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How to ensure a smooth rollout of PBL at your school

The Deer in the Headlights

We’ve all seen it. The deer caught in the headlights. Frozen with fear. Unable to move.

Jump to the right or left and he walks away unscathed. Stay exactly where he’s at and he ends up becoming a new permanent fixture of the SUV; smattered against the windshield.

As school leaders, sometimes we feel just like the deer. We’re inundated daily wth the latest trends in education, but don’t know which direction to choose. There are new maker spaces to expose students to the creative process. STEM programs to produce young budding engineers. Entrepreneur courses to teach students to manage and run their own businesses.

Yet instead of choosing a direction, and setting up the systems to support it, we find ourselves paralyzed by indecision, more comfortable to stay where we are. Or worse, we choose a grab bag of the latest trends, and find ourselves doing none of them very well.

What if instead of being the deer, frozen in the headlights, you could lead your school with vision and clarity around site specific goals?

What if you could rally your staff and students around that clear vision and create the structures to support them?

Ensuring a successful rollout of Project- Based Learning in Your School

These five steps will help increase your likelihood of success with PBL. Most importantly, adhering to them will provide your staff with clear vision and clarity, and allow you to move your school forward in a positive direction.

Establish shared values and beliefs

Step One: Establish/ Re-evaluate shared values

Where does your vision statement live? Is it hidden somewhere in the depths of your school website, or is it a living and breathing part of how you do everything at your school? If PBL is going to stick with your staff, it has to tap into something they already believe. Bring them together, group them heterogeneously and provide each group a large pieces of butcher paper with three central questions:

“We are a staff who…”

“We believe all students should…”

“We believe learning should be…"

After giving your staff time to brainstorm, lead a gallery walk that asks them to find commonalities between groups. These commonalities will represent your shared values and lead to step two.

Establish the "why" for PBL

Step Two: Establish the “Why?” for PBL

Now that you have established shared values, show how PBL represents the best way to support those values. Lead a screening of “Most Likely to Succeed,” a documentary that shows the implementation of PBL at some of the most innovative schools, and ask your staff to identify how it represents their shared values and beliefs. Next, ask them to identify evidence of things they are already doing to support this type of learning, and some areas where they can improve. I often find that using a facilitator or consultant to guide this process helps ensure this evaluative process is objective and constructive.

Set clear expectations

Step Three: Create realistic expectations

Chances are, you have three types of staff members at your school. I call these groups the “cliffhangers,” “the cautious,” and the “critics.” Your “cliffhangers,” a small minority that are flexible and ready to roll with any change; your “critics,” another small minority that are completely resistant to change; and your “cautious”- the vast majority of your staff that are not opposed to change, but want to see it navigated successfully before completely jumping on board.

It’s important that as a leader, you have created the kinds of conditions and expectations that will allow all three to thrive.

With your “cliffhangers," provide a few planing structures to guide them, time for them to meet and share results, and then allow them to start implementation right away.

With your “cautious,” provide them with a series of existing projects, protocols for how to evaluate and discuss their impact, and then allow them to design one of their own.

With your “critics,” simply provide them with a time and space to evaluate the data around PBL and its impact on student learning.

Support Staff

Step Four: Provide continual and guided support

A successful rollout of PBL involves more than a few initial meetings and the hope that “all goes well.” Your teachers are going to need specific and guided support around areas of challenge. Schedule in time for your three groups to meet and provide tailored professional development around anticipated areas of need. I find that a PBL consultant is most effective in facilitating this PD. However, if your budget will not allow for soliciting outside support, utilize your curriculum coordinator or instructional coaches to lead this PD.

Step Five: Exhibit/ Celebrate the work

Exhibiting Work

As a school leader, it’s important that you allow a space for reflection and critique, but it’s even more important to celebrate your success. When you first rollout PBL, inform your staff that in six weeks, they will have the opportunity to celebrate their work. Open up classrooms and provide short A/B rotations so that your teachers can observe and celebrate the work of their colleagues.

In Closing

Taking these 5 steps will ensure that your school, rather than get caught in the headlights, thrives in the spotlight. By providing a clear vision and justification for PBL, your teachers will feel inspired to lead the learning experiences that best impact student learning. And finally, by providing a strategic and well designed road map, you will ensure your teachers have the kind of support they need to constantly improve.

Ready to take the first step?

You don’t have to go at this alone.

Allow someone with over a decade of experience in leading PBL help support you with its rollout. Schedule a free initial consultation below and we will create a site- specific plan together.

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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