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.

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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 >



Creating a safe and supportive learning environment is a critical to a whole child approach to education. Usually when we reflect and work on implementing the Whole Child Tenets in our schools, we forgot one critical component in making them manifest: the students. Students are as important as actors in creating a safe school as teachers. They can be actors in helping to create a safe learning environment, and project-based learning (PBL) projects can be a way in which we harness that service and target learning in the content areas. Here are some project ideas I have done, or have seen other school educators create.

School Norms: Often we create norms for students, or co-create them at the beginning of the year. However, you can take this up a notch and have a class or even a grade level create school norms where they address the needs of all stakeholders, including other students, parents, teachers, and even community members. Here students engage in in-depth research for an authentic reason, and engage in revision and reflection to make sure the norms created meet the needs of the entire school community.

Guns And Schools: This is obviously a controversial topic, but what better way to engage students than controversy? Through debatable driving questions, students create written products as well as digital media projects to examine the issue. They conduct in-depth research to support their ideas and present the information to a city council or the superintendent to ensure authenticity. Students also rely on community experts like police officers and lawmakers to make sure their work is accurate and well-developed.

Safety Audit: Instead of focusing on safety in just one project, allow students to evaluate the safety of the school and make recommendations. Students can create surveys, analyze data, and also research important related information. This prevents “death by presentation,” where all the presentations are the same and therefore bore the audience. In addition, it allows for student voice in topics that interest them and in their opinions and recommendations.

Digital Citizenship: School safety isn’t just at the brick-and-mortar facility, it’s also in the digital world. Even if you do not teach at a blended or online school, students need the skills to be safe online, and this type of PBL project can help them do that. Students create awareness around the issue or even give recommendations to other students about their “digital footprints.” Students have access to choice in products that show their learning, but more importantly have an authentic audience to receive it. From websites to letters, there is an opportunity for students to help each other and their community create safe digital learning spaces.

There are many more school safety projects out there, but these are just some of my favorites. Feel free to take these ideas and use them in the classroom. Now is the time for students to be active in not only examining the topic of safety, but creating safe schools themselves. PBL can be the key to that work!

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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 >


21st century skills are quickly becoming taught and assessed in schools across the nation. Whether through explicit instruction or models like project-based learning, educators are quickly realizing that lower level content comprehension is not enough. The Whole Child Initiative calls for tenets that rely on these skills. We create a safe environment through collaboration. Critical thinking creates rigor and challenge. Communication can create engagement with the community. 21st century skills, when paired with content can create powerful and meaningful learning. The Common Core State Standards explicitly call for these skills, so through uncovering the 3 C’s in the Common Core, we can see how educators must teach and assess them.


In every grade level of the English language arts common standards, you will find the common standard that calls for “collaborative discussions.” I do mean every! This means that at each grade level, we must not only be teaching and assessing the skill of collaboration, but we must think about how it looks different from grade level to grade level. We know that group work and collaborative work can be effective, but now collaboration is more than just an instructional tool. It is a skill that needs to be taught and assessed.

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving

Roland Case has done some great work on unpacking the concept of critical thinking into quality indicators. One of these quality indicators is perseverance, being able to complete a challenge and work through the obstacles. In the mathematics common standards, there are specific mathematical practices that are mentioned. One of these is “make sense of a problem and persevere in solving them.” This is an explicit call in the Common Core to teach and assess one facet of critical thinking. In addition, as you unpack the Common Core, you will still thinking skills and related language for critical thinking. From being able to “evaluate,” “reflect” or “analyze,” the focus is on higher-order thinking skills that require that critical thinking be taught to all students and assessed.


Across each grade level in the English language arts common standards, communication—both written and oral—is evident. The Common Core calls for students to communicate effectively, and through a variety of mediums. Digital tools are mentioned, as well as oral and written skills. English teachers have always been responsible for this skill, but now all subjects are being called to teach and assess communication skills.

Unpacking the Common Core State Standards allows us to see the need to teach and assess 21st century skills to our students. When we look at the Whole Child Tenets, we can see alignment between them and 21st Century Skills. Perhaps the Common core will leverage the need to teach to the whole child.

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