Early Reflections on Project-based Learning: A Principal’s Point of View.

We are now 50+ days into our project-based learning (PBL) journey; I’m exhausted! I was adopted by our 8th grade team (@VSouthgate @MissDavis_UNI @CShreevers @CLMSMusicRocks & @pdstatz) and have been doing a little personality & learning style inventory work with our 6th and 7th graders as well. While it feels great to be a small part of my teachers’ work growing their PBL culture, as the building leader, I also must be objective in my professional reflections in assessing the health of the system. We made a bold move this year and with that has come some bold successes and equally bold “failures.” But, as Mrs. Southgate tells her PBL students, “We’re just going to fail forward.”

In this post, I want to sharePBL Logo, from a principal’s point of view, the good, the bad and the ugly of launching PBL in your middle school. When I first introduced the concept of PBL, I asked teachers to think about something they were passionate about in their personal life that could translate to a high quality PBL experience. The scope and complexity of our current PBL activities is amazing. From running and reading to programming robotic cars and putting on a musical, the teachers have created a very interactive afternoon which leaves the big people exhausted! But what have I learned?

The Ugly.

  • If you’ve spent the previous year planning and researching PBL, before you leave for the summer, make sure you know exactly what each teacher or grade level team is planning. For instance, a few PBLs have required start up funds. Fortunately, I had access to funds we could use, but there was still some sticker shock! We’ve now created an account for each grade and teams are given sole spending authority over that money. Students included.
  • Know your space(s). Make sure you help teachers think through where their PBL will need to exist. While some fit nicely in their existing classrooms, some will need other spaces and that can have a ripple effect on others. Think worst case scenarios.
  • Prep your substitute teachers! Emphasize to teachers that their lesson plans should front load the sub with everything they need to know to survive the PBL time. More than one sub has walked out looking a little pale after our PBL block.

The Bad.

  • Don’t overwhelm teachers. Early in our spring planning, I made a few assumptions about the staff’s awareness and background knowledge associated with PBL.  While some were early adopters, others needed more time to digest the concept and the philosophical drivers behind PBL. In short, Meet them where they are. Assess which teachers feel very, somewhat or not knowledgeable at all about PBL and do what you can to differentiate your professional development efforts.
  • Give yourself time. I wonder if we had devoted more of last year’s professional development days on PBL and inquiry-based learning, would we have caught some of the challenges that have cropped up. Some things you just can’t anticipate. Think and plan critically but avoid falling into the “This is too hard.” mindset. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
  • Front load your students. In my opinion, this is THE most important task in the transition, especially with your 8th graders. They will be coming in with a vision of what 8th grade will be like, so any change to that vision will throw them for a loop. And to take it one step further, students who are good at playing the game of school or those who are driven by clear task completion goals may likely struggle the most. PBL is messy and expect students to just plain struggle when the task isn’t well defined, open-ended, and differentiated to meet their learning needs.

The Good.

  • Student voice. Without a doubt, this has been the most gratifying for all of us. In conversations with teachers, most will point out several students who have risen up and jumped right in to PBL work. For whatever reason, (Student survey coming!) something about the PBL experience is giving them a voice not normally heard in the traditional classroom setting.
  • Curriculum connections. It really should go without saying, but well designed and thought out PBL opportunities are a natural platform for interdisciplinary content connections. To help guide the teacher’s development and refinement of their PBL, with the help from teachers, I created a PBL Lesson Plan Template. This is a living document that will never really be completed but will serve as the foundation for future planning and refinement.
  • An authentic platform for professional development. One stipulation I put on their PBL course was to ensure they were building the course through the Iowa Common Core, 21st Century Skills and or Universal Constructs. Within this framework, teachers were encouraged to dig into all three to help them clarify the “What?” and “Why?” of their course. Especially true for 21st Century Skills and Universal Constructs has been finding authentic ways to incorporate these skills into our existing curriculum. PBL provides for seamless integration of many, if not most, of these skills.
  • Authentic Intellectual Work. Our district has been engaged in Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW) for several years now. A challenge for some teachers is examining what they are teaching and linking that knowledge to the real world. In other words it’s the classic, “When will I ever use this stuff?” question.  The AIW framework provides guidance for teachers as they develop lessons or units that have a robust Value Beyond School component. Finding the real world relevance for students when teaching new skills can be a challenge at best and a stretch at worst. Teachers who bring their PBL work or lesson plans to be scored by their teams are finding this feedback invaluable as they 1) continue to refine their PBL activities and 2) continue to refine their AIW skills and knowledge.

Our PBL journey is a young one. We’ve taken some bold steps in some ways and merely dipped our toes in the water in others. The most curious aspect of our afternoon PBL block for me is that this time feels different. I LOVE how it feels, but I can’t quite put my finger on it as to why it feels so different. When I figure it out I’ll let you know.

It’s better in the Middle!



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