One of my favorite parts of leading Project Based Learning workshops is watching teachers transform from an attitude of fear or doubt about PBL, to confidence and excitement. Many administrators task their teachers to lead professional development about PBL when they return. Since the teachers are novices on the topic this request can feel frightening or overwhelming.
Other teachers attend PBL workshops with a only a few colleagues or by themselves. They are excited to share their learning with teachers and administration back at their school. Both groups frequently ask, “How can we effectively bring PBL back to the rest of our staff and/or administration at our school.”
The situations vary. The principal or teachers at their school may or may not be interested in PBL. Here are some suggestions to spread the PBL love to your colleagues and your administration, no matter what their current commitment to it is.
Instead of giving a slide presentation summarizing what PBL is, run a protocol at a staff meeting or other PD. The best way for adults to learn is through experience, so try a Jigsaw of a PBL article or watch a project video followed by a Harkness Protocol. After experiencing the protocol, teachers can collaboratively plan out how to implement it in their classrooms. This will not only introduce teachers to aspects of PBL, but will build a school wide culture as different teachers are using the same protocols in their varied classrooms.
One middle school that I worked with, uses their late start days as an opportunity for student groups to come in early and run the Tuning Protocol. Students get helpful feedback on their projects. The school invites teachers and administrators from other schools in their district to visit and see what PBL looks like. They are spreading the PBL love throughout their school system.
Invite colleagues into your classroom to observe PBL “in the wild.” Seeing is believing! The best way to get others excited about PBL and to help them understand the shifts that it entails is for them to see it in action. Teachers could be part of an authentic audience for practice presentations, or they could be experts helping students in the middle of a project.
Don’t just invite teachers for the final presentation day. Schedule them to visit on a normal workday too. Observations are most effective when teachers have a list of specific things to look for. Hand them this rubric to record observations to discuss later in a PLC. Encourage teachers to ask students what they are doing and why. One effective way to organize classroom observations is to have your principal get a rotating sub for the day so different teachers can observe for an hour each.
At your next staff meeting organize a student panel to tell about their PBL experiences. Kids can describe their favorite projects, challenges, areas of growth, and how the PBL framework motivates them to do their best work. Practice with your students ahead of time, so they know what kind of questions they will be asked. Encourage your kids to be themselves and share honest stories about their PBL experiences.
Don’t just pick high achieving students either, but be sure to include a mixture of kids from various backgrounds. Students who have struggled in school academically or behaviorally in the past but are excited about PBL can provide strong evidence for other teachers to give it a try. In my experience, nothing “sells” PBL better than students sharing!
The most powerful way to spread PBL at your school is through stories. Stories are what make classroom observations and student panels so powerful. Experts tell us that logic and rational reasoning alone will not lead to change. People must feel an emotional need to make a change, and stories accomplish this!
Stories can come from your classroom or you can show examples of PBL from other schools. Another way to collect stories is to have your students record reflections during the project. Provide them with prompts about their content learning, engagement, and how their groups are functioning. These stories will not only document their personal successes, but are feedback for you to improve future projects.
The most powerful stories are ones that show growth in students, especially in areas of motivation. Many teachers have misconceptions about what PBL is, and stories help them see clearly how they could adopt it. The truth is, when most teachers learn how PBL actually works, they are affirmed by the aspects that they are already doing.
Don’t just keep all of those stories in house. When students complete high quality work that is relevant to the school and the community, it’s time to brag. Call up your local journalists and TV stations and let them know about what your kids are accomplishing. Publish your project in the school or district newsletter. Public education gets enough negative publicity. It’s time for teachers to share amazing stories of the meaningful work that students are doing.
The other way to share is on social media. This can create strong connections with parents and the community. If you need to convince your administrator about PBL, advertising is effective too. When she sees positive press or gets excited calls from parents about your students’ projects, your principal will see the value of the PBL framework.
This technique is specifically for teachers who don’t have administrative support to try PBL. Your principal may not be “against” PBL. But you may have common assessments that are not congruent with your project idea or you may have a reading or math block with scripted curriculum that must be followed lockstep. The magic word to navigate these kinds of obstacles is pilot. Tell your principal:
“I just attended an incredible workshop on Project Based Learning and I think that it is exactly the personalized approach that our students need. With your permission, I would like to pilot a project in class and see how students respond.”
The beauty of the word pilot is, it not only grants permission, but it assumes there will be some bumps along the road as you experiment with something new. If necessary, show administration research or better yet share success stories of PBL in other settings similar to your school. Chances are your principal supports the tenets of PBL already, but may not know how to get permission from her superior. “Pilot” creates the perfect scenario.
Of course, once teachers and administration are getting excited about PBL and ready to dive in, there is no substitute for high quality professional development. Making the shift to student-centered PBL can be a frightening transition, especially for traditional teachers. A multiple day, PBL workshop lead by an experienced practitioner will give teachers both the skills and the confidence to launch a project in their classroom.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and your school won’t make a dramatic transition to PBL overnight. Take small steps and don’t forget to continue the conversations about your victories and struggles in PLC’s. Seek out continued professional development throughout the journey. Remember it’s not about the product, but the process!