sometimes just to the way we talk) but it can make such a difference in how teachers (and people in general) respond to new things. "And" indicates there is respect for what's come before AND a push to try something new. I've been working more and more at watching my use of "but" and "yet" and trying to see where "and" might be a better approach.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Laura -

Thank you for the comment! I whole-heartedly agree, if we had more time to visit each other classrooms, I think both teachers and students would benefit. I feel that teachers are a spectacularly skilled group of professionals, and tapping into the skills of people in our own buildings is a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone. Thanks again for the comment!


Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Tricia -

I am glad to hear you enjoyed the article. I have found that the word "and" has proven useful both personally and professionally when making decisions. It's amazing the power one little word can have. Thanks for posting, and have a great rest of the day!


John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Matt and Jen,
Those are 4 important guide points to inviting others to start the journey. Beginning with honoring teacher experience and expertise is such an important entree. When PBL becomes the unit, those same experiences and expertise have roles to play. Your respect for that is such a powerful way to continue the success of raising and sustaining interest. Congrats, "and" please continue sharing your journey via these articles. Hugely powerful and needed.

So when teachers and other guest visit your classroom, what roles do your students play during such interactions?

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Good afternoon John!

Great to hear from you. Thank you for reading our articles. Both Jen and I are convinced that we would not have embarked on this journey without your formative leadership. To answer your question - we work to keep the relationship between our students and visitors as symbiotic as possible. We do this in two different ways:

1. We have our "Classroom Greeter" welcome visitors to the classroom. When students are assigned this weekly role, they are tasked with welcoming every adult who walks into the room. They do this by immediately standing up from their seat, walking over to the visitor, shake their hand, and say, "Welcome to our classroom." We feel that this simple act makes our visitors feel instantly valued.

2. In addition, we continually preach the notion that everyone (both students and teachers) are learners. And that as learners, we need to be prepared to answer the questions of others, as well as ask them questions in return. This is again in effort to ensure that everyone in the room feels valued, and that we are all learning from the experiences of someone else.

I can't believe this year is already near completion. Thanks John for all your work!


Leslie's picture

PBL is something I have been interested in for a while. I have begun to talk to other teachers about this idea. The teachers in my grade level have been teaching at my elementary school for years and it is difficult to challenge them to try new ideas. I was encouraged to hear about ways to "make it safe." I have been looking for strategies to employ to complete a common project for my grade level. I feel that PBL is an effective tool for teachers and students and will enhance student learning in a variety of ways. It's important to acknowledge the expertise that each teacher brings to the project. I look forward to trying out your tips. I love the use of the word "and." The use of the word "and" implies that teachers will not be forfeiting all the effort they have made into prior years of developing lessons. PBL can be seen as a way to enhance lessons through a meaningful and authentic project.

Matt Weyers's picture
Matt Weyers
7th Grade Social Studies Teacher, Byron (MN) Public Schools

Leslie -

Thanks for the wonderful comment! I'm glad to hear you found these strategies valuable. They have proven very useful to us this year. I wish you best of luck in your continued PBL conversations with your colleagues. PBL has been truly amazing and I hope you are successful in your endeavor! Take care.


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