Leading PBL Schoolwide? Tips to Get Started


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Many schools are making major changes in structures and professional development to make sure teachers are implementing effective project-based learning (PBL) schoolwide. I’ve been honored to be part of that journey with many schools. I have seen many different kinds of PBL schools, and with it, many kinds of PBL projects. This work has also reaffirmed the belief that the principal is one of the cornerstones to effective PBL implementation. We know this! This is not new news, but because PBL is a change in the paradigm of curriculum and instruction, it means that implementation has unique strategies and challenges as well. Here are some straightforward ways I have seen principals at PBL schools lead toward excellent PBL implementation.

Create the Buy-In
It’s easy to jump right in and start PBL trainings and professional development, but this alone will not create the momentum. Some of the best schools I have worked with spend a lot of time creating the buy-in before even starting training or professional development. I’ve seen principals organize school visits to great PBL schools as well as debrief the process. I’ve also seen principals allow teachers to read short articles of blogs at staff meetings and create inquiry questions so that staff can explore and learn what they want about PBL. This requires a “hands-off” approach by the principal to truly honor teacher questions and concerns. If considerable time is given to this buy-in process, a principal can lead as a guide to bring teachers to a PBL implementation that will work for them and their schools.

Model the PBL Process in Professional Development
Whether using the inquiry-circles method for investigating a problem practice or setting up a driving question aligned to school goals, principals can easily model some or all of the aspects of the PBL process. Principals might present a problem of practice to a team of teachers, have them investigate, and then have them present their information and solutions to other teachers and stakeholders. “Need to know” lists might live in the staff room or virtually, where all can access the list, ask questions, and provide answers. Additionally, protocols that are used for student revision can be used by teachers to receive ongoing feedback on their projects. Through modeling, principals can built trust and also help ground teachers in the PBL process.

Create PBL Projects
If you want teachers to believe you “get it,” know what it feels like to create a rigorous PBL project, and know the essential elements of design, then you must create a PBL project. Principals can show efficacy by creating, revising, and reflecting on PBL projects they design and implement. As teachers build their projects, principals should build with them and participate in the professional development and training. Principals will not only learn more about PBL but also build relationships and create a culture of revision and reflection with faculty and staff.

Set Clear Expectations for Projects
It’s important to start small, but this can look different from school to school. Some teachers are more ready for project-based learning than others. Some schools have structures that allow for easy collaboration and integration of subject areas. All of these factors contribute to making reasonable goals for the number of PBL projects in the first year as well as the level of integration. Set these goals with the input of teachers and be clear to all on the rationale.

Although these suggestions for leading PBL might seem basic, they are sometimes overlooked in the process or sometimes seen as not needed. I feel that as an instructional leader, it is critical for the principal leading a PBL change to model these attributes by creating meaningful buy-in, modeling the process, creating projects, and setting reasonable goals that come from experience in PBL. These are just the first steps in a long journey of growth for the PBL principal, teacher, and school.

Dispelling Misunderstandings about PBL


This post originally appeared on SmartBlogs for Education, where SmartBrief readers exchange ideas and practices. They publish original content on many topics in education. View Original >


I spend a good chunk of time on Twitter, often participating in or lurking on a Twitter chat. I have seen project based learning — PBL — a topic of discussion, but at the same time, I see a lot of claims about PBL that are just not true. What bothers me about these claims is not that they are wrong but that these misconceptions lead to further problems when implementing PBL. I’d like to take some time to dispel some of these misunderstandings in hopes that they clear up other issues teachers may have with PBL.

“I do projects all the time.” Often when I talk to teachers they respond, “Oh I’ve done PBL for a long time. We’ve always done projects in my classroom.” To me this is often a red flag. Projects and PBL aren’t the same. However, I do know teachers that have done projects in the past that have had many of the elements of PBL but might be missing some. I use the Project Essential Elements checklist to ensure that I am in fact doing PBL and not projects.

