As the new academic year begins in Australia, many schools will be embarking on new and innovative pathways to try and meet the dynamic needs of their students. These initiatives come in various shapes and sizes, all with the primary focus of engaging students in the learning process to improve learning outcomes. For some schools in 2017, the implementation of Project Based Learning (PBL) is part of their strategic direction. However, as many educational leaders would attest, change management is a daunting and difficult task. Therefore, I thought it would be a good opportunity to provide my ‘top five’ considerations for educational leaders when implementing PBL.
1. Ensure your plan is more than ‘let’s do PBL’
It is great that you have made the decision to implement PBL. Hopefully, you have strategically allocated resources to this initiative. However, you also need to apply some deep thought, especially amongst your leadership team about what you want as the end game for your students. You are equipping them with a range of 21st skills that will change how they learn forever. Overtime you will create critical and independent learners who will struggle in learning environments that transfer content and fail to challenge them with new and creative insights. Ensure that you have an overarching plan for each subsequent year of schooling, focusing on the pedagogy employed and the critical skills to be developed.
If your goal is to engage year 9, you better apply some thought to what will happen in the following years.
2. Always ask yourself – ‘How does this improve student learning?’
As I stated in the introduction of this blog, change management is extremely difficult. But the rewards far exceeds the difficulty experienced in the adjustment stage. Therefore, it is extremely important for leaders to maintain a consistent focus on the reason they made the decision to implement PBL – to improve student learning. There will be many individuals and groups that will try and distract you and attempt to chart a different course in your journey. Some students and teachers will want to maintain the status quo, often because it is easier.
Learning new content and skills should be challenging, that is what makes it so rewarding. PBL has a strong focus on the development of life long skills such as communication, collaboration and critical thinking. For some people these skills may take years to develop and they require multiple opportunities to learn and gain feedback on their skill development. Your decision to implement PBL should be because you want to maximise the learning opportunities of the students in your care.
Never forget that everything you do should have a direct link to improving student outcomes.
3. Strive for ‘relentless consistency’ in the use language with all stakeholders
Especially, if your PBL initiative is across multiple year groups or faculties the use of language must be clear and consistent. This must be a clear expectation amongst all stakeholders, otherwise it will foster ambiguity and confusion. Some examples of the terminology that needs to consistently used include:
- Driving question…
- Entry event…
- Need to knows…
- Next steps….
- Formative and summative assessment …..
All of these terms are the key elements within Project Based Learning. Therefore, it is important that the leadership of the school ensures that there is ‘relentless consistency’ in the use of these terms. This starts with leaders using the language in their own conversations and extends to simulating the language and processes in professional development opportunities. If staff have a question that should become a need to know, there are always next steps in the busy school environment. John Larmer for BIE gives a good insight into the use of ‘project slices‘ as a structure to help staff develop a sound conceptual understanding of PBL terminology and processes.
The teachers must model these expectations to the students in their daily practice and soon you will start to hear the parents using similar language.
4. Find new and creative ways to give staff time
The one variable that you always need when implementing PBL is time. Unfortunately, no matter how much time you give staff, it is never enough. But don’t despair, teachers are happy with any time to assist is the preparation and planning of their projects. Often leaders can create more time for staff by thinking outside the box for increased opportunities. Here are a couple ideas that you may already utilise or they may get your creative thoughts flowing within your own school context:
- Employ non-teaching staff for supervision tasks to free up teacher time.
- Podcast meetings so that teachers can watch them at a convenient time affording more time for face to face professional development and planning.
- Look at your school timetable to find opportunities to embed professional learning opportunities. Start earlier, finish later, reduce admin time by utilising technology ect.
Often you will have to let go of something old, in order to gain something new. Tough decisions are the responsibility of leaders.
5. Ask for feedback from everyone
Feedback provides information on progress and achievement. Furthermore, it provides opportunities for reflection and deep inquiry regarding the collection of data. Surveys and structured meetings are a great way to gauge the success of the implementation and also may help clarify any misunderstandings. Feedback should be collected from all stakeholders. Here are a few ideas that you may want to use:
- Have a student focus group each week. Select up to five students of varying attitudes towards PBL for a lunchtime meeting. Set confidentiality norms regarding the meetings and give them the opportunity to express their thoughts on PBL in a safe environment. Start with the positive ‘I like..’ then move onto clarifying confusing aspects of classroom practice by using ‘I wonder…’ and finally gather their thoughts on ‘next steps…’. Change up the groups each week to give each student an opportunity to express their thoughts.
- Parent university meetings are a great way to help parents grapple with the changes in instruction at your school. The focus of a parent university is an opportunity for students to provide peer support to their parents in a small group environment, facilitated by the teacher. Being a small group (No more than 10 parents), the teacher can help clarify any misconceptions by both the parents and the student. Using something like a ‘project slice’ is a great way to simulate the learning process and help parents experience all phases of the project.
The more feedback you get on an informal and formal basis, allows for a greater opportunity to grow and improve.
Hopefully, these considerations provide you with a starting point for future discussions regarding your PBL journey. Good luck.