by Rhonda Hill
Director of District and School Leadership
One of the questions I sometimes get after working with a school district partner for a little while is, "Why do some of our teachers see a project as just something to check off the list?” This question arises for many reasons. Teachers may feel they don’t have time to plan and conduct more than one project. They may think doing one project is enough for their students, that they had chance to practice some 21st century success skills and that’s enough. Or, they may feel they have done what they were asked to do, but aren’t completely “sold” on PBL. Basically, PBL has not yet become part of the culture of the school.
District administrators are finding a good way to address this issue. They are supporting teachers in seeing that Project Based Teaching Practices are really just darned good instruction that should be woven into the instructional culture of the classroom whether “on project” or not.
One simple way to begin is by creating the time and space for teachers to have an open conversation about what they see as the differences between their typical day-to-day instruction and project based instruction. What could this conversation uncover for an administrator? How could gathering this data help a leader in mitigating some of the teachers’ concerns and really drive the message home that the Project Based Teaching Practices can translate across all content areas and pedagogies?
PBL as a Dimmer, not an On/Off Switch
In Texarkana, a small school district that has partnered with BIE to bring PBL implementation across six of their eight schools, asked just this question and looked to us for support in how to facilitate the conversation. They wanted teachers to leave with an understanding of just how close they were to being more student centered and project based in their classrooms.
So, in a Sustained Support Visit -- a deeper dive follow-up with teachers -- a BIE National Faculty member Eric White shared a phrase (which came originally from Kristyn Kamps, another National Faculty member--see her blog post about it) with the teachers that really stuck out to the leadership team: “PBL is not an on-off switch. It’s on a dimmer.” He went on to explain that sometimes, PBL is on full blast, and you are totally immersed in a full blown project, complete with all design elements and teachers are intentionally focused on using the Project Based Teaching Practices to guide the implementation process. But at other times, there are PBL design elements and teaching practices that can be turned up brighter than others within daily instruction, and that’s a good opportunity for teachers to take “stepping stones” toward PBL.
Eric took teachers through a reflecting for action protocol where they celebrated PBL wins in their classrooms. Teachers mentioned that driving questions are being used across all units, each classroom is using something like a “project wall” to guide instruction, and many are using the Question Formulation Technique to begin the inquiry process for students. All really awesome stuff that will certainly create a more student centered and inquiry driven classroom!
From there, Eric re-acclimated teachers to the BIE project quality tools, the Project Design Rubric and the Project Based Teaching Rubric. He asked teachers to analyze an upcoming unit, and “assess” where this unit fell on the Project Design Rubric. What elements had they incorporated without even thinking about it? Once teachers identified what elements were there, Eric challenged the teachers to think about an additional two design elements they could work into the design of their unit. During planning time, teachers worked to fill in the gaps based on the elements they selected.
Eric then challenged the teachers to identify two Project Based Teaching Practices that they wanted to specifically focus on during the upcoming unit. He asked them to consider which of the Project Based Teaching Practices they had the most room to grow in. Teachers then defined the strategies they would use to be more intentional about building in those Teaching Practices, and then shared those strategies with teachers across content areas and grade levels.
From Reflection to Action
The real beauty here is that the teachers started by celebrating what they are already doing well. Many teachers saw that what they were doing in their classrooms was pretty close to being PBL. They also were given the freedom to select the elements and practices that they wanted to focus on during their next unit, which elements would shine brighter with that dimmer switch. Every teacher left with clear action steps, built into the context of an actual lesson, part of a larger unit, that they were scheduled to teach that would allow them to intentionally practice and work on an area they defined for their own growth.
So the next time you are working against the checklist mentality or you get the sense that teachers are seeing PBL as “one more thing,” try helping teachers see how close they really are to achieving it within their classrooms. Provide them with the voice and choice to select the unit to analyze, the Essential Project Design Elements and Project Based Teaching Practices they’ll prioritize to practice, and let them go! Follow up with teachers post-implementation to reflect on successes and challenges and then start the process all over again. Making this “reflection for action” work a recursive part of the way you support teacher planning will surely contribute to the spread of PBL done well!
Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about stepping into PBL? Please enter them in the comments below.