“I don’t have time to do a PBL project and all the scaffolding needed and lessons.” A PBL project includes both the creation of the authentic product aligned to the project AND the scaffolding, learning activities, drill and skill, etc., that must occur to support student creation of the final product. When I say I am doing a PBL project with my students and it is going to take 2-3 weeks, I mean that it will take that amount of time not only to have students collaborate and create together to solve an authentic problem or address an issue, but also to get the important skills that they need to do so. Worksheets will occur. Direct instruction will occur. Group work will occur. All of the important and effective strategies we teachers use will occur within the context of the project.

“I have to focus on standardized test prep and don’t have time for PBL.” I wrote a blog on Edutopia to give some specific strategies on how PBL and standardized testing can coexist. Instead of making PBL and test prep separate, find a way to embed test prep within the context of the project. Let’s face it; it’s hard to get students to do test prep. Instead of fighting this by begging and pleading with them, make it somewhat useful. Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes. Have written products that mirror the template of the test they might take. Because students are engaged in the project, they might be more inclined to participate in a few moments along the way that feel like test prep. The difference is that the test prep serves an important function for both you and the students within the context of the project.

“Students will copy each other’s products.” Even though you may create a PBL project that targets specific content for all students, you must still provide voice and choice for students. We know that students can show their learning in different ways so make sure you are allow that. Voice and choice is an essential element of PBL. In addition, if you are noticing copying, it might be a project design issue. The project might be focused on facts and ideas that are easily copied instead of using the content in a new way. There might not be an authentic need of audience for the project, which in turn does not require students to create a product with the content that is specifically tailored to that audience and need.

Obviously, there are many more concerns and misunderstanding teachers may still have about PBL. There is another blog on Edutopia that goes over some of these. Instead of trying to put up roadblocks for PBL, try to problem solve, just like we want our students to do in a PBL project.

Engagement and Compliance in the Classroom. They Aren’t the Same!


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


As I travel and work with teachers to improve practice and increase student achievement, classroom management is often a topic we focus on in professional development. Whether managing a 1:1 classroom or understanding how a teacher manages a PBL project, teachers are always looking for best practices in how to make sure the classroom is managed effectively.

This topic is also coupled with the idea of engagement. We know that if we are engaging our students, then management issues are alleviated or disappear all together. Whenever I work with teachers I also make this statement:

“What is the best tool for management? Engaging curriculum and instruction!”

However, I’ve come to understand that the term “engagement” needs to be unpacked before addressing issues of management in the classroom. If you ask an educator, “What does engagement look like?” responses will surely vary. I remember when I first started teaching, and preparing for a classroom visit by my principal or supervising administrator. I always wanted to make sure the room was quiet in general, there were no outbursts and that students were silently working on their assignments at their tables. Now I realize these are not quality indicators of engagement. They are quality indicators of compliance, which is different.

Daniel Pink makes an significant quite in his video (and book) Drive, although his context is focus on the workplace. “Management is good if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-directed is better.” Here Pink reframes the whole conversation on what it means to be productive, contribute to a goal and do work.

I don’t want just compliance for my students. I want engagement. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are three ideas (borrowed from Pink) that can move our classrooms to focus on engagement, rather than on compliance. When we do, classroom management becomes a conversation about strategies to support learners, rather than a way to make them “follow the rules” in a one-size-fits-all model. Let’s reframe the conversation on classroom management, and instead focus on engagement first!

Project-Based Learning as a Context for Arts Integration


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Project-based learning can provide an intentional and effective opportunity to integrate the arts across disciplines and curriculum. While valuable as a stand-alone discipline, arts education can be given further power and value when used in a PBL project as part of the core curriculum.

When teachers begin designing PBL projects, they often start small, maybe with a recommended idea to internalize the design process and a reflection on how to improve. As teachers become more familiar with PBL, integration is a great next step for taking it up a notch. This is where the arts come in! If you are thinking about your next PBL project, consider using one or more of these intentional moments to integrate art.

The Arts as the Entry Event
When launching a PBL project, it is crucial to have an entry event that engages students and creates excitement for the project. From movies and music to activities and simulations, teachers can launch a project with one or more entry events that relate to the arts. Start the project with an art anchor text, not only to build inquiry, but also to keep the momentum going along the way by revisiting that anchor.

