10 Pro-tips from PBL Practitioners

Paving the path to PBL

By Breanna Morsadi

Project-based learning (PBL) is spreading far and wide through the education scene. Unconventional, dynamic and remastered school landscapes are gaining much attention for influencing positive growth in 21st century teaching and learning strategies. With a focus on inquiry and learning-by-doing approach, PBL helps students build personal agency and develop the skills needed for the future world of work.

While it is easy to recognize the positive value of PBL and sing the praises of schools who have transformed to this model, the truth is, educational reform isn’t an easy road. Most educators recognize the power of student-led learning, design thinking and future-forward skills that are fused with PBL practice. But more often than not, these educators feel trapped within the current system and repeat the same narrative…

“This would NEVER work in my school.”

With this in mind, we at HEADRUSH decided to interview leading PBL practitioners that have gone through their own transformation pains. These top performing schools have faced and overcome the very challenges that often stop other schools from making the leap, such as PBL implementation within a large student body, juggling district or state mandates and attaining community buy-in, among other concerns.

With advice hailing from different PBL practitioners in the field, these lessons can help you set the blueprint for PBL transformation and execution. Check out our 10 pro-tips from PBL practitioners.

Tip #1: Pick the PBL plan that works for you

PBL implementation is often daunting as some fear it means changing the whole make-up of their school. Gigi Dobosenski, a PBL practitioner from Edvisions Off-Campus (EOC) says, “I’ve seen bigger schools make a school within a school, and it works given reduced numbers, higher engagement and it being student directed.” Rather than jumping straight to full school implementation, schools should pick the PBL approach that works best given their personal needs. Mike Hourahine, co-founder of HEADRUSH, recognizes four different scenarios where schools can apply PBL in different contexts to scale.

  • In the classroom: Apply PBL directly in the classroom with guided teacher-led PBL units and self-directed projects.
  • Program within a school: Many schools apply PBL through a specific program, such as STEM, Capstone, Genius hour, Entrepreneurship programs, Service learning, Design challenges, Makerspaces
  • School within a school: Large schools tend to include a PBL “Stream”, where a full-time, learner-driven program runs within a school
  • Full school implementation: This PBL model is a fundamental part of day-to-day learning for all students

Tip #2: Amplify student voice by amplifying teacher voice

PBL is all about giving students voice and choice in their learning. Tim Quealy, PBL practitioner from Avalon Charter School (ACS) advises that, “students really have to be at the center, you have to find ways to amplify their voices, and one of the most effective ways to do this is by amplifying the voices of those working directly with them, their teachers.” While “no two communities will look the same or have the same needs,” Tim emphasizes that flexibility, constant reflection and a strong shared vision are all vital in amplifying student voice. Avalon is also a teacher-powered school, where there is no administration and all decisions are made through consensus. Teacher-powered models give teachers the opportunity to make decisions on behalf of their students needs. In this network, Tim says, “people feel like they have a voice, and anything they want to see, they can make happen.”

Tip #3: Rethink leadership

Meet Peter Wieczorek, Director of Northwest Passage High School (NWP) who has offered PBL for 14 years and counting. NWP started their PBL transition before PBL had been coined as a pedagogy. When talking to HEADRUSH, Peter laughs thinking back to the initial stages of implementing PBL, and all the challenges they grew through. Peter states, “It really starts with losing your ego in the sense that you have to be able to share power and collaborate with people.” Emphasizing how NWP staff makes decisions “on the ground, around the table,” Peter recognizes that PBL will only work well when schools recognize “that the power of the team is so much more important than the power of the individual.” To implement PBL well, leaders should honor and respect what everyone brings to the table.

Tip #4: Get your community on board

When in transition, it is important for your immediate community to understand your why. When teachers and students support a shared vision, surrounding community support will follow. Gigi from EOC reflects that in transition, first and foremost, “You need teacher buy-in… teacher buy-in is the power.” Gigi says not to expect all teachers to be supportive right away, but instead to make sure “everyone is on the same page and allow the space to happen” for change. Adnan Mackovic, Principal from THINK Global School (TGS) states, “In our context I don’t think there was much of a challenge in convincing the staff in understanding why we were transitioning. I think the bigger challenge we had was convincing the students that this was the right thing to do. That in the education world, education needs to change from being exam driven to promoting hands on, real world experiences. The students were used to the traditional system and expected it.” Whole community conversations should take place often when reforming to a PBL model. Transparency is key for a successful transition.

