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by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

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Topic tags: school reform, how to do PBL


July 21, 2011
How to get PBL going at your school

by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

A few weeks ago I received a request from Patrick, a self-described NewBIE, who told me his school was going to adopt PBL.  He asked me if I had any advice. Flattered by the request, I thought back over my experience in education as a parent, teacher and researcher, and came up with the following suggestions. I pass them on in hopes that they will be helpful to others as well.

1) Think BIG, start small.   I really think it is important to have a broad yet clearly defined vision of where you and your colleagues are going. Think BIG! 
  • What do you want your school to look like in 3-5 years? 
  • What will students be doing in the classroom? 
  • How will teachers be working together? 
  • What will parents say when their friends ask them, "What is your son/daughter's school like?" Visualize what will happen when you reach your goal(s).
But start your journey with small, attainable steps. Don't try to revolutionize everything at once. Focus first on the low-hanging fruit. Pick it and move on. Celebrate small successes and build on them until you've created something larger.
2) Students (and students' work) make the most compelling case for PBL.  Showcase what your students are doing and can do. Let students sell PBL to parents and the community. Let them make students at other schools jealous of what they get to do and what they accomplish.
3) Commitment is a more powerful force than compliance.  Principals can generally intimidate teachers into changing how they do things, but this change will be half-hearted unless teachers believe what they are doing makes sense and is best for students. Same goes with students, who generally want to know, "Why should I care about/learn/study X." Spend some time thinking about how to build commitment to PBL from both teachers and students. What experiences and support will help teachers overcome the natural reluctance to change the way they have always taught? What will enable students to see that it is really in their best interest to manage their own learning? There are multiple answers to this question, and the right one depends a great deal on the local context and individuals involved.
4) Pay attention to the power of norms.  Normative behavior --  the assumptions we make that "this is the way it is and/or is supposed to be done" -- directs much of what we do, although we are rarely aware of the process (see "fish in the water"). One goal of a PBL-focused school change effort should be to establish PBL as THE way instruction is carried out, or at the least, a legitimate method used with other methods to teach students. Think about how to reinforce that norm in conversation, in self- and teacher evaluation, in positive examples shared with parents, students and others.
5) Create time for teacher collaboration, and pay attention to the nature of the collaboration that occurs.  Teams can be very energizing, insightful and fun. They can also be dreaded, trivial and a waste of time. Think about who should be on a team, and what skills and other resources the team will need to accomplish its goals. Time is usually the most critical resource, and to get this, bell schedules may have to been changed, duties reassigned, etc. It is very hard to plan and prepare good PBL alone; colleagues make all the difference, and projects generally benefit when they are critiqued by other teachers who may see both strengths and challenges that were not apparent to the project creator. There are a number of processes and protocols that can be used. The National School Reform Faculty has a number of protocols you may find useful.
I hope these thoughts are helpful -- I'd love to have your thoughts in return, so don't hesitate to critique!


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