by Sarah Shannon
Former BIE Director of District and School Leadership
Imagine a train track where the rails don’t stay parallel – obviously a train on it will not get to its destination. Now think of PBL as that train, with one rail being the the school and the other its leaders. To move PBL forward and create the conditions necessary for PBL to thrive, leaders cannot focus only on the teachers, students, and school structures. They must take a look at themselves, too.
School leaders must be willing to examine their own practices to see how they support or hinder the work being done by teachers. It is not enough to simply believe in the goal and provide professional development for teachers on how to do PBL. School leaders must also be willing to do the hard work of making the philosophical and practical shifts along with the teachers and students. Like them, leaders need to truly embody a PBL mindset.
What does this mean for you, the school leaders? Well, it means you need to put your money where your mouth is. Your actions need to speak louder than your words, as they set the tone and drive the culture in your building. Approach your work and the work you do with teachers from a PBL perspective. Be willing to get messy and uncomfortable and to struggle with what it means to lead from a PBL perspective. You need to do what you are asking your teachers and students to do. Keep your rail running in the same direction as the school’s, so PBL will continue to move forward at a steady pace.
Practically speaking, what does this look like? To start, familiarize yourself with the Project Based Teaching Practices and consider how you can embody the practices in your work. Consider how you can facilitate staff meetings in a way that models project based design elements or teaching practices. Can you provide housekeeping information via email and use your meeting time for true professional development using a project-based approach? Could you identify a problem in the school and run a meeting focused on an authentic driving question that engages your staff to address that problem? Can you use an inquiry process that helps get to the root of or define/redefine a belief structure that exists in the building that might be impeding the implementation of PBL? For teachers to make the shift to PBL, it means doing less “stand and deliver” instruction. Are you doing less stand and deliver in your meetings as well?
As a leader, how are you providing voice and choice to your teachers? Are you giving parents and the community a voice? If so, how? If not, create a site-based leadership team that involves teachers, parents and students. Also consider how you are giving teachers a voice in the curriculum they teach, or how evolving school structures and policies, such as schedules or grading policies, are being revised to better support PBL. How are your PLCs assigned? Do teachers have a voice in PLC topics or which PLC they join?
How does the culture you create for teachers model the culture you want teachers to create for students? A PBL classroom celebrates academic risk-taking, and approaches mistakes and failure as opportunities to learn more or to do things differently. The PBL teacher coaches students to own their learning and empowers them to seek new understandings. As a leader, how are you creating these opportunities for your staff? How are you supporting the teacher who has identified an area of growth and is taking appropriate risks to meet that goal? How do you capitalize on your classroom walkthrough practices to engage and coach rather than evaluate? How do you celebrate the successes as well as the failures and what was subsequent learned?
As you consider these questions, you might be uncomfortable. That’s okay. It means you’re ready to take on the challenge of implementing PBL alongside your school, teachers and students. It means you are doing the right work. It means you are the leader your school needs because you will be the rail that keeps the PBL train moving forward and in the right direction.
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