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June 20, 2016
Making the Most of PBL Professional Development

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

This summer the Buck Institute is providing PBL professional development to over 10,000 teachers. That’s a huge number. If you add in the rest of the year plus the number of school leaders we do workshops for, the total number of educators reached is over 15,000. At PBL World last week, over 800 people attended our workshops, while in the same week our National Faculty conducted over 40 separate PBL 101 workshops at school and district sites. These numbers are a testament to PBL’s growing popularity.

However, as we’ve known for a long time in education, effective professional development is not just attending a 3-day workshop (no matter how good it is – and our PBL 101 gets a 99% satisfaction rate on end-of-workshop surveys). It has to be followed by ongoing coaching and support in various forms. That’s why BIE either requires (for long-term district partnerships) or strongly recommends (for schools who do not become formal partners) scheduling follow-up “Sustained Support Visits” and "PBL 201s" by our National Faculty after a workshop.

When we return to schools and districts months after a PBL 101 workshop, we generally find one of the following three situations:

  1. They’re rockin’. All or almost all of the teachers who attended the workshop are conducting projects, with enough success to want to continue using PBL.
  2. They’re rollin’. Some of the teachers have conducted projects, and some are planning to later in the year. Sometimes it may be happening in cohorts; teachers from one grade level, or a high school department or academy, or a group of early-adopters are piloting PBL so the school and their colleagues can learn from the experience.
  3. They’re slippin’ and slidin’. Only a few teachers have conducted a project, or are planning to later in the year. Even worse news might be that, for those who did try PBL with their students, things did not go well. They checked the box, complied with what they were asked to do by school leaders, dutifully tried this trendy new thing… and decided not to repeat the experience.

What accounts for these differences? I alluded to some of the issues in my post last March, “The Perils of PBL’s Popularity,” but it usually has to do with the way school leaders handled the workshop and/or the support provided to teachers after the workshop. Here are a few suggestions for avoiding situation #3 above – there are more, but let’s consider some of the basic big ones for now.

How to make PBL professional development successful:

  • Include teachers in the decision to move forward on getting PBL PD. This is conventional wisdom, but it bears repeating: a top-down requirement to attend a workshop is generally not well received by teachers. And consulting with a few teacher-leaders may not be enough, depending on the size and culture of the faculty.
  • Guard against “initiative fatigue” and connect PBL to other PD or school improvement efforts. Teachers are understandably weary of hearing about “this year’s model” for PD and might take a this-too-shall-pass stance. Their plates might feel too full already, so make it clear how PBL can be the framework for a lot of existing practices such as, for example, differentiated instruction, Understanding by Design, English Language Learning, and literacy programs.
  • Co-construct an answer to the “Why PBL?” question first. Without a school-community consensus on this question, the lack of deep commitment to the profound change in teaching and learning represented by PBL will soon become apparent. Make sure teachers understand that PBL is not just one more strategy to put in their toolbox; it’s meant to fundamentally change things like the role of the learner and teacher and the intended outcomes of education.
  • Prepare for a PBL workshop in advance. Some schools engage in a book study or assign shared readings followed by discussion, to build awareness of what PBL is and what it means. (BIE publications and website resources are useful for this.) Make sure teachers know what the format of the workshop is – in the case of PBL 101, it’s a mix of interactive presentation and activities with lots of curriculum unit planning time. If teachers are going to be working in teams to plan a project (which is typical and recommended) be sure they know who they’re with. Let participants know what to bring – typically it’s whatever they need to plan a project, such as a laptop and access to their standards documents and other curriculum resources, or perhaps materials from an existing project they want to revise.
  • Let teachers know what’s expected of them. Typical questions that need to be answered: To begin their PBL journey, are they supposed to do one project per year/semester, or more? Are they being required to do a project, or is PBL optional? When should projects be scheduled? Do projects have to be multi-subject? Is everyone in the same grade level or who teaches a course expected to do the same project? Will this be part of my evaluation, and what if it affects test scores? How will projects integrate with our assessment system?
  • Provide support in the form of instructional coaching and/or professional learning communities. Many teachers complete a BIE workshop and are inspired to try PBL, but during the school year when they’re doing the final planning for a project or are in the midst of one, they run into snags and need help. Typical snags are writing a good driving question, managing the inquiry process, and assessing student learning. A big one – and this issue deserves its own blog post or two – is managing student work in teams. Many projects crash and burn because students don’t know how to collaborate well, and aren’t provided enough scaffolding and are not enabled to by the culture and processes established in the classroom. After a project, reflecting on it with colleagues or a coach increases the likelihood of more successful projects in the future.
  • Provide support in the form of time. At the end of our 3-day workshop, teachers have planned about two-thirds of a project. But if the last pieces are not completed, the project is never going to be implemented with students. School leaders need to provide adequate time – structured and accountable time – for teachers to complete preparations for a project, such as gathering resources, planning daily activities, assembling lesson materials, making arrangements with outside experts and organizations, and creating handouts and rubrics.


A lot of money is spent on professional development, so don’t waste it. Don't waste teachers' time. And don’t waste this moment when PBL is poised to become a widely-used and accepted approach to 21st century learning.


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