George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Sammamish Year 3: Teaching, Leadership, and School Change

March 4, 2014
Photo Credit: Gabriel Miller
Teachers at Sammamish High School plan their curriculum.

At Sammamish High School, we have been involved in a process of culture change that is impacting not only our students but our teachers as well. By giving our teachers the keys to their own curriculum though extended professional learning opportunities and defining core values of PBL instead of a particular method (see my earlier post), we have given teachers their own authentic learning challenge. As teachers have engaged in this real-life, problem-based task, they've drawn on their leadership skills with their peers to create a learning environment that seeks to engage and lift all kids through rigorous, relevant coursework.

Here's how each of our seven Key Elements play out in teachers' development of PBL.

Authentic Problem

When we were awarded our Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, we started looking at research to define best practice for PBL. What we found were some good core themes -- particularly collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity -- but we did not find a method of PBL that we felt would really push our curriculum to the next level in all disciplines. In the beginning, teachers would frequently ask us to show them a unit, preferably a side-by-side comparison between a PBL and non-PBL unit. Then they would find a way to copy that structure and "do PBL." When we gave teachers Key Elements instead, it was not always received well. But we believed that this ill-defined task was the best way to wrestle with the challenge of creating a curriculum and a classroom that would shift around these core values. Through this wrestling, we have started to see the fundamental shifts in classrooms that we were hoping for.

Authentic Assessment

We gave teams of teachers a one-period release for a year and asked them to design and test new coursework. There is no more authentic assessment of curriculum work than putting it in front of students. What our teachers found was that the student test was a critical piece of their design work. Students were able to show teachers holes in the challenge designs, and were also able to give them a lot of feedback around what they connected to in the material, and around how well the tasks flowed and made sense. We had initially imagined that teachers would spend the release year designing and testing out one unit. The experience of student feedback and learning by piloting was so valuable, however, that many teachers moved to an iterative model of design where they would design and teach, and then move back into design. This shift produced better courses faster, with protocols in place for growth and change when their planning period went away.


Teaching is often a solitary professional endeavor. We go into our classrooms and close the door, and very rarely do we work with peers to improve what we're doing. We asked our teachers to tear down those walls and work together to change their courses. What we learned is that collaboration is hard when all participants don't share a common vision for where they're going. And even when they do share a vision, how they enact that vision can be very different. Teachers have to negotiate the extent to which they want to be aligned in their classrooms and how comfortable they are working from a common calendar. Transitioning to PBL, which often requires teachers to think differently about how they use resources, can further complicate this challenge of alignment. Through all of these challenges, however, we've seen teams of teachers develop norms and practices that really draw on the strength of every team member to deliver the best possible instruction in their respective classrooms. We've also found new, compassionate and authoritative ways of talking about the challenges of collaboration with students because we've been there. We understand how everyone on the team can do their best and still not be able to get the product quite right.

Student Voice

In the course of our design, we worked with teachers who were at different levels of readiness for the change, with different learning styles and different ideas of what a classroom should be. In order to best meet these needs, we had to get comfortable as a leadership team. If we asked our teachers what they needed, and worked hard to value and respond to those needs, we would be able to move our school farther than if we entered the professional learning with our own agenda. We hoped that by modeling ways to respond to student voice, we would give our teachers new ideas about how they could bring that into their classrooms -- for example, how they could model discussions about goal-setting and standards while making room for students to express what works for them in a way that is valued and respected. Willingness to ask how we can best serve students takes strong leadership from the coaches and strong leadership from our teachers. We needed to be open to answers that ask us to make dramatic changes.


Teachers, particularly at the secondary level, are experts in their content. That expertise is often what prompted them to get into teaching -- they like their subject and want to talk about it for a living. This expertise is a source of professional pride and satisfaction, and something teachers hone over the course of their career as they add and improve components of instruction, like lecture and classroom management. PBL asks teachers to think differently about their expertise and to find ways of empowering students to be experts in the classroom. This transfer of expertise is critical for student ownership and engagement in PBL, but is not always easy for the teacher to sort out. It takes a strong leader to set the tone and the path, and then step into a coaching role to start students down that path. The collaborative nature of the teacher design teams also put teachers with varied expertise on teams designing the same course. While this can be fertile ground for change, it demands that teachers enter it with mutual respect and openness to doing things differently and trusting in expertise that is not theirs, whether that comes from an outside expert or a novice teacher.

Just as we ask students to develop the skills for grappling with ill-defined problems, we need to ask the same of teachers as they create these challenges. While many teachers see a role for PBL, it isn't always easy to incorporate in a good way as we confront the reality of meeting standardized assessments and maintaining our identity as a comprehensive, public high school. We continue to get better at thinking about how we can use PBL to reach students, how we can deepen their learning, and how we can best work together to grow our practice. The transition is working for us because we invest in our teachers as leaders and as learners -- and as that capacity grows, so does our capacity for PBL. We look forward to continuing this conversation as we keep thinking about the next steps.

Editor’s Note: Visit “Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning” to stay updated on Edutopia’s coverage of Sammamish High School.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Professional Learning
  • 9-12 High School

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