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How Hands-On Professional Development Helps Educators Learn to Teach Project-Based Learning

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By Dr. Joanne Mullane

If you had walked into one of our classrooms in the Hopatcong school district three years ago, you would have seen students seated quietly, with a teacher standing at the front of the class giving a lesson. We identified that this model was not engaging, and set out to make a change that would engage our students and inspire them to learn. After doing some research, we decided that high-quality project-based learning (PBL) was the answer.

Knowing that many of our teachers had never engaged in PBL before, we set out to provide educators with the support they needed to break away from traditional teaching models. During my years as an administrator, I've learned that a top-down approach to professional development (PD) isn't effective. Additionally, I didn't want our educators to feel like PBL was another new initiative district leaders were "making" them do. For them to see the power of PBL, I knew they would have to experience it for themselves.

Teaching the Teacher with a Hands-on Approach

As we were considering our approach to preparing for PBL, I attended a local conference where I engaged in a hands-on PBL workshop with other educators. We were separated into groups and asked to complete a performance task. As a group, we conducted research, collaborated to produce a final product, and presented it to the rest of the group. Completing the task for myself allowed me to see the benefit it can have for students, teachers, and our district's goal of student engagement. The hands-on professional development session made me realize that appropriate training can level the playing field for teachers who may have never tried PBL.

After making the decision to use standards-aligned performance tasks from an online PBL resource, Defined STEM, we dove in head first with training. To implement our new initiative, we decided to follow a train-the-trainer model to create a handful of PBL experts at each school. The experts would then conduct trainings with educators at our five locations. Today, they continue to serve as the specialists for PBL implementation and an open resource for our educators to ask questions.

All my teachers went through a hands-on training session similar to what I experienced at the conference. We were split into groups and completed a performance task just as students would. Afterwards, we conducted research using the resources, then designed, drew, and presented our projects.

Working on a project allowed teachers to experience how performance tasks increase student engagement and allow them to use their knowledge to discover solutions and answers for themselves. We are no longer providing answers to students. Now, we are facilitators of the classroom, guiding them to explore a new style of learning.

In-class Implementation

During the first year of the implementation, each building had the freedom to implement PBL in their own way, but all teachers were required to do at least one performance task with their students. For example, our 4th- and 5th-grade building implemented PBL by grade level, so 4th-grade students worked on one cross-curricular project in all classes, showing them how math, science, English, and social studies are connected in the real world.

This approach was wildly successful for Hopatcong. At the end of the school year, we had a group of students present one of their projects to the school board to showcase their growth in all content areas. We also took time for teachers to display their students' work during a faculty gallery walk.

PBL helps our students bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world, and adds a cross-curricular focus to multi-faceted lessons. For example, our 8th-grade class was reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, which led to the idea of creating our own drive-in theater. Teachers from different disciplines worked together to teach a wide variety of topics related to the project. Students then reached out to involve a local car club, and the PTO set up a concession stand and donated prizes.

Pamela Brennan, a lead teacher who led the PBL initiative, had this to say about her experience: "I encouraged my students to focus on their strengths. I used cooperative group work to give my students opportunities to collaborate and problem-solve. I can say that the overall learning experience for the students was an eagerness to work on the project. They were excited to work together and determine the best strategy to create their final product."

Ongoing PD--Don't Forget This!

Hopatcong provides a plethora of PBL PD opportunities for our educators, including full- and half-day in-services, collaborative lesson-planning time every six days, team-building time, and faculty meetings to ask questions and share best practices. Defined STEM's staff is always available to answer any user questions and provide ongoing professional development for staff, too.

Once teachers see students actively participating in their learning, it's contagious. Teachers realize the benefits of PBL are worth the hurdles, because there's nothing more gratifying than seeing students excited about learning.

Dr. Joanne Mullane is the acting superintendent for Hopatcong Borough Schools in Hopatcong, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @HopatcongSchool. 

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