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by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

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April 27, 2018
Memo to Education Leaders: How to Avoid a PBL Teachers Strike

by John Larmer
Editor in Chief

All the recent news about teachers going on strike made me think about teachers who want to do effective Project Based Learning—what would they demand? Higher salaries are certainly the start, to help make sure we attract, retain, and reward good teachers, so I hope the politicians in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and wherever else this movement has spread by the time you’re reading this get the message that we need to properly fund education. (Taxes are the price we pay for civilization, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said.) Beyond that, what should state, district, and school leaders do to create the conditions that need to be in place for PBL to thrive in classrooms?

Here’s my top ten list of things PBL teachers should demand from system leaders:

1. Time.
Teachers in the U.S. are in front of students six hours a day, and spend a few more hours planning lessons, assessing students’ work, and doing administrative tasks. The system was set up for them to “deliver” instruction using textbooks, worksheets, and other curriculum materials they did not create—although many teachers plan instruction on their own time, of course. PBL requires teachers to design (or at least adapt) their own project-based units and gather resources, so time must be allocated for planning, every week, plus more time at various points on the annual calendar.

2. Collaboration.
Teachers can plan good PBL projects by themselves, but will find many advantages by collaborating with colleagues: generating ideas, getting feedback from each other, sharing resources, building a library of shared projects. And many projects are interdisciplinary by nature and absolutely require collaboration across subject areas. In addition to allocating time for collaboration each week, school leaders need to create a collaborative culture and leverage structures such as professional learning communities to support PBL.

3. Resources.
PBL can be done successfully without a lot of extra resources, but it sure helps when leaders provide funding for technology, equipment, and other supplies used for projects. Another resource they can provide is a connection to outside experts and organizations, and the local community.

4. Freedom from restrictive policies and practices.
It’s possible for skilled teachers to figure out how to make PBL work in a system with, say, benchmark assessments and a required curriculum—strict pacing guides are a taller order and may be too big a barrier—but greater flexibility for teachers makes PBL a lot easier to implement.

5. Coherence.
This is a broad category that includes establishing the shared belief across the school that all students deserve PBL; the adoption of a shared mission and vision (with a description of an “ideal graduate”) whose achievement requires the use of PBL; alignment of initiatives, to avoid fatigue and competing priorities; grading, assessment, and evaluation systems that reflect the practice of PBL. And—this is a big one—the PBL initiative must be sustained over a period of years; it cannot become the flavor of the month, and leaders cannot expect teachers to simply add PBL to their toolbox. It represents a serious change in beliefs about what and how students should learn.

6. Permission to be innovative.
This is about building a healthy school culture for PBL. Leaders should make it clear that it’s OK for teachers to try new approaches, take risks, and occasionally fail. And that it’s OK if classrooms get noisy sometimes and students are not sitting in rows of desks all day.

7. Changes to the master schedule and teaching assignments.
In secondary schools, PBL works better with longer blocks of class time, not a bell schedule with seven 50-minute periods per day. Team teaching, with shared cohorts of students, allows for interdisciplinary projects to work much better. In elementary schools, leaders and teachers need to decide how much time is allotted for literacy and math instruction, whether PBL will be integrated with it, and when project work time will occur during the day and week.

8. Support from the school community.
Parents and families, local media, the business community, and other stakeholders may not know what PBL is and could be puzzled by it, or even resist it. School leaders should make sure teachers are not left out on a limb by educating their community about why PBL is a good idea for its students. (Check out this booklet I wrote explaining PBL, for parents & school communities.)

9. School-wide PBL implementation.
If only a few teachers in a school are using PBL, (a) they will not have as much opportunity for collaboration, potentially limiting their practice of PBL, and they may not have a shared model for designing projects, nor shared rubrics and expectations, which make PBL more effective for students (b) students who arrive in their classrooms will not be prepared for PBL and might even resist it, and (c) the potential arises for division among the staff between PBL advocates and supporters of more traditional teaching. Leaders who believe PBL is important should lead staff to agree to its adoption school-wide, if the benefits of PBL are to accrue to all students in the school.

10. Effective professional development.
PBL can be challenging, so teachers should receive high-quality support (from, of course, a reputable organization) that meets their needs, is ongoing, and includes instructional coaching and peer collaboration.


For more on how the system needs to support PBL, see this blog post by BIE’s Brandon Wiley.


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