Written by Laura Davis, former educator and consultant

So you are thinking about developing Project-Based Learning (PBL) at your school? Congratulations! My school underwent this transition, and, as a pilot teacher, I saw a successful implementation that increased student motivation towards learning. There were several key mind-shifts we had to undergo as a school that supported the transition.

Mind-shift # 1

Shift of curriculum from breadth to depth. Instead of covering every topic in your history or science textbook, a history class might cover 4 or 5 major events during a school year.  You can still address the standards within this deep design, but it might not be chapter by chapter or verse by verse. The payoff is that students tend to remember the information they covered in depth and master the researching skills which will aid them in any future topics they are called upon to learn. 

Mind-shift #2

Shift of what student assessments look like. Students can take quizzes and tests as formative assessments for learner feedback on their progress in a PBL classroom, but the final summative assessment is often an exhibition of student work with a reflective component. In this format, students perform or present something they created that required them to master the key learning objectives in order to be successful.

Mind-shift #3

Shift of class time from teacher delivery time to student work time. Creating a final product worthy of presentation to an authentic, public audience requires a lot of time. And, in a PBL class, this time is provided during class hours. In a visit to a PBL classroom, you might see a teacher addressing the group with directions for a few minutes, but, for the majority of the period, students are working on the project with the teacher visiting different groups.

Mind-shift #4

Shift of the teacher role from content deliverer to project manager. The concept of shifting from “sage on the stage” style teaching to “guide on the side” has been widely documented. However, given that the momentum of the PBL class hinges around the exhibition or final assessment, the PBL teacher becomes a project manager ensuring the project’s success. This might look like emailing parents about attending an upcoming exhibition, working with select students to create fliers for the event, reserving event space, or buying project supplies.  

Once I saw my administrators make these mind-shifts, it was easier for me to accept them as a teacher. Below, I modify the steps to PBL implementation from Kotter International’s 8 steps to leading change.

Checklist to Implement PBL:

  1. Identify why you want to shift to PBL. (Student engagement, tech integration, 21st century skills?)
  2. Build a guiding coalition of like-minded administrators and school leaders.
  3. With the coalition, create a vision for how PBL could transform your school.
  4. Enlist interested teachers in a PBL pilot group.
  5. Support the pilot group with training and shared planning time together once a week.
  6. Celebrate student exhibitions by promoting them to other faculty and linking them to results. Attend exhibitions and encourage other teachers and families to join you.
  7. Hire teachers who are excited about PBL. Continue to evaluate courses and policies that do not align with the PBL vision.
  8. Grow the pilot program in subsequent years to include more teachers and elevate first round pilot teachers to mentors. Articulate connections between PBL and school success.

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