A few years back, I worked with many schools across the country that became enamored with project based learning after site visits to PBL icons such as High Tech High or had sent a team of administrators to a PBL conference—and returned with wide-eyed enthusiasm for reinventing education at their school. Mostly, it didn’t happen. After an initial surge, daily classroom routines returned to normal, with a few projects scattered here and there.
Unfortunately, this pattern continues today—and there is a simple reason behind the failure to thrive: Educators continue to treat PBL as just another teaching strategy. Inoculate teachers with a three day PBL workshop. Show them how PBL works. Send them into the classroom. Celebrate a few projects. Change the culture slightly. Return to home base.
If startup companies adopted this approach, Uber wouldn’t be replacing taxis and Airbnb wouldn’t be threatening the hotel business. Startup companies these days are looking to revolutionize, not incrementalize. They intend to change the paradigm, shift the mindset, or overturn the status quo—whichever metaphor you prefer.
That scope of change demands an innovative, strategic, systemic approach that schools generally lack—and that’s the downfall of PBL. Initiating PBL school-wide or district wide requires starting with a vision and breaking that vision down into a dense, rich conversation about change in virtually every aspect of a school, from the assessment system to the use of time to the kinds of conversations teachers have in the staff room. As a teacher in Maryland once said to me when I pitched the importance of assessing 21st Century skills in a project, “We can’t do that,” she objected sharply, “There’s no place in the grade book for that.”
She was right, and it’s a change that needs to be anticipated. It’s not necessary that these changes have to happen at once, or at the beginning of the journey; it is essential to know that systematic change brings predictable challenges. That’s the purpose of a strategic plan: The challenges don’t surprise and are simply part of the landscape.
How would I start? Based on my experience in helping schools develop successful, sustainable PBL programs, I see the following five steps as critical:
Get help before the journey. A startup sometimes starts in a garage, but more often the founders get advice from experts. Business consultants are a common commodity in the commercial world, but there is no comparable position in education, particularly in PBL. Spend some money on strategic discussions and planning with an expert—and save thousands of dollars and occasionally years of lost time.
Lay out tasks and timelines. The journey to success isn’t a mystery; it just takes time identify the complexity of the change, the necessary steps, the culture and personalities to be affected, and the milestones along the way. Teachers do quite well when they know there is time to make the necessary adjustments in a school. It’s uncertainty that creates resistance to change.
Ramp up the PD time. I once presented a one day PBL workshop in a well-regarded district on the day prior to the opening of a high school that had announced itself to parents and students as a new ‘STEM/PBL school.’ To repeat: One day of training to reinvent a school. The advice here: If you don’t have the time or funds to train, don’t do PBL. Just keep on doing conventional education and make it the best you can.
Make the first month count. When PBL launches, it can’t fall back to ground immediately; it needs to go airborne. A solid start makes teachers and students more enthused, while a poor start reinforces all their fears. This is as true of students as teachers. We may believe PBL is good for students, but they need to be convinced and trained. This where strategic planning enters: For example, if you’re starting PBL with 9th graders, look at their feeder school experience. Are they ready for PBL or more used to listening and taking notes?
Build in continuous learning. The strategic plan always anticipates failure and rough periods—and they will happen in PBL. The good news is that poorly designed projects still work to some degree; often, students enjoy them, even if the learning is uneven. But the key is planning to get better. Have teachers practice protocols and learn to analyze projects from a design standpoint. Require grade level or staff debriefs of projects. Bring in students to staff meetings to describe their project experience. Use staff-wide observation and expertise to help each individual teacher get better. That’s how to build a PBL PLC that, in time, takes on a life of its own and embeds PBL in your school.