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by Ashley Ellis
Systemic Partnership Coach

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March 1, 2016
4 Lessons Learned from Supporting School Districts in PBL Implementation

by Ashley Ellis
Systemic Partnership Coach

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting school districts across the country in implementing Project Based Learning in their schools. As a Systemic Partnership Coach (SPC) for the Buck Institute for Education, my job is to support district leaders in aligning systems and practices, creating structures, and building district capacity as they navigate their PBL implementation journey.

School districts partner with BIE for Systemic Services because they want to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. Sometimes they want support in implementing PBL as just one piece to a larger instructional puzzle; other times a district may see PBL as the major instructional initiative. Sometimes districts implement PBL as part of a grant; other times they may have PBL explicitly written into their strategic plan. Regardless of what brings them to PBL, we support them in figuring out how to make it accessible to teachers and students. Even though districts are all heading toward the same goal of improving instruction for students, none of these journeys is quite the same and there are lessons to be learned from each of them.

Here are my top four lessons learned from my work with these districts:

1. No two districts are the same. This may seem pretty obvious, but it’s worth noting that implementation looks a little different in every district we support. Some districts, like Richland School District 2 in South Carolina, invite schools to apply to participate in PBL implementation in a cohort model. Each year of implementation, another cohort of schools begins the work, building on the successes and learning from the challenges of previous cohorts. Other districts, like York County School Division in Virginia, select teams of teachers from schools across the district to utilize PBL as a way to achieve an overarching instructional initiative.  
Why is this important? In order for PBL to stick, we have to meet districts where they are. Each district starts the PBL journey in a different place, and as an SPC, my job is to figure out where districts are and help them get to where they want to be. From the very first day of implementation, we work to understand all we can about how a district operates and how PBL will fit into existing structures, practices, and other initiatives. Then we work to give them all the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to sustain PBL in their schools, so when BIE leaves, PBL stays.
2. Leaders matter. We all know that teachers need training and support to use PBL effectively in the classroom. What may not be as obvious, but has been made clear in our work with districts, is the need to support district and school leaders in fulfilling their role in the process. We work with district and school leaders to create the culture and conditions necessary to make PBL successful in their schools. Using the Deeper Learning Framework for leaders, we help them create a vision for PBL and a concrete plan for actualizing that vision.
Leaders in our partner districts participate in an intensive leadership development program focused specifically on PBL implementation. With our support, they plan for how they will create shared leadership structures at their school and across the district to foster a culture supportive of PBL.
3. What one can do, a team can do better. It’s not possible for one person in a school district to carry the PBL torch alone. The PBL flame may start with one passionate educator in a district, but sustainability across the district happens when there is an “all in” approach to the work. BIE supports district leaders in creating team structures to sustain PBL implementation. For example, most of our districts have created a PBL Steering Committee, composed of district leaders, school leaders, teachers, and sometimes parent representatives, that meets regularly to plan and carry out implementation tasks. With coaching and support from the SPC, the steering committee might develop clear and consistent messaging around PBL, celebrate and showcase successes in implementation, solve problems of practice, or develop additional tools and resources for teachers and leaders.
4. PBL implementation is a journey, not an event. I’ve learned that systemic implementation of PBL is a journey that takes several years. We typically work with districts for three years, and over the course of that time the district builds the capacity to sustain implementation beyond the partnership. PBL implementation involves a cultural shift at all levels of the organization, not just some PBL workshops for teachers. For example, district leaders might need to model what it means to collaborate effectively or bring in community stakeholders, just like teachers and students do in a good project. In BIE’s leadership development program, participants present a “public product” at a PBL Learning Fair to share their successes and challenges while learning from the other leaders in their district.

Districts that rush to train teachers before building a foundation of leadership and a culture of collaboration struggle to maintain momentum after the initial PBL excitement. James Dallas, Director of Teaching and Learning for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, reminds his principals and teachers that they’re “running a PBL marathon, not a sprint.” By committing to a slow and thoughtful implementation, districts ensure that students will engage in high quality PBL experiences for years to come.

The end of a three-year partnership with a district comes with mixed emotions. On one hand, it is sad to see a hard-earned relationship end. On the other hand, it leaves me with a sense of pride to see a district no longer “need” us because they have the capacity and culture to continue their PBL journey on their own. 


Have comments, questions, or stories to share about PBL implementation at the district level? Please enter them below.

For more information about BIE’s PBL implementation services for schools and districts, visit the Services page of our website.


  • Right now I am the only teacher at my school implementing PBL. Do you have any advice for getting others to jump on board?

    Joannal356 on April 2, 2016 
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