Thursday, August 8, 2013

Is Your School or District Ready for PBL? 12 Deep Changes Needed for Implementation

"Schools must embrace a new pedagogy today that will engage 21st century students and enable them to acquire and master 21st century skills. Once they embrace the necessary changes in pedagogy, they realize the need for change in the physical learning environment." Bob Pearlman, "Designing New Learning Environments to Support 21st Century Skills"
In response to the Common Core State Standards many school districts and schools are discussing moving toward 21st century models of instruction like Project-Based Learning and other forms inquiry-based teaching and learning. The problem is, if school leaders do not ask the right questions and do not commit to deep changes in how their schools currently look and operate, attempts to move to a transformative pedagogy like PBL is going to be for naught. Project-Based Learning is not a teaching strategy that can be effectively "bolted" on current or existing school structures and operations. For it to be successful, there needs to be some fundamental deep changes in both thinking and in the way schools carry out the business of teaching and learning.

What then, are those deep, underlying changes that need to be considered to move a school or district to an effective project-based learning model? While these are mostly based on my personal observation and reading, Project-Based Learning is a type of "personalized learning" which means it is at its core in direct conflict with the standardized, one-size-fits-all model of schooling we call the :factory model of education." Simply put, you can't successfully implement Project-Based Learning by bolting it on top of a factory model.

Deep Changes Needed for Effective PBL Implementation

1. There has to be a fundamental and deep change regarding what teaching and learning looks like. At the school level this means that teaching can no longer be seen as "imparting knowledge" or "subjecting students to learning treatments." Learning is no longer viewed as something to which students have done to them. Instead, teaching is more about coaching, guiding, and personalizing learning experiences. Learning is more student-centered and student directed. Students have more choice and freedom in what kinds of content they explore and in how they demonstrate their learning. Everyone, from the superintendent down to the classroom teacher assistant must see teaching and learning differently.

2. There must be a deep and fundamental change in the role of the teacher. Teachers in PBL schools do not see themselves as "imparters of knowledge." They take on the role of "facilitators" of learning. They basically have to turn over most of the work of instruction and learning to students. They give up the role of chief information officer in their subject areas. There is little room for "professors" in the PBL classroom. Becoming a facilitator and guide means letting go of the image of the teacher as expert.

3. The way classrooms are designed and laid out must be reconsidered. Classrooms with desks neatly arranged in rows with a teacher desk at the front are not functional in PBL classrooms. Classrooms laid out in this manner communicate clearly who's in control of the learning. It may be efficient for factory-model learning processes, but the PBL classroom requires flexibility. Students seated at tables for collaboration purposes are a must. Free aisles for movement as students move about the room are necessary. Ample technology needs to be available as well. Move the computers out of computer labs and into the hands of students and in the classrooms. Furniture that can moved and arranged easily is a must in a PBL classroom. Spaces devoted for student meetings and conferences as well as independent work areas are needed. Rethinking how space is used in a PBL school is a must.

4. The concept of using predominately "seatwork" must be abandoned. PBL requires students to move about the entire campus and beyond. Students need to be able to go to the school courtyard to shoot scenes for a video. They need to be able to walk down to the mayor's office in town to interview her about an issue they are researching. They need to be able to get in their car and drive to the local history museum to view an exhibit. Seatwork, by its nature, is designed to keep students sitting in their seats quietly. As Ron Nash puts it, we need give students "feetwork" not "seatwork" in our PBL classrooms. Learning in the PBL classroom is not a spectator sport.

5. The whole idea behind "seat time" or having distinctive "blocks of time per subject" must be modified. The old equation 1 hour = adequate learning or 2 hours = even more adequate learning needs to be abandoned. PBL sets the conventional and long-held wisdom that learning happens only in classrooms on its head. Learning happens where students are and what students are engaged in. Classrooms are no longer the centers of learning in our students' lives. The idea that students must sit in biology for 90 minutes every single day to learn is no longer true, if it was ever true. The idea of seat time simply betrays the thinking that learning is something students must be subjected to rather than something they engage in. PBL is about engaging in learning personally, not sitting in a desk, having  it imparted to you in prescribed, discrete time period every day.

6. School operations and procedures and rules must be modified. To put it simply, PBL implementation plays havoc on the classical orderliness of a school. When students are engaged in projects, they are potentially everywhere on campus. They may be off campus shooting video of an interview with a local CEO, or they may be in the hallways rehearsing a skit or play they have written. Rules like students must remain in their seats until the bell rings are ridiculous in PBL classrooms. Rules such as students can't leave campus during the school day are obstacles to powerful project-based learning. The ways schools operate under PBL must be modified and the rules must be examined and modified to allow for the often messy and chaotic nature of learning under the PBL model.

