by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
When a teacher, school, or district tells parents and community members, “We’re going to do Project Based Learning!” the response may vary. You’re lucky if some say, “Great news! Students need to be taught differently these days!” but a more typical response might be:
Basically, they’re asking for the what, why, and how. Here are some successful strategies we’ve seen to answer these questions.
What Schools and Districts Can Do
Rather than begin by explaining what PBL is, start with the “why.” Ken Kay, CEO of EdLeader21, made a good point about this when he spoke at BIE’s PBL World conference in June 2013. He noted that non-educator audiences will not respond to an appeal for a new pedagogy; but they will respond to the needs of students. So take some time to explore the need for college and career readiness in today’s world. Help parents see that in addition to traditional subject-area knowledge and skills, students joining the modern workforce need to be good critical thinkers, problem-solvers, and creative innovators. They have to know how to work well in teams. They need to be able to communicate in a variety of media and to various audiences, often across cultures and borders. Discuss how competency in these areas will help students in college, too, and in their lives as citizens.
To help make the case, have parents reflect on the work they do. Bring in speakers from the business world to explain what they look for in an employee. Check out readings and resources from organizations such as The Partnership for 21st Century Skills at P21.org. Conduct discussions to establish a shared vision of an ideal graduate from a 21st century school. When we have participants in our PBL workshops go through this exercise, the responses are usually the same wherever we go – an ideal graduate should have the “4 C’s” described above, plus some attitudinal goals like “eager to learn” or “persistent” or “takes responsibility.” It becomes immediately apparent that these competencies and habits of mind and work cannot be built well enough using only traditional teaching methods—even if your school is strong by traditional measures.
Another argument you could make has to do with student engagement. Even parents of high-achieving students would admit that their children are often given low-level assignments and are bored by school. They don't find it personally relevant or don't see the connection between their classes and the real world. Parents of students who are at-risk for dropping out might say the same thing. Another angle is technology: 21st century students enjoy using tech tools and are used to quick access to information, and won't sit still for yesterday’s process of learning by listening to lectures and reading textbooks.
Now that you’ve established the need, you can introduce the way to meet it: PBL.
Explain what PBL is with concrete examples, not educational jargon. BIE’s PBL Toolkit series and other books on PBL describe many different projects. Videos of projects, like those found at bie.org, can be very powerful. Also at bie.org is a short, animated video called “PBL Explained” which is very useful for non-educator audiences, since it moves from the world of work to a science classroom. If possible, bring a delegation to a school that has a well-developed PBL program so parents can see it in action. Later, when your own PBL effort is underway, enlist students to make presentations and describe their project work.
Reassure parents and other community stakeholders that PBL works. Some parents might remember “projects” they did in school as powerful learning experiences. But others may remember the hours they or their children spent building a model of the pyramids or mindlessly copying information from a book to put on a poster and ask, do students learn enough with PBL? How will this affect test scores? Will students still learn the basics? The short answer is “PBL, when done well, can teach both content and 21st century skills – and we intend to do it well.” For a longer answer, see the research section at bie.org.
Respond to questions about how PBL will affect a student and parent by giving specific details. Some parents will be full of questions as you launch a PBL implementation effort, and some may just wait and see. Some may not attend an event but will want to find information later, so create a “Frequently Asked Questions and Answers” document to post on your school/district website. Questions will likely arise about grading policy ("Will my child be graded based on how creative she is?") and working in teams (“What if my child has to do all the work for the group?”). Parents will want to know if all classes will be doing projects all the time, or only some classes once in a while. They will want to know if and how they are expected to support their child when it comes to homework for a project. And you hope parents will ask, “How can I help?” by acting as mentors, experts, presentation audiences, and so on. Anticipate “need to knows” and be as detailed as you can when responding; people are not reassured by vague promises to “provide that information later.”
What Classroom Teachers Can Do
Teachers have a key role to play in building parent and community support for PBL. The excitement they feel when launching a project should transfer to their students and parents. At back-to-school events, give parents a taste of PBL and describe some of the exciting projects planned for the year. Show high-quality student work from previous projects. Then, at the start of a project, send a letter home or post a message on a class website, explaining the project’s goals, major features, and timeline. Invite parents to attend presentations or contribute on other ways. (See a sample letter to parents at bie.org.) If a teacher works in a school or district where parents and the community have been well informed about PBL, the arrival of news about their child’s first project will be welcomed.
But the bottom line of building parent support for PBL will be the evidence they see in students’ work. So teachers should make sure parents see the results, if not in person during project presentations then by posting student work, sharing student reflections after a project, and reporting on the achievement of learning goals. If projects are rigorously designed and carefully managed, the quality of their child’s education will be plain to see.
Hangout with BIE: Building Community Understanding of PBL
Watch as John Larmer discusses building community understanding of Project Based Learning.