Andrew Miller

Leading PBL Schoolwide? Tips to Get Started

Many schools are making major changes in structures and professional development to make sure teachers are implementing effective project-based learning (PBL) schoolwide. I've been honored to be part of that journey with many schools. I have seen many different kinds of PBL schools, and with it, many kinds of PBL projects. This work has also reaffirmed the belief that the principal is one of the cornerstones to effective PBL implementation. We know this! This is not new news, but because PBL is a change in the paradigm of curriculum and instruction, it means that implementation has unique strategies and challenges as well. Here are some straightforward ways I have seen principals at PBL schools lead toward excellent PBL implementation.

Create the Buy-In

It's easy to jump right in and start PBL trainings and professional development, but this alone will not create the momentum. Some of the best schools I have worked with spend a lot of time creating the buy-in before even starting training or professional development. I’ve seen principals organize school visits to great PBL schools as well as debrief the process. I've also seen principals allow teachers to read short articles of blogs at staff meetings and create inquiry questions so that staff can explore and learn what they want about PBL. This requires a "hands-off" approach by the principal to truly honor teacher questions and concerns. If considerable time is given to this buy-in process, a principal can lead as a guide to bring teachers to a PBL implementation that will work for them and their schools.

Model the PBL Process in Professional Development

Whether using the inquiry-circles method for investigating a problem practice or setting up a driving question aligned to school goals, principals can easily model some or all of the aspects of the PBL process. Principals might present a problem of practice to a team of teachers, have them investigate, and then have them present their information and solutions to other teachers and stakeholders. "Need to know" lists might live in the staff room or virtually, where all can access the list, ask questions, and provide answers. Additionally, protocols that are used for student revision can be used by teachers to receive ongoing feedback on their projects. Through modeling, principals can built trust and also help ground teachers in the PBL process.

Create PBL Projects

If you want teachers to believe you "get it," know what it feels like to create a rigorous PBL project, and know the essential elements of design, then you must create a PBL project. Principals can show efficacy by creating, revising, and reflecting on PBL projects they design and implement. As teachers build their projects, principals should build with them and participate in the professional development and training. Principals will not only learn more about PBL but also build relationships and create a culture of revision and reflection with faculty and staff.

Set Clear Expectations for Projects

It's important to start small, but this can look different from school to school. Some teachers are more ready for project-based learning than others. Some schools have structures that allow for easy collaboration and integration of subject areas. All of these factors contribute to making reasonable goals for the number of PBL projects in the first year as well as the level of integration. Set these goals with the input of teachers and be clear to all on the rationale.

Although these suggestions for leading PBL might seem basic, they are sometimes overlooked in the process or sometimes seen as not needed. I feel that as an instructional leader, it is critical for the principal leading a PBL change to model these attributes by creating meaningful buy-in, modeling the process, creating projects, and setting reasonable goals that come from experience in PBL. These are just the first steps in a long journey of growth for the PBL principal, teacher, and school.

Andrew K. Miller is an educator and consultant. He is an ASCD Faculty member and a National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.

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