7. Efforts must be made to demolish traditional boundaries of subjects and grade levels. In high school this means the death of organization by departments. PBL by subjects and by departments falsely compartmentalizes knowledge. In the real world, when workers solve problems, they work interdisciplinary. Solving a town water problem is never just a science problem; it is also a civics problem, a communications problem, and most likely a math problem. Schools adopting PBL must be willing to dissolve departmental and subject boundaries. Traditional high school teachers must give up their turfs and kingdoms and work collaboratively across subject areas. In elementary schools, the idea of devoting time to subjects needs to be abandoned in order to focus on projects that have no subject-area boundaries. In PBL school knowledge is not falsely compartmentalized by subject area.

8. The idea of having one set schedule for all students needs to be reconsidered. Schedules with ringing bells are fossils from the factory model of education. Yes, they do efficiently move students about the building during the school day, but too often they sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency. The whole idea of a discrete schedule for all students all the time can hamper or restrict PBL implementation. Students must be able to leave campus to visit museums, places of business, and governmental centers. Schedules most be modified to allow for learning to extend beyond the classroom walls. To do this, the whole idea of static schedules needs to be re-examined.

9. Administrators must be more tolerant and willing to encourage much risk-taking. PBL requires teachers to be willing to give up a great deal of control over student learning. School leaders must be willing to allow teachers to experiment and explore too. Administrators who try to exert too much control over the immediate environment of the school stifle true exploration. It comes down to the question of whether the desire for strict orderliness outweighs the value of the learning experience. For PBL to thrive, school leaders must be willing to let go of their desire to control everything too. Mistakes are causes for learning, not something to be avoided. Administrators in PBL schools must change their desire to control what is essentially a very messy learning model, yet still maintain safety and operational effectiveness.

10. Teachers must move to interdisciplinary, collaborative learning communities. PBL requires teachers working together. Planning projects effectively forces teachers to work together. They must be willing to use processes like "critical friends" to obtain feedback on their project plans. In a PBL school, teachers must be willing to give up ownership of both time and space. Students in their classes may need to go down the hall and work in a lab or down the street to city hall. Teachers may also need to allow students in their classes throughout the day. Implementing PBL requires collaboration among all staff, including those in the central office.

11. Professional development in PBL is not a one-time, sit-and-get endeavor. It must be embedded, consistent, and perpetual. I fear those talking about implementing PBL are thinking about subjecting entire schools or even their entire districts to PBL training and then calling it a day. Or, even worse, they subject all teachers to the training, provide administrators with "gotcha" lists to then go out to the classrooms and force teachers to engage in PBL. To truly move to PBL requires buy-in. It takes time and lots of support. Teachers must be provided with all the materials and resources needed to effectively implement. School leaders must be willing to provide ample time for common planning during the school day and school year. Professional development must involve a  long-term commitment to provide constant and ongoing training during an implementation period and beyond.

12. Schools and school districts must be flexible. Public schools in the United States in my experience aren't known for being flexible institutions. They demand conformity, not creativity. They demand adherence to policies and rules, often at the very expense of the teaching and learning. Sure, schools as institutions need policies and rules, but these should never exist for their own sake. They need to be flexible to meet the fast-changing environment that is fostered when schools truly move to a 21st century learning model like PBL. Forcing PBL instructional models on inflexible institutions will not work.

Those schools and school districts thinking they can just "bolt" Project-Based Learning onto their existing structures and existing operations are doomed to making the same mistake those who advocated and pushed for the "Open Schools" concept in the 1960s. They built enormous buildings with classrooms without walls and simply put teachers, teaching the way they always have into these spaces and told them to get at it. Naturally it failed. They did not seek fundamental changes to how teachers engaged in teaching and students engaged in learning. They did not change their own deep understandings of how learning should happen in those spaces. If schools are going to successfully implement PBL, they must be willing to engage in a deep rethinking about education and how it is carried out.


  1. Thank you for this informative article! I plan to reference it in a grant proposal I am writing asking for funds to purchase modular-style desks and chairs that can be moved around easily and joined in various arrangements. I look forward to more of your posts!

  2. Wow, this article is so right on target! Thanks for articulating so clearly and simply the transformation that education needs today!