Leading the Way for PBL in Novato USD

I really appreciated putting myself in my students’ shoes today. It made me think more deeply about what projects look like in my classroom.

I feel more confident that my principal sees the value of PBL and will be able to support me this year.

It was great to see our administrators stepping up to take the role of teacher today. It’s not a role they get to play often.

This is the first time I can remember that I had the chance to collaborate and work with teachers from different schools and grade levels in the district.

As teachers filed out of the opening staff development day in the Novato Unified School District, they shared how their opening day experience was far different than any they had known before. For a full day, they were able to take on the role of a learner. As a systemic partner with the Buck Institute for Education, the district and school leaders in Novato decided that, to kick-off their Project Based Learning initiative in the district, they wanted all of the administrators and instructional staff to experience PBL from the perspective of the learner.

As Julia Kempkey, Director of Instruction and Innovation explained, “We want everyone in the district to understand the value of what a Project Based Learning experience for students would look like, feel like, and afford them as learners. We started with our administrators in the district because we want help them understand how to lead for PBL and support teachers in their efforts to develop and implement projects.“

A “Project Slice”
And so, in early August, all of the administrators in the district participated in a day-long “project slice” examining issues related to immigration, identity, and culture. They visited Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, “the Ellis Island of the West” where many immigrants, especially Chinese, stayed while awaiting entrance to the U.S. Throughout the day, small teams worked together to address the driving question and create presentations to summarize their learning. Modeling the various stages of a PBL project, the leaders went through the entire experience as if they themselves were the students. Subsequent to this day, about 20 school and district administrators stepped forward to be trained as facilitators to lead an opening day PBL experience for nearly 400 teachers.

In preparation, facilitators spent a day experiencing another project slice called the “Patterns Project.” In this project, learners address the driving question, “How Can patterns that exist in nature be used to understand and/or address a problem in everyday life?” Through the examination of patterns that occur in nature, the learners apply their observations and lessons they glean from the patterns to problems that exist in the world. Groups chose problems with global ramifications such as poverty, to local problems that impact them daily, such as traffic congestion.

The facilitators engaged in the project first as learners, reflected on their experience, and then discussed how best to facilitate the project with teachers. The decision was made to mix all teachers in the district into small cohorts of 20 to 25 teachers from every school in the district, mixed school and grade level, to allow for greater collaboration across the district and diverse perspectives in each of the cohorts.

Several powerful lessons emerged from the opening day experience:

Administrator as Lead Learner: In this scenario, the district made a conscious decision to empower the leaders in the district to deeply understand the opportunities and challenges PBL can pose for learners and teachers. As they themselves worked through a project slice, they had to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and demonstrate cultural competence, all skills articulated in their district’s Graduate Profile. As facilitators, they needed to think about the readiness of their “students,” how to scaffold the learning, and how to provide coaching to assist the teachers as they worked through the project. To a one, each of administrators who participated as facilitators remarked that the experience of being a learner and then a facilitator in a project gave them a far better understanding of both the complexity of PBL and the benefit it can have for students. They also left with a better understanding of the importance of providing the time, support and resources necessary for teachers to develop and implement PBL deeply.

Shared Vision: Setting and maintaining a shared vision for how PBL will transform learning for students is critical to success in any district. The message of “we’re all in this together” was evident as you walked from classroom to classroom. All teachers and administrators, including the superintendent, were part of the learning experience for the day. Creating a shared learning experience allowed teachers from across the district to discuss what PBL might mean and look like for them and their students. Throughout the day, the administrator facilitators reinforced a common vision that this type of learning is intended for all students in the district.

Fostering a culture of collaboration: How professional learning is structured does matter. In this case, the decision to mix teachers up from different schools and grade levels from across the district sent a powerful message and fostered greater collaboration. Further, the structure allowed for unique conversations and sharing of ideas that may not have happened had each school met separately. As Novato has adopted a Graduate Profile that articulates what students will know and be able to do upon graduation, this format allowed them to examine what those skills look like throughout the system, K- 12. As teachers become more competent in developing PBL experiences, thinking about how those projects scaffold and build at and across grade levels will require even great levels of collaboration and sharing. It will be incumbent upon the leadership to now think creatively about how to continue to offer opportunities – both job-embedded and outside of the school day – for teachers to continue to work together.

Risk Taking and Growth Mindset: The overall format for the day – and asking administrators to facilitate mixed groups of teachers from across the district –demonstrated a certain level of risk taking. Asking leaders to step out of their comfort zone to facilitate a project that they are not experts in showed their willingness to take chances, to push beyond their comfort zone and to try new approaches to learning. The district is setting the expectation that implementing high quality PBL takes time, persistence, ongoing reflection and repetition. As teachers reflect on the planning and implementation of projects, they need to adopt a growth mindset that through reflection and revisions, projects evolve over time and can get better each time they’re implemented with students. The key is taking the first step and implementing something. 

As is true in athletics, the game is not won in the first quarter or period, but getting off to a strong start is key to any victory. The leadership team in Novato modeled the type of learning they hope all of their students will experience throughout their educational career in the district. Allowing the adults to engage in experiential, immersive learning experiences as learners is critical. As the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In this case, the teachers and administrators in Novato Unified made one big step forward this summer.

For more information about BIE’s services, click here.

Dr. Brandon Wiley <
Chief Program Officer at PBLWorks

Don't have an account yet?