Author Archives: Michael Kaechele

7 Methods to Make PBL Contagious

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.

Classroom Observations

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.

Student Panel

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!

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at or @mikekaechele onTwitter.

Five Aspects of PBL Teachers as Coach

Note: I wrote this post last winter before Coach Beilein left for Cleveland. I decided to post as is, without changes, because Beilein is still the same amazing coach even though he broke our hearts when he left.

We have already destroyed the strawman myth that Project Based Learning classrooms are chaos with the teacher acting as a glorified babysitter. But I want to dig deeper into the teacher’s role as a coach in the PBL framework. What does it look like in the wild?

Think about coaches that you know in any sport. Does their job seem easy, slow-paced, or passive? Not if they are any good! Coaching is an active intercession with athletes built on personal relationships. Coaches spend hundreds of hours preparing and working with their teams, even though they are never on the court during the game. Coaches don’t play, but they change lives!

I would like to use one of my favorite coaches as an example for this post, John Beilein, head coach of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team. He is a renowned offensive innovator and teacher of young men. I have watched him grow in his craft the past 12 seasons at Michigan. Here are five key aspects to his coaching style that translate to PBL.

Skill Building

John Beilein starts every season by practicing basic skills. He begins with a focus on balance and how to stand when you pass and catch the basketball. He drills players on the proper use of their pivot foot and being aware of their body position at all times. Freshman players are always surprised by the attention to detail and the focus on drills that they haven’t done since middle school. Beilein knows the effort spent on the fundamentals will make all of the difference between wins and losses later. And his teams consistently lead the country in fewest turnovers due to his emphasis on the fundamentals. 

PBL teacher’s primary job is to develop students’ skills. We all know that information is free and ubiquitous on the internet, but the coach focuses on skills such as literacy, computation, and research. PBL coaches want deeper learning. It is not enough for a student to memorize an algorithm, instead they should understand how to problem solve and be able to transfer to new situations. PBL coaches teach students how to be self directed learners. 


Coaches don’t just roll the balls out on the floor and say “Start practice.” Beilein spends countless hours watching film, studying offensive and defensive philosophies, and designing plays. He has numerous assistants who help, including a strength and conditioning coach that develops players’ bodies. Players are not all treated the same. Each one has a personalized workout and nutrition plan designed to help them grow where needed.

No teacher just shows up to school without a plan. In PBL, most of the planning is front loaded: designing the focus of the project, finding community partners, and choosing content standards to study and assess. PBL coaches also need to personalize their planning with scaffolding as students need it and differentiation based on skills, interests, and abilities. A well designed PBL project is like a master game plan against a rival opponent.

Continuous Growth

John Beilein doesn’t get 5 star recruits to come to Michigan. He gets many “under the radar” players that he develops into strong ball players over their time in his program. He also doesn’t have many “one and done” stars who only play for the one mandated season before leaving for the NBA. Freshman rarely play much in Beilein’s complicated system as there is a huge learning curve. All division 1 scholarship players were stars on their high school team so it can be a culture shock to have watch from the bench that first year.

But after time in the weight room and developing their skills, Beilein has a strong history of turning 3 and 4 stars into NBA draft picks. Players have to trust the process and learn the system before they see the court in gametime. They must learn to communicate and perform their role on the team.

PBL teachers are all about growth mindset with their students. Students don’t show up to class with highly developed SEL skills. The PBL teacher has students practicing skills such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking daily. PBL coaches intentionally teach, practice, and assess students’ project management skills such as handling resources, sticking to a timeline, and successful collaboration with their team. Much like Beilein’s players, students turn into strong leaders ready to tackle global issues when they graduate. 

Developing Confidence

One of the most important aspects of coaching young people is building their confidence. I love Beilein’s quote about shooting, “Better to go 0-8 than 0-2.” Beilein encourages aggressiveness and failing forward. He is a motivator and encourages risk taking (within the offense of course). 

Most young people are trying to figure out who they are as a person and have not yet found their voice. PBL teachers use relationships to build up their students’ confidence. They challenge kids with complex problems and then encourage them to persevere with solutions. PBL coaches don’t punish mistakes with low grades, but support risk taking and exploration. Many students discover skills, interests, and talents in the midst of projects that lead to careers and passions that they had not previously considered. 


John Beilein has always been considered an offensive genius whose teams were difficult to defend, but his teams were thought by some to be soft and weak on the defensive end. Then a few years ago Beilein hired a “defensive coordinator” and the past two seasons Michigan transformed into a top defensive team in the country! Even after decades of coaching, John Beilein demonstrated his ability to grow personally and adapt to the strengths of his players. 

A PBL teacher is continually growing professionally and learning new strategies to strengthen their classroom approach. PBL teachers are constantly learning new protocols and developing differentiated scaffolding. Students are different every year so you can’t just roll out the same exact projects. They need to be tweaked for this year’s students giving room for their voice and choice.


Active PBL teaching requires 100% of a person’s energy, even though they aren’t “playing” in the game. PBL coaching is definitely not a spectator sport. Teachers may not be in the front of the room lecturing in the traditional sense, but they are using personal relationships to develop students’ skills and confidence. High Quality PBL coaching leads to holistic student development that goes beyond test scores to impact the world.

For more ideas on coaching students in PBL, check out this post too!