11 Structural Shifts for PBL to Thrive

As horrible as Covid-19 has been, one result is that society has been forced to re-think just about everything. Education was hit hard with schools shut down around the world. Now that in many countries schools have re-opened in some capacity, it is a fitting time to examine some sacred cows of how the system works.

PBL is a mindset, a framework, and a philosophy. So in shifting to student-centered PBL, you can’t change just one thing. It effects everything: schedules, scope and sequence of classes, grading and assessment. Teachers get frustrated when they are mandated to use PBL in their rooms without eliminating some of the structural obstacles that make implementation difficult.

What follows are the 11 structural changes I would make if I ruled education. These are the critical shifts that district and building level administrators should consider to maximize student-centered PBL for all.

1. Culture First

Everything starts with building level culture; without it nothing else matters. I highly recommend the book Open Up, Education! by Ben Owens as a starting point to build the right environment before starting PBL. He recommends that schools incubate:

  • A culture of collaboration
  • Free exchange of knowledge
  • An innovation ethos

Culture can’t be forced with a top-down approach. Culture comes from a trusting respect between administration and teachers treating each other as professionals. Hire new teachers who are compatible to PBL (see the ideal traits of a PBL teacher), and train existing staff in the process. Although PBL can’t be forced on teachers, skilled administrators will motivate teachers to want to implement it.

2. Teacher voice and choice.

Teachers need to be treated as professionals. This starts by trusting them in the decisions for their classrooms. Administrators need to empower teachers by defaulting to yes.

Culture comes when teacher voice and choice is listened to, not patronized.

Mandating teacher compliance to your latest and greatest initiative doesn’t work (we know that if we just hold out, there will be another initiative soon). Instead, create teacher committees to hear their thoughts and ideas. Give teachers real decision making authority over things like curriculum, assessment, building school culture, and especially PD. Ask them what they want and then support them in making it happen.

3. Block Scheduling

PBL is challenging with the time restraints of a traditional schedule of many short classes or blocks. Shift to a block schedule for longer classes with deeper inquiry. Integrate classes for flexibility and more time. PBL works best with less classes that go a mile deep rather than a mile wide.

At the elementary level, move away from a strictly structured day, where every section is set for a specific content or program. Let teachers integrate subjects into one PBL project that addresses multiple content standards throughout the day.

4. Large and Flexible Spaces

Larger, integrated classes can be facilitated by multiple teachers. Team teaching works best in larger rooms. You may not be able to change the footprint of your school, but consider using common spaces such as hallways, lunchrooms, auditoriums, and libraries as class space. If the weather permits, go outside and learn with nature.

If you do have new construction or remodeling opportunities, knock down walls to combine classrooms. Create flexible spaces that look more like coffee shops than classrooms.

5. Small Schools or Teaming

PBL pairs well with Social Emotional Learning, restorative practices, competency based grading, cultural responsive, and antiracism. SEL develops in safe places with strong relationships. It is difficult to establish relationships in mega-schools with thousands of kids who get lost in the shuffle. Build smaller schools, when possible. For existing schools, using teaming to create cohorts of students and teachers who can get to know each other at a deep level.

6. Ignore the Tests

I know, I know. All kinds of things are tied to testing such as state and federal funds, school and teacher evaluations. But forget about the pressure and money for a moment, and admit that standardized testing itself is a waste of time and money with little to no benefit to actual learning.

Testing is antithetical to PBL, because it controls the content in a narrow fashion and limits freedom of teacher and student voice and choice. This includes district grade level assessments too. Replace these assessments with student portfolios that are “defended” at the end of each year in public presentations.

7. Throw Out District Pacing Guides and Mandated Curriculum

Standardized curriculum and pacing guides can be useful structures for novice teachers, but should never be mandated. PBL requires freedom for teacher and student voice and choice. PBL designs projects around content, the students, and the community. Projects should still be based on power standards and discipline related skills, but scope and sequence should be flexible to meet project and student needs.

8. Technology instead of Textbooks

Same as above. Textbooks are yet another way of controlling teachers and students. Instead of wasting thousands of dollars on stale, sanitized textbooks, use the cash to buy affordable internet devices so students can drive their own learning through research.

PBL uses literature of all kinds to support learning goals in projects.

Note, I did not say all books. I love libraries! I would advise you to consider diversifying the titles that you purchase beyond the canon.

9. Increase Planning Time

First we remove all of the constraints of testing, textbooks, and curriculum. Now teachers have the freedom to recreate personalized projects centered on their students and community. But PBL requires upfront planning, lots of it.

Planning time needs to be collaborative so that teachers who work together can plan integrated projects.

It takes me a minimum of twenty to thirty hours to plan a 3-4 week project, and I am a veteran PBL teacher and curriculum designer. Once the project is rolling, very little additional planning is required, and I start planning the next project. But that is still a ton of time. Teachers new to the PBL process will need even more time the first few years of teaching it.

In the best environments that I have taught in, teachers had close to two hours of planning daily, instead of the norm of one hour. It made a huge difference. This will cost money, but it is necessary.

10. Community Connections

High quality PBL is embedded into the community. Most teachers are not used to networking. It is a new skill for them. Create opportunities to invite the community to get to know the school. Develop partnerships with local businesses, government officials, and non-profits.

Compile a database of potential project partners from your parents or professionals that you know who would be willing to help. This can be easily created using a Google Form. As your staff, do more and more projects the database will grow along with the community connections. Don’t be afraid to cold call a local business or non-profit.

11. Streamline Grading

One way to find more planning time it to grade less. Emphasize (and offer PD, if necessary) formative assessments done in real time during project work time. Feedback can come from peers and the community, not just the teacher. Build a culture that emphasizes self reflection leading to high quality work.

How to Challenge Structures

Not every school or district is ready to make all of these changes at once. Everyone should start with culture, but if teachers are not trained and ready to implement projects then they still may need textbooks and curriculum for a period of time. But don’t make them mandatory. Differentiate and let the teachers who are ready start to design their own projects immediately.

It’s all about the money. Most things done in schools are either tied to tradition: lecturing, note taking, same age classes, bell schedule, and homework. Or they are tied to state and federal money: standardized testing, school improvement plans, teacher evaluations and other compliances.

If we want to make some of these changes listed above, we need to be comfortable ignoring test scores and potentially look for alternative funding.

Consider organizing local businesses and your parents to pressure politicians to change restrictive education policies, especially financial ones. Attempt to connect with businesses to fund PBL programs to replace potential lost funding for noncompliance to ridiculous government mandates.

Look for and apply to any opt out programs. Many states have a process for schools to opt out of standardized testing or seat time waivers or many other factors if you can present an alternative plan. One of my favorite words is “pilot.” Apply for grants to pilot PBL to avoid government requirements. Yes, it will require extra paperwork and planning, but if it’s a path to student-centered PBL then it is so worth it!

Questions? Interested in SEL and PBL workshops or consulting?  Connect with me at  michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele.