What kind of professional development (PD) is needed in order for project-based learning (PBL) to be done well, spread throughout a school, and stick?

Short answer: a lot.

Long answer: participant-driven, interactive, ongoing, job-embedded, and… a lot.

And by PD I don’t just mean traditional training workshops, and I don’t mean only for teachers. Here are 5 points I’d offer about PD for PBL, based on what the Buck Institute for Education has learned by working with more than 80,000 teachers and school leaders:

1. Make sure teachers and school leaders understand what it means to shift to PBL.
PBL is not just another tool that can be dropped in a teacher’s toolbox. It represents a profound change in thinking about how students should learn. It is based in John Dewey’s concept of experiential education and the more recent theory of constructivism, which holds that learners construct knowledge and understanding and build skills through an active process. This contrasts with traditional teaching, which is based on the idea of transmitting knowledge to students, as if it were being poured into an empty head.

PBL also means rethinking what students should learn. It does not mean “covering” a long list of content standards—which is not the same as “teaching” anyway. Students still need some basic knowledge, even in this age of information at our fingertips, but more importantly they need to know how to apply it. PBL emphasizes depth over breadth, depth over superficiality, and the ability to think, solve problems, and tackle real-life issues. (Note: Of course, this point bumps into the issue of what’s being tested in our assessment system, but that’s for another post.)

2. Don’t think PBL can be learned quickly; provide ongoing, sustained support.
One workshop is not going to do the trick, even a three-day workshop like the Buck Institute’s PBL 101. I think a face-to-face workshop that everyone in a school participates in is the best way to kick off a shared effort like adopting PBL, but follow-up instructional coaching is vital. Here’s where online learning and virtual coaching comes in. And here’s a reality check: It’s going to take three to five years for PBL to sink in, be done well, and become a permanent feature of a school’s program.

3. Have a shared model for PBL unit design; especially at the start of a PBL effort, don’t ask teachers to find their own various pathways.
This one may sound like it runs counter to current thinking about the need to avoid a “cookie-cutter” approach and allow for personalized learning, but if your goal is to implement PBL widely across grade levels and subject areas, teachers should have a common understanding of how to design PBL units. This allows them to share projects, collaborate, and compare and reflect on results. After they’ve learned the basics of PBL, teachers can choose what they need to learn more about individually or in need-alike groups, whether it’s how to write and use rubrics, manage student teams, scaffold student learning, and so on.

4. Think of collaboration time as PD time.
This is no longer a new idea, but it’s hugely important for teachers’ practice of PBL. School and district leaders must, and I mean must, make time in the weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule to allow teachers to plan projects together, find and share resources, and reflect on what they are learning (and celebrate accomplishments!).

5. School and district leaders need PBL PD too.
Again, no longer a new idea but key to making the investment in PBL pay off. Leading a school that uses PBL extensively requires skills leaders may not have or have had time to practice. They should model being a PBL-style learner. They will need to create new assessment systems and school cultures, and perhaps change the ways decisions are made or meeting time is used. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Leaders should attend PBL workshops and other PD events alongside teachers. Otherwise, they will not understand PBL in the same way or as deeply as the teachers, and not see what conditions are really needed for PBL to thrive.

About the Author:

John Larmer is editor in chief at the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), where he oversees all of BIE’s written products and manages its PBL Blog. He wrote and edited BIE’s project-based curriculum units for high school government and economics, and the PBL Toolkit Series. In 2015 he co-authored Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning, published by ASCD. For 10 years Larmer taught high school social studies and English and co-founded a restructured small high school, and he was a member of the National School Reform Faculty and school coach for the Coalition of Essential Schools.