Learning with PBL Leaders

I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation of learning that culminates a school leader’s journey through BIE’s PBL Leadership Development Program. The event is called a Leadership Learning Fair, and the participants shared their understanding of what Project Based Learning means to them and their school, and how they are creating the conditions to support teacher success.  To say that I was blown away by what I saw is an understatement!

The Learning Fair took place on March 2nd at Richland School District Two, one of BIE’s partner systems in South Carolina. I have just had the privilege of becoming their systemic partnership coach.

Ten schools brought leadership teams comprised of principals, assistant principals, coaches and teachers to tell their PBL stories. They had a specific challenge posed to them by Cris Waldfogel, Senior Manager of Leadership Development at BIE. Cris charged each school to tell their story. The real story. “Don’t come here with a dog and pony show about how great the work is. We want the real story with the successes and challenges. We want to celebrate with you but we also want to learn with and from you. So tell us your story.” And they did.

Each school prepared a presentation about where they started, what they tried, what worked, what didn’t, what they did to overcome challenges, and what challenges remain. I’ll give some of the many highlights and a couple of the challenges that were trending across the schools.

Students are loving PBL. Like really loving PBL. Some schools captured video of students to help illustrate what a day in the life of their school looks like and caught specific interviews that honed in on what they liked best about PBL. One of my favorite student quotes of the day, from Longleaf Elementary was “people don’t like reading about rollercoasters, they like riding rollercoasters.” Then her facial expression was kind of like, “Get it?! We want to experience the real thing!”

Another young student shared, “I like PBL a lot. It kind of makes me feel famous.” As it should! Students are doing real work that matters both within and outside of the school. Experts from the community come into the schools to challenge the students’ thinking, offer advice and support, and then come to see final products and solutions. For example, students in a project at Blythewood Middle School tackled the question, “How can we best support the homeless population of South Carolina?” They engaged with experts from local churches and missions as well as the Mental Health Recovery Center. Students interviewed these experts and also received critical feedback from them as they produced their public products to answer the driving question. See students working with the experts in this video made by one of Richland’s instructional coaches. Even at the elementary level, students are being shown that the work they do has value. It matters. They matter.

Students in the upper grades shared similar sentiments. One student from Richland Northeast said, “This is a chance for teachers to see their students evolve and learn about themselves.” I mean, wow.

There were many challenges that the leaders shared as well. Every school noted that teacher buy-in across all grades and content areas remains a challenge. Teachers continue to feel nervous that PBL doesn’t allow them to “cover” all of their content area standards, especially in tested subject areas. They hope that as PBL continues to grow and thrive across their school and district that teachers will begin to see that the shift is to one of “this is how we do business here” and that PBL isn’t just another passing fad or initiative. Principals also have to be vigilant with their message about how teachers need to trust the PBL process.

After hearing those student testimonials, the pride that the teachers and leaders have in the work and how far they’ve come was palpable. As educators, we are so quick to point out what we could have done better. Or what didn’t go exactly as planned. But hearing the same message from the student voice, in every school, was encouraging: Thank you for trying. Thank you for helping me see the relevance in the work I’m doing here. Thanks for showing me I matter. If that doesn’t begin to change the hearts and minds of those still on the fence about whether to give PBL a try, I’m not sure what will.

Leaders also explained that there is still quite the continuum of projects and that they aren’t sure how to send the message that they want “main course, not dessert” projects and provide the right support. They want to reassure teachers that each project doesn’t have to be a huge production encompassing many standards and extending over a long period of time.

We hear these kinds of concerns from school and district leaders across the country. PBL is new to a lot of teachers. We have to celebrate their willingness to be novices again. Leaders need to acknowledge the real shift we are asking teachers to make, so we can coach classroom instruction and be a reliable support for teachers’ questions. Some projects are going to be awesome. Some, maybe not so awesome, but leaders have to be able to tell the difference, celebrate the small wins, and see and take opportunities to push teacher practice so they can continue to grow into “gold standard” PBL practitioners.

In a reflective moment at the end of the day, after all the presentations had been given, the leaders shared their own thoughts about the day and the culminating event in the PBL Leadership Development Program. After some pause, one participant offered, “The work doesn’t stop here. Taking this time to see what’s happening across the district, and the successes we’re having, makes me want to push on. We get bogged down in the day to day of running our buildings, but we need to keep this kind of learning from each other going.” Cris and I made eye contact and gave a celebratory wink. What a win.

These are just a few of the many great things I learned about Richland Two that day. They are a team of dedicated, passionate educators who have taken the lessons learned and truly worked to build those into the leadership they provide in their buildings every day, within and outside of the classrooms. They are shaking up their system and what school looks like so they can keep doing what’s best for kids. Way to go Richland Two! Proud to now be on this journey with you.


Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about PBL implementation? Please enter them below.