The Arts in Culminating Products or Performances
PBL demands voice and choice in how students spend their time and how they show their learning. Each project culminates in a presentation or product that is presented to a public audience. The best products meet the needs of the audience, which means that creating the project must focus not only on relevance, but also on engagement. Teachers can use this design element to further leverage the arts by providing an arts product as one or more of the choices. We know students can show their learning in a variety of ways and through multiple intelligences. In addition to a persuasive letter, consider a collage or songbook of lyrics.

The Arts as Scaffolding
Students need scaffolding through a variety of instructional activities that will arm them with the skills and content they’ll need to be successful on the project. As you consider this scaffolding, include arts-related activities. Use these activities to help students process their content and represent their thinking. For example, have students do a “tableau” activity where they represent the structure of the cell. From this, the teacher helps students metacognitively and transparently connect this individual activity to the larger project. Students learn from this arts-based activity during the project and will apply it to their product. Role-plays, simulations, music comprehension strategies, visual processing, dramatic acting — all these activities and more can help support and scaffold the many learning targets within a PBL project.

The Arts As Formative Assessment
Similar to assessing their students’ culminating products or performances, teachers must formatively assess learning objectives and skills throughout the PBL project. As students participate in scaffolding and activities, use the arts as the method to formatively assess content and 21st century skills. If you are assessing collaboration, use a visual representation as evidence.

While arts integration in the core discipline alone is valuable, doing it within the context of a PBL project can make the integration seamless as well as valuable. PBL projects provide a space to meet multiple learning targets, whether those are core discipline standards or arts standards. Whether or not you are intending to assess arts standards on your PBL project, you can still find intentional instructional moments for using the arts, not only to value them, but also to create engagement for everyone. Your students can learn the arts as well as learning through the arts.

It Might Not Be a Great Game! Tips for Finding a Quality Game!


This post originally appeared on Microsoft Partners in Learning Network Hot Topics Blog. Microsoft PIL provides professional development, resources and other tools to support educators across the globe. View Original >

Oftentimes, I see many, many tweets that claim this title or variation thereof: “10 Best Games to Teach Math.” Because I am a GBL nerd, I always click on the link and explore. In my exploration of many of these tools that claim to be games, I have found that many in fact are NOT games, or they are poor games. Games are crafted specifically, with certain mechanics and components present for it to be good. Many companies are putting out “games” that are in fact activities with many “bells and whistles” that make it look like a game. So how do we navigate this huge field of games to find the best ones? Here are some starting tips.

Authentic Identity and Story – We play games because they immerse in worlds, real or fantasy, that truly are engaging. This is done through amazing stories and authentic characters that we connect with. We play as these characters and feel like what we do actually makes a difference in the story, that our actions have consequences. What if there are no characters? What if there is no story or engaging scenario? We get bored and choose not to participate. Look for games where there are characters who have agency in the scenario and story.

Content Learning Connects to Scenario – This relates to indicator above. If players are solving math in a content that doesn’t make sense, then students will often see it as gimmicky. Imagine: You are asked to apply your knowledge of math skills in order to kill cockroaches. How does this content make sense in that scenario? It doesn’t. It might be a fun activity for students to practice skills, but students may not be engaged in it, because the game demands learning of content in an unrealistic situation.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking – A great game calls for more than just fact recall, or shallow depth of knowledge. A great game requires students to apply this in authentic problem, and critically thinking to solve these problems. Instead of knowing important facts about the Electoral College to win the game, the player must Win the White House by paving the best possible path and strategy by using their knowledge of the electoral college

Now this is just a start. There are still other components of good games, but I feel these tips will help you as an educator start on the path of quality games to use in the classroom. If you try playing a game, or have your students play a game and it does not meet some or all of these criteria, it may in fact not be a game at all. It might be an activity, where game mechanics have been applied to make it more engaging. It might have some elements of a game, but because it doesn’t it would not qualify as a game. If we truly want to legitimize using games in the classroom, then they must actually be games!

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