Students are working on a project in a group, demonstrating PBL in school.

5 ways to make sure PBL PD works

There's a right and a wrong way to approach PBL--and PD can make all the difference

Project-based learning is gaining steam nationwide because of its effectiveness in helping students build 21st-century skills. But there is a difference between just doing a project and doing effective, high-quality PBL.

When our school district, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, embarked on a district-wide PBL initiative three years ago, we wanted to make sure we were doing the latter and we knew that doing good PBL required the right training. You can send your teachers to a million training sessions on a topic, but they still may struggle if those sessions aren’t high quality.

Related content: 3 lessons on innovating in PBL

In order to get effective training, we partnered with the nonprofit PBLWorks to provide PBL PD to our staff and help us scale our initiative.

It’s important to partner with a good PD provider. The training should be structured in a way that allows teachers to actually experience PBL as a learner–otherwise it’s unlikely that the training will result in a change in practice. Our teachers and administrators attended intensive 3-day PBL training sessions that took a deep dive into the components of high quality PBL. The training was hands-on and teachers were able to start developing their projects. Being able to experience and practice PBL is critical to teachers’ success.

After the initial training, there are multiple ways to make sure it sticks and becomes a part of the fabric of the school or district.

Here are five ways to make sure PBL is implemented with fidelity:

1. Make sure everyone understands the “why.”
Have clear messaging around why you are doing PBL. Go into any school in Loudoun County Public Schools, and I guarantee staff will be able to share the mission of the district: “Empowering all students to make meaningful contributions to the world.” Our district’s commitment to providing students authentic, challenging problems to solve has helped. Teachers see the power of authentic learning experiences and that helps them feel like they are contributing to a world beyond the classroom. While we still have a ways to go on our journey, I think teachers understand the why behind the work.

2. Encourage teachers to engage in PBL in teams.
There has been research on the positive impact teacher collaboration can have on academic achievement. We’ve found that teachers value and learn so much from collaborating, learning, planning, and revising together rather than in isolation. It is important to create a structure within your school that will allow teachers to work together on PBL projects – it will benefit both the teachers and the students.

3. Make sure teachers know how to craft a really good driving question.
This sets a teacher up for successful project planning. The “driving question” is a simply-stated compelling question that will promote student discussion, inquiry and investigation. But as PBLWorks’ John Larmer notes, this part of the training is often where teachers have the most difficulty.
He says a good driving question must be:

● Engaging for students. It is understandable and interesting to students, and it provokes further questions and focuses their inquiry process.
● Open-ended. There are several possible answers, and it cannot simply be Googled.
● Aligned with learning goals. To answer it, students will need to learn the targeted content and skills.

Encouraging teachers to practice creating good driving questions will lead to more focused, effective projects for students.

4. Help teachers feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback.
Using protocols for peer critique allows teachers to reflect on their work and make revisions during and after projects are implemented. After all, one of the key lessons students learn in PBL is the value of critique, reflection, and revision. This is an essential part of PBL PD as well.

5. Provide ongoing support to teachers.
Teachers do not become PBL experts after a 3-day workshop. It takes time, practice, and support. Make sure your professional development partner provides ongoing support for teachers as they begin implementing what they learned and develop a plan for sustainability. After our initial PBL training sessions were complete, we continued to receive on-site support and guidance for our teachers from PBLWorks to support our implementation and help expand it. As we continue on our PBL journey, our district’s instructional coaches and other instructional leaders will take over this support. They have a deep knowledge of PBL and other district initiatives so they can work alongside teachers to support their PBL planning.

Since starting our PBL initiative, we have trained more than 3,000 teachers on implementing high quality project-based learning. Our district opened its first “wall-to-wall” PBL school this year – and will open two more in the fall. Our work is not over, but we are steady in our progress and confident in our model because of the time we have taken to make our PBL training work.

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