Preparing Teachers for Project-Based Learning
By Tom Vander Ark & Emily Liebtag
Sonia, a fourth grader, pointed proudly to her essay, hanging prominently in her classroom with six others as examples of “supporting a claim with evidence.” The essay was one of dozens of artifacts of quality work in her portfolio.
She explained how the driving question “How does land pollution affect marine life?” initiated the project-based learning (PBL) unit at Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose. Sonia (a pseudonym) described how a driving question led to an objective, a project plan, more research, several drafts and peer edits, and finally a well written final product.
My colleagues and I smiled ear to ear knowing that we were seeing evidence of great teaching. Similar observations in other classrooms was evidence of a community of practice, shared tools and resources, and quality preparation.
5 Reasons Teachers Should be PBL Prepared
Teaching is the largest occupation in the nation, employing more than 3.4 million people. It’s arguably the most important profession in terms of our civic and economic health. Public and private schools will soon be hiring more than 400,000 teachers a year to support what will soon be 60 million students. Getting teacher preparation right is a big and important job.
One important aspect of preparation is project-based learning. It’s easy to do, but hard to do well. It’s increasingly aided by powerful research, production and collaboration tools and combined with personalized learning. It models and builds two sets of lifelong skills, practical self-management skills and deeper learning competencies forged by challenging work in novel situations.
Buck Institute’s Gold Standard for PBL includes eight essential elements: a challenging question, important learning goals, sustained inquiry, authenticity, learner voice and choice, critique and revision, and a public product. (See discussion of Gold Standard PBL and related strategies.)
There are five reasons we feel teachers should be PBL prepared.
1. Students need to be prepared for it, so that means teachers do as well. Four in ten high school students will freelance after graduation. Many of their colleagues that want and find full time employment will manage their work as a series of projects. For freelances and full timers, it’s a project-based world.
As stated in Preparing Students for a Project-Based World, students should have experiences that lead them to deeper learning outcomes and that are more student-centered. In order for students to get these experiences, we need to provide teachers with preparation and development experiences in order to achieve positive PBL results.
2. Current preparation methods aren’t adequate. Other than graduate employment (which is easily measured), assessing the success of university-based preparation programs can be challenging. The National Council on Teacher Quality ranks preparation programs and finds that only 11 percent met the standard in classroom management techniques and only 10 percent of programs offer a strong student-teaching experience. A Fordham Institute series concluded that “most preparation programs are doing a lackluster job of teaching their candidates how to teach.” When surveyed, teachers say they did not feel prepared.
3. New learning models require new roles and skills. The shift from print to digital learning is leading to a proliferation of blended and personalized learning models. A growing number of schools are combining personalized and project-based learning in exciting ways. (See a recap of XQ winners and 66 of our favorite secondary schools.)
These next generation models require new skills and dispositions for teachers. Examples include collaborating with colleagues on the development of interdisciplinary projects, and helping a student outline a project that combines interests and standards.
What this means for preparation is that (like medical training) the middle third should be clinical and the final third should be resident in a particular school model that reflects a teacher's strengths, interests, and geo-preferences.
4. Teaching is a project-based profession. Many teachers might in fact be the first to say that they are already doing projects on a daily basis to prepare for instruction. This only strengthens the case that we need to hone their skills and prepare those who are not already tackling their work in a project-based way to do so.
School districts increasingly manage their improvement and innovation agenda as a series of projects. New learning models are creating new roles for teachers as multi-classroom leaders, grade span team leads, coaches, and technology specialists. It’s likely that teachers will manage their own work in projects and participate and lead project teams throughout their careers--they deserve high quality preparation in project management.
5. Project-based learning is an organizing framework. With constant changes in education, project-based teaching is overarching and organizing framework that can encompass new content areas or initiatives. In the past couple of years, we have seen the rise of new subjects like coding and making, new strategies like blended learning, and more emphasis on social emotional learning. They all can be turned into implementation projects for teacher teams and incorporated into student learning projects.
And finally, PBL done well works for students and, as Strobel and van Barneveld found, “teachers ultimately find the PBL approach to be more rewarding and enjoyable than traditional teaching methods”.
When well prepared and in a supportive context, we have observed five key practices of a PBL teacher:
5 Key Practices of a PBL Prepared Teacher
1. Has project-mindset, is a skilled project manager. A teacher with a project-mindset views projects as the umbrella for how they get their work done and for how students learn. They are able to manage projects well by keeping the driving question in mind and allowing for flexibility during the learning process, but also keeping track of the details and knowing when and how to check-in with students. They tolerate (even embrace) ambiguity, are curious and entrepreneurial and view their own work as project-focused.
2. Skilled personalized learning facilitator in a blended environment. A PBL prepared teacher is someone who is nimble in blended and personalized learning environments. They incorporate personalized work, both online and during face-to-face instruction, for students that is tied to their projects. The personalize learning in preparation for PBL (as well as making PBL a personalized experience).
3. Exemplary PBL facilitator. A prepared PBL teacher needs to be an exemplar PBL facilitator, one that understands how to design and plan excellent learning experiences for students that are aligned to standards. They know how to build the culture of inquiry, personalize preparation, and scaffold PBL participation.
PBL facilitators expect students to manage the steps in a project but they check in on students work. “If the teacher isn’t assessing all along the way then the final product will not typically show the high quality of success,” said Ron Berger, EL Education. They ask probing questions that promote deeper learning.
4. Participates in PBL professional learning. A PBL prepared teacher views their work as an on-going learning process. They not only know the foundations of PBL, but they are able to compare and appreciate related strategies that can enhance their teaching and practice. These educators stay ‘in the know’ and continuously read, research, explore and connect with others involved in this work.
5. Plans for deeper learning - not perfection. A PBL prepared teacher seeks to create deeper learning experiences for students in his/her classroom, not to have them on a path for perfection and perfect scores. These educators are happy with the ebbs and flows of the journey and do not expect an immediate reward, either for themselves or their students. They see the need to grow students abilities to connect, think critically about a driving question, communicate with a myriad of different audiences and genuinely learn about how to learn.
For more, see: