by Teresa Dempsey
As a director of professional development at the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, I provide assistance for districts seeking high quality professional development options. For the past several years, I’ve led PBL Ohio and work closely with district/school leadership teams in strategic implementation of PBL. This will be our second year collaborating with BIE in hosting a summer PBL Institute. Other roles I’ve had over the years include work as high school curriculum dean, an instructional specialist for science education, and as an elementary teacher.
I’ve always been “different” in how I learn. As hard as I tried as a kid, I wasn’t great (still not) at memorizing and regurgitating information and therefore always remained as the B+ kid for most of my academic trajectory. Although school was a bust, I did excel as a 4-H kid. I LOVED my 4-H projects and took them very seriously. I could relate and actually soared to their mantra, “Learning by Doing.” These projects were not only joyful, but the money I earned from auctioning my animals provided my clothing allowance for school each year. A nice bonus!
As a teacher, I soon learned that most if not all of my students learned best when I gravitated back to “Learning by Doing.” I didn’t know what to call what I was doing at the time, but it worked far better than putting another boring worksheet in front of my kids. As I progressed in my career and graduate education I began to learn about constructivist (inquiry-based) pedagogy and soon realized there’s a name for what I’ve been doing! I had the good fortune to dedicate my doctoral studies to a PBL focus.
An Influential Project I Did
I did a project as a grad school student to propose a solution to a school superintendent to re-imagine what teacher supervision meant in a PBL context. The problem was inspired by the authentic issue. My school district had spent countless resources on providing inquiry-based professional development for teachers. As teachers were re-dedicating their approach from traditional to a more constructivist approach, their classrooms seemed, from a principal’s perspective, “messy and out-of-control.” Principals weren’t accustomed to seeing students actively engaged in hands-on materials and working collaboratively in teams.
The most influential reflection from this project came from my doctoral advisor. Although greatly intrigued with PBL, he had never utilized it before. As I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years, he told me he still used my project and it helped him grow in his own work as a university professor. Much of my research was influenced by medical schools’ use of PBL. I, and perhaps my doctoral advisor after this experience, wondered why PBL was not more widely utilized in education schools.
PBL in My Work Today
PBL design is a continual influence in the professional development I design and facilitate. I’m constantly thinking about the “Why?” or the problem that’s most likely creating the need for the PD, and use it as an entry event—accompanied by a driving question. And of course, there’s always built-in time for a critique protocol and reflection. Adult learners, just like students, need to understand the “why” behind why they’re being asked to attend a workshop/event - their time is precious and needs to be honored in providing a high-quality learning experience. As NF, we use this approach in PBL 101, so why wouldn’t I model it in all PD if it’s an effective approach to more meaningful and deeper learning? BIE’s Gold Standard Project Design Elements and Teaching Practices work for learners of all ages.
Attending a PBL 101 workshop is a good start, but there’s so much more. Immerse yourself in the research, follow BIE on social media, and visit or follow PBL-based schools. The learning never stops. And when you try PBL, I don’t believe it’s a negative when something “doesn’t go right” in a project. I view these more as learning opportunities that may initially present themselves as curveballs but in most cases actually take us in a direction to learn something new and persevere when the going “seems” tough. Embrace the curveballs—they typically become the most memorable learning from the project.
Know your “Why PBL?” answer. As a seasoned educator, I’ve witnessed no other pedagogical initiative that brings such deep learning, joy, passion and meaning to both students and educators. PBL done well is transformative.
For information about BIE’s professional development services, click here.
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