These educators know how to make PBL work for teachers

A superintendent and two STEM specialists share best practices for providing the professional development teachers need to embrace PBL.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a trend that’s spreading faster than a wildfire during a drought. Why? Because research on PBL proves that it increases student engagement and achievement, and helps students develop the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in their future careers.

For PBL to reach its full potential, though, educators must learn to step back and be facilitators in the classroom, a change that requires thoughtful and ongoing professional development. Here, three educators offer their insights on what it takes to roll out and support a successful PBL implementation.

Give Teachers Autonomy, Flexibility

Art Fessler, superintendent, Community Consolidated School District 59

Learning in District 59 reflects the real work being done in the world, empowers the learner, solves real-world problems, and provides for student agency. We are moving from a traditional means of education to an environment where kids are empowered to learn. PBL has been used in classrooms throughout our district for many years.

However, as we shift into a modern learning environment, I wanted to ensure educators had a shared understanding of what PBL looks like. We made visits to local programs engaging in PBL and worked closely with their administration and coaches to help us identify a path to implementation and develop our own PBL opportunities.

We attempt to build teacher buy-in by allowing voice in the process and autonomy in the design. As a leadership team, we spend a significant amount of time discussing and building a shared understanding of best practices in instruction and leadership so leaders have the requisite skill to inspire and lead. Both building and district leaders are required to spend a portion of their day in classroom and grade-level meetings to gain understanding of the challenges staff face. Asking good questions, collecting data, and providing meaningful feedback all play an important role in building leadership credibility and empowerment.

We have used multiple professional guidance materials and resources including the Buck Institute and Defined STEM. While Buck Institute has helped us kick-start our PBL program by providing educational blogs and actual units, Defined STEM’s project-based learning resources have saved us valuable time spent curriculum planning.

We ensure every resource we provide allows teachers the flexibility to modify and really personalize lessons to meet the needs of their students and provide some level of choice in learning. The bottom line is that we provide educators the tools to make the learning applicable and engaging, and to prepare our students to be successful for life.

(Next page: More advice on PBL success)

Implement in Small Steps

Teri Fleming, STEM Curriculum and Professional Development director, Stoughton Public Schools 6-12

Teachers have an overwhelming desire to provide students with the “correct” answers, which is a difficult hurdle for educators to overcome. Additionally, our students are not used to being “independent learners,” and are accustomed to seeking the correct answer instead of using their knowledge to problem solve for viable solutions.

It’s my job to help educators feel comfortable and successful when implementing PBL, and support them in blending their role as teacher and facilitator.

Based on my years of experience, I’ve found it’s best to break PBL implementation into three parts:

  1. Plan for your goal;
  2. Implement in small steps; and
  3. Support as much as possible throughout.

Educators want to know what direction your district is heading, so planning goals and communicating them is important. They need to understand where and how PBL fits into the current curriculum and how it aligns to the standards.

It works well to roll out new concepts and tools in small groups, and have the group provide feedback before implementing to a larger cohort. Doing this allows us to smooth out the creases, and educators become the best proponents for their findings and success.

For example, in 2015 we started using Defined STEM in the middle school upper-level science courses. The resource provides educators with pre-built, standards-aligned, career-focused performance tasks along with support materials like articles, videos, and rubrics. Over the years, we have expanded use to 6th-8th grade science and math classes, and 9th-10th grade courses to create interdisciplinary units. This year, we introduced the performance tasks to a small group of elementary teachers who immediately began incorporating performance tasks into their scope and sequences.

The tiered implementation allowed me to see how educators were incorporating the tool on a daily basis, and where they needed additional PD. As the implementation expanded, we were able to provided targeted PD and show educators how the resource was able to provide flexibility to customize the content and could be integrated into an overarching unit or used as a stand-alone support.

Finally, you can’t ask enough times, “What do you need from me to make this a positive learning environment for the students?”

In our district, we conduct monthly, half-day release professional development. During our sessions, we focus on what we need to improve instruction and curriculum in order to improve student learning. We increase our knowledge of current trends, assessment formats, and make adjustments to our classroom instruction, lessons, units, and assessments. We also bring in speakers/specialists in content areas to facilitate conversations and support the teachers as work is done.

Additionally, our middle and high school educators have weekly collaboration time to share best practices, and for training on any tools we use. I check in with staff on a regular basis to see what they need from me. When teachers are running a project in their classroom, I make every attempt to get there to see how the students respond. This step provides the foundation for our discussions moving forward. Lastly, I ask teachers to share their experience including student work, highs, lows, and reflect on what changes they will make next time.

Buy-In is Essential

Jordan Menning, Northwest AEA Science consultant

As a science consultant for the Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA), it’s my job to support more than 50 schools throughout northwest Iowa in implementing successful, cross-curricular STEM programs that align with the new NGSS and Iowa Standards. As a former teacher, I have a strong and realistic understanding of what tools and resources educators need to create a successful learning environment.

The number one key to building an effective and sustainable PBL program is teacher buy-in. The whole process depends on the teacher taking a leap of faith, and putting the students in charge of their own education. For many educators, this isn’t an easy task. The most successful districts offer structured, ongoing support for their educators. I facilitate online meetings, set up online communities where they can post questions and best practices, and send new resources for them to integrate into their daily lessons.

I recently worked with a district in Sioux City, IA, that had a very successful PBL program. Instructional coaches were the PBL champions who supported the teachers on a daily basis. Everyone in the school had the same vision for students and worked together as a team to achieve their goals. No teacher was left to “fend for themselves” during any step of the process. Teachers and coaches worked together to build project-based lesson plans, grading rubrics, writing prompts, and more. The biggest thing is to make them feel like they are supported and part of a community where everyone is learning together.

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