I spend a lot of time in the air, literally and figuratively. My work supporting school districts takes me across the country on a regular basis, meeting with leaders who are interested in bringing Project Based Learning to their school or district. Although our first conversations relate to their vision for making an instructional shift, the conversation quickly turns to the all-important “when and how?” questions. What are the first steps? Who should be trained and when? How should they decide?
On my 3rd flight across the United States in the last eight days, the farm fields on the ground far below inspire me. The planning, hard work, reliable tools, and perseverance a good farmer has to have to bring the crop to harvest is a good analogy to the work leaders in districts need to do to ensure a good harvest of well-educated students. Farmers also need a bit of good weather luck – and a plan in case of a disaster outside of their control, much like school and district leaders need a “Plan B” for unforeseen circumstances.
Those beautiful fields of corn don’t just grow by themselves. When faced with a large spread of land, a farmer has some important decisions to make about soil preparation, seed selection, and planting times. Farmers who want a farm to grow and be sustained start with a robust business plan. What crops are in demand now? In the future? How will they fund the venture? What seeds will flourish in the fields and what will they do if they don’t take the way they imagined? What can they learn from others in the region? District leaders would be well served to ask similar questions:
If you saw a farmer in the U.S. using a team of oxen to break up a field to ready it for planting, you would be shocked. We expect to see state of the art equipment and planting methods in use, to maximize production in each plot of land. The farmer using old agricultural methods simply won’t wind up with as big a harvest as those who use the latest methods and tools. Is your district using 19th century strategies to create high yield student learning in the 21st century? If so, it’s time to change the tools you’re using. Ask hard questions about the tools your system uses and with what impact. How does your school/ district:
To use rigorous Project Based Learning in your system, you have to be willing to adopt 21st century tools. If you plan to use 19th century structures and tools you can’t expect a high-yield 21st century harvest.
Hard Work and Perseverance
Farmers are well known for being hard workers and for working through adversity. They constantly monitor soil status and plant growth. We believe that Project Based Learning helps students develop academic stamina to persevere through academic and life challenges. Your PBL implementation team may have times when you need to persevere through the hard work of changing the structures and conditions to support Project Based Learning. Is the team ready?
Your team should engage deeply with each other and the community to conduct a fair assessment of the “soil readiness” in your district before you start providing professional development for teachers. At BIE, we like to get leaders ahead of the work, developing their knowledge and skills and preparing the community for the structural changes that high impact PBL requires. When systems do the deep readiness work, they are far more likely to harvest a crop of well-educated students who are prepared for the 21st century.
Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about bringing PBL to your school or district? Please enter them in the comments below.
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