Tip #5: Visit PBL schools in practice

No point in recreating the wheel when leading PBL schools have been there and done that. Jenny Hill from Resilience Charter School (RCS) is currently guiding a PBL transition and says the best advice she can offer is to “Go visit a school that has already implemented PBL.” She continues, “That was huge for us and we didn’t do it until a year and a half into the school opening, but it changed everything. We kept asking the question, What does this look like, what is the ideal schedule and where are the kids learning and how… We couldn’t get these answers until we went and saw it in person and sat down and talked to the staff.” The PBL school network is growing and continues to support other schools who are making the transition.

Tip #6: Don’t fear learning standards

Standards are hard enough to meet in the traditional setting, and adding PBL to the mix can be overwhelming from a compliance standpoint. Tim from ACS states, “I think the state continuously tries to create pegs we don’t fit in. Whether it is reporting every class the kids take, or any data requested, it is meant for a traditional program. The solution could very easily be to move towards a more traditional program… but that just creates a roadmap for every kid, defining everything they have to learn, and then there is no room for that exploration that we try to push instead of just a giant checklist of things the kids do worksheets about.” Most practitioners agree that managing standards can be tricky, but that once the students themselves have an understanding of how to track and manage their own development, standards can easily work in their favor. Psst… Another pro-tip: Try using a management system that helps.

Tip #7: Flexibility starts with scheduling

Time and time again, PBL practitioners mention the importance of (and the patience needed for) scheduling. Tim from ACS shares, “As the conversation continues to grow nationally, that is one of the biggest resistances we encounter… Teachers are like, Look, I’m already totally overworked. Yeah, this sounds cool in theory but I cannot imagine taking on another thing. So… you have to take things off your plate and spread the work around. We are much more decentralized than a traditional model and a lot more flexible. This flexibility also allows us to play to the strengths of our teaching staff.” Adnan from TGS agrees that scheduling is a huge issue for any school and informs that “scheduling has to be the priority.” Most practitioners share that the scheduling battle is an ongoing one, and it is best to approach scheduling by balancing between class time, advisory time, modules and personal projects.

Tip #8: It is all about the advisory

The formation of advisory groups, small groups of students under the supervision of a teacher as mentor, allows for increased social-emotional awareness and space for individual project advising. Gigi from EOC says a strong advisory can make or break quality PBL implementation. She says, “You know, we have that advisory piece. And I think that is something special from the students’ perspective.” As EOC hosts online PBL learning, Gigi shares that their advisory program is where students get to connect on a more personal level. “They may be online but every morning they meet with the other students from their advisory. They like to type and chat a lot… Twice a year we have an overnight field trip for the whole school. We also have monthly advisory field trips.” Most PBL practitioners emphasize how strong advisory programs are essential in helping students feel safe, heard and valued.

Tip 9: Support a strong learning culture

It is remarkable to visit schools with strong learning cultures that can be felt as well as seen. In asking Peter if there is anything actionable or intentional NWP does to support a strong learning culture, he responds: “From the very beginning, we [staff] had to be learners. There was no real road map then for project-based learning, or how to do the relational work we were doing in the advisory system that we have. We, as a group, are our own cohort and advisory of continual learners, and for us it has always been about that learning environment. And so again, I think it rubs off on the students- they see that we model a strong learning culture and we are able to mentor students in that process because its a lived experience for us also.” Modeling a strong learning culture as a staff is the ultimate way to encourage a strong learning culture among students.

Tip #10: Find a PBL powered software system

While the tips above are key to aid a smooth PBL transition, the right software can supercharge the process or provide the scaffolding these new ideas need to take hold for long term feasibility. So, what do all these leading PBL schools have in common? They use HEADRUSH, our PBL learning app that facilitates PBL projects from start to finish and frees teachers from tireless management and tracking hassle. Peter from NWP says, “What HEADRUSH has done for us is created a much more intuitive, user-friendly interface that can upload results and embed student work/research right within the platform… It keeps students on track, organized and simplified things in a sleek way.” Finding the right LMS will empower your students to drive their own development and can help customize transcripts for your PBL or competency based school.

With passion, patience and these pro-tips in mind, any school can implement student-led learning in meaningful ways that works for them. While no transition happens overnight, Adnan from TGS encourages all schools to not to waver in implementing PBL. “If this is the decision that you make and this is the philosophy you are about,” Adnan encourages, “then don’t hesitate to do it, don’t hesitate to implement it, because there will be a lot of people who will say it’s not going to work. So believe in what you are doing.”

HEADRUSH facilitates learner-centered education from START to FINISH allowing students to become self-empowered learners, teachers to focus on mentoring great work and schools to be future-ready. Our Learning Liberators series highlights individuals and organizations that are brave enough to break the mold of traditional education and are making a difference in the world of learner-centered education. Join our community as we enhance dialog to support deeper learning. For more, follow @headrushapp on Twitter or visit us at https://headrushlearning.com.

We facilitate project-based learning from START to FINISH. Join our community as we enhance dialogue to support deeper learning.

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