We’ve had the privilege to work with hundreds of PBL educators across many school systems; here are a few pieces of advice for any administrators who want to embed project-based learning into their schools:
- Start by educating yourself about PBL. This will demonstrate your commitment to the work while making you better equipped to support teachers throughout the process. You’ll also be better able to speak about PBL when seeking buy-in from staff.
- Provide staff with an overview of PBL, including clear definitions of the instructional approach and its benefits. Provide teachers with a choice of whether or not to engage, and be clear on what a commitment to PBL in the classroom would look like.
- If PBL is new to your school, seek out a cohort of early adopters to test-drive PBL. Working through the process on a smaller scale will provide a safer, more manageable space to work out kinks that can then be avoided when moving to scale.
- Consider starting the cohort with a focus on implementing individual PBL elements in their regular classroom instruction rather than planning and launching full-blown projects immediately. This will give teachers time to hone their PBL skills while managing fewer variables at a time.
- Set the expectation that, no matter what happens, the emphasis will be on learning and growth. Mistakes and failures should be expected, embraced, and celebrated. Encourage teachers to reflect honestly and consistently about successes, struggles, and opportunities; and regularly convene the cohort to share their experiences across classrooms and eventually, with the staff at large.
- Don’t send mixed messages. If the expectation is for teachers to learn and grow their PBL practice, and to embrace failure…do not bring up test scores. Talking data points and percentages will freeze early adopters in their tracks, and the fidelity of the PBL initiative will fizzle.
- Don’t expect perfection. I mean this in several ways: PBL often looks and sounds messy and chaotic, but that’s because PBL is also energetic and agile. If you expect nice neat rows and kids working silently, you’ll be actively discouraging PBL. Likewise, projects will not look or be executed perfectly. There will likely be dead-ends, errors, and hiccups in the process, and that’s OK.
- Don’t assume that a few days of professional development will be enough. Research shows that educators typically need at least 20 hours of training plus ongoing coaching and support to really impact instruction. This support could come from external trainers or from experienced educators within your system. Keep in mind that while educators may believe in the new pedagogy, it takes long-term practice to sustain instructional reform.
- Don’t make PBL mandatory for everyone–at least not early on. Engaging all staff at once dilutes the focus before showing proof of concept; and trying to engage teachers who are uninterested or actively opposed to PBL will be a drain on time and resources. Let the naysayers be for now.
- Don’t position PBL within one department, unless that department is collectively seeking to take up the PBL mantle. No one wants to feel like the Guinea pig, or that their subject area is less important, and therefore ripe for experimentation. Voice and choice is essential to getting new instructional practice off the ground.