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Many of you are already familiar with the 4 C’s - critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and how they fit into the teaching and learning landscape. How many leaders consider the 4 C’s in leadership? Can we leverage the 4 C’s to help create a culture that supports the instructional innovation our schools need right now? Let’s consider how leaders can foster critical thinking and leverage effective communication to build a culture that supports Project Based Learning.

Critical Thinking

Schools and districts are complex systems with a wide variety of stakeholders. Administrators are frequently called upon to problem-solve; I know I was, as an elementary school principal. The ongoing managerial problems administrators face each day can take us off track of our mission to ensure that we maximize the learning of every child, every day. We become managers instead of instructional leaders when we get buried under phone calls, paperwork or email. Over time your staff and community may come for direction to solve what feels like “every” problem until you are left wondering: why can’t anyone around here can think critically for themselves? The answer to that probably lies with leadership.

To create a school that fosters Project Based Learning, you need to empower staff and students to think critically about the challenges they face. Are you hyper critical of decisions that vary from your own? Is it easier to just do things yourself than rely on your team? How are you creating conditions that allow your staff and key stakeholders to own the organization’s mission, vision and values so all decisions align? Some organizations use process maps to help scaffold critical thinking through situations that arise. In some schools, staff use the consultancy protocol to support critical thinking. When you empower staff to make decisions, coach them through their fumbles, support them in the fallout (if there is any) and celebrate decisions that align to organizational values, you will create shared leadership and build the critical thinking skills of those around you.

The next time you are wondering why the people around you can’t solve problems, first ask yourself: what can I do to have them solve this on their own? Is it forming a leadership team? Asking different questions? Introducing them to a mentor? Remember that as a leader, you have to decide and define for your staff what decisions they can and should make and which decisions you own. When staff see their critical thinking is valued and celebrated they will be more likely to foster critical thinking in their PBL schools and classrooms.


Effective communication can be difficult. Communicating effectively across stakeholder groups about something as complex and different as PBL can be daunting! Those of us who have been administrators are often left amazed when staff, students and parents say: I never heard that. We think back to the emails, newsletters, and meetings that were held and are left wondering how the message was missed. When bringing PBL to a school, we know that change management is hard work. Marzano and Waters (2005) conducted a well-known meta analysis of studies of school leadership from 1970 – 2001. Among their many findings, they found that culture and communication often suffer during times of change.

When leading a PBL effort, think carefully about how and when you gather input from stakeholders at all levels of the organization, from students and parents to teachers and other administrators. Think about ways to leverage technology including social media to get your message out about PBL. Survey your stakeholder groups to find out their desired communication strategy. Most importantly, be sure that every message reminds stakeholders of why you’re taking on PBL. When communicating with your staff be clear about your expectations for the implementation of PBL in your school or district. Communicating clear expectations and providing feedback along the way will help your vision of PBL come to life!


Unfortunately many schools are still designed in a way that physically isolates faculty and staff from each other. The physical challenges at some sites may support a culture of isolated work rather than ongoing collaboration with colleagues. We believe that collaboration is a key 21st century competency for students, and we know from experience that students often need explicit instruction in strategies that support collaboration. Successful PBL teachers provide students with tools and structures to support effective collaboration. The adult learners you work with may also need structures and modeling to become more skilled at professional collaboration. If staff members are not used to collaborating with colleagues, leaders will need to create conditions for collaboration. These may include: establishing norms, creating a master schedule that allows for common planning time, using collaborative software such as Google Docs, and using professional development time to create and critique instructional activities.

Collaboration may be a new workplace practice for your staff. You’ll need to set clear expectations and model collaborative practices such as shared decision-making, transparency in resource allocation, and open communication policies. Once your staff is in the habit of tackling challenges as a team, they won’t want to settle for isolated practice ever again!


Changing student needs, shrinking budgets, and increasing accountability pressures have created demand for creativity in education. So will the challenge of transforming teaching practice with PBL. How are you promoting creativity among your staff? Do you encourage idea creation strategies when faced with an issue? Do you encourage staff to test multiple ideas then revisit the challenge? In what ways do you model and honor creativity?

It’s important to purposefully encourage and celebrate staff who take creative risks when they align to your organization’s mission, vision, and values. Consider implementing protocols and structures that engage people in creative problem-solving such as Thinking Maps, mind mapping technology tools, and open brainstorming. Our leadership team would leave a challenge we were facing up on a whiteboard in the conference room to allow people to mull it over and contribute possible solutions. I took the stance that the only emergency decisions that had to be made immediately had to do with student and staff safety. This allowed us (a little) more time to come to creative solutions to challenges rather than doing what we had always done.


In schools where students are regularly working on rigorous, relevant projects we have noticed what might be called a PBL culture. We see evidence of strong relationships between students and teachers, high levels of staff commitment to improving their practice, and a commitment to the 4 C’s at all levels of the organization. As a leader you can leverage protocols, school structures, norms and behaviors to model and grow this culture.

BIE has created a PBL School Rubric to describe a fully-developed program that reflects the Essential Elements of PBL. The row for “21st Century Competencies” sums up our message about leadership and the 4 C’s: “The school’s leadership explicitly and consistently promotes, recognizes, and models the use of the 4 C’s.”


Hangout with BIE: District Leadership and Project Based Learning

BIE District Services Manager Jennifer Cruz discusses both district and school leadership with Mya Mercer, Principal in Round Rock ISD, and Todd Wigginton, Coordinator of Instructional Projects at Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, administrators from public school districts that have recently adopted Project Based Learning as an instructional practice.


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