Project Based Learning Training for Teachers

Communicate and calibrate expectations

No matter what city, state or school I’m visiting, project based learning (PBL) training for teachers almost always looks the same; school leaders introduce their staff to PBL  while mutually introducing an onslaught of textbook adoptions, mandated assessment requirements and other new initiatives. The result? Fear, stress and confusion. It is crucial to help teachers understand their role in PBL implementation as early and as clearly as possible, as there is a fine line between inspiring and terrifying educators. As Adam Kulaas, Director from Getting Smart asks, “Is your team on the same page? Now What?” Learning how to collectively define HQPBL, outline your PBL implementation process, and construct a PBL facilitator profile will help you walk that line. 

Sept 15 Blog

Collectively define what HQPBL looks like at your school 

The first thing you should do is come up with a collective “North Star” that matches your mission and goals as a school. In other words, you must, as a community, define the most important elements of PBL that teachers should strive for in both theory and practice. To decrease PBL apprehension, staff can and should feel a sense of ownership over their PBL implementation, and therefore should define HQPBL for themselves through my three-step process. Begin by having teachers read external PBL standards to each other in small groups. Then, give each group an exemplar PBL project to analyze in relation to the models they previously explored. Lastly, provide teachers with sticky notes and ask them to write down the five most crucial characteristics of HQPBL in their opinion. To learn more about this part of project based learning training for teachers, you can take a look at my PBL workbook. Done successfully, the teachers’ new shared definition of HQPBL becomes their North Star, something they can always look up to for alignment and guidance.

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Outline your personalized PBL process

Once you’ve specified your greatest priorities as a team, the second step is to outline a detailed plan to reach your North Star. This element of project based learning training for teachers involves a recognition of where your school is now and all the necessary shifts and conditions that will guarantee success. When I was a School Development Coach for New Tech Network, we would start with a six month long “cultivation/residency phase” during which teachers and leaders visited exemplar schools to see what PBL looks like in action. Each participating school then created its own PBL implementation process. For instance, Central Coast New Tech chose to dive into PBL teaching practices through the use of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework (“the why, the how, the what”). The teachers there aimed to prepare their students for the 21st century (their “why”) through specific PBL methods (their “how”). To accomplish this, staff was intimately aware of their “what”- the expectations of them as facilitators, which were renewed at staff meetings and PD throughout the year. 

Golden Circle

Constructing a PBL facilitator profile 

So what exactly is the role of a PBL teacher? Ambiguity is not your friend here. Just like with students, we must be very clear on our expectations with teachers if we want them to be successful. Consider showing teachers videos of PBL from Teaching Channel, reading articles or blogs written by PBL Maverick teachers, or taking teachers to visit PBL schools to see a PBL facilitator in action. However, since each schools’ context is unique, you must do the work of painting a picture of the PBL facilitator profile based on your school identity. You can achieve this by 1) communicating teacher expectations, as defined by leadership, in a top-down approach or 2) collectively working to define these teacher expectations together. The result, which you can display in prominent locations, should be a job description written in paragraph format or a chart detailing what the PBL facilitator is, does, and says. Nonetheless, project based learning training for teachers is never really over. Once you’ve established your idea of what a PBL facilitator should be, ask teachers to continuously reflect on themselves along these guidelines and encourage classroom observations. 

Implementing these three pieces of advice in project based learning training for teachers does not need to be arduous. As an example, let’s consider Lake Elementary in Vista Unified School District. In their first PBL staff meeting, the school leader, Ms. Berntsen, successfully connected PBL with their goals and mission and defined what HQPBL would be. She noted that leadership would work with staff to help them through collaboration wheel project coaching, support from the district office, early release PD days and additional PBL workshops throughout the year. Ms. Berntsen acknowledged that PBL would represent a paradigm shift for some teachers, however, she minimized the ensuing fear by asserting that PBL is really just about improving the craft of teaching. Above all, Lake Elementary progressively nudged teachers toward small shifts in the classroom. As a result of this step-by-step approach, teachers did not see PBL as something foreign but as a way to “get better together”. This led to immediate shifts in teaching, as displayed by increased student engagement. Such improvements in the students’ learning experience are what we should all be aiming for when we implement project based learning training for teachers.


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