4 ways to use project-based learning to engage students this fall

Making the transition to PBL isn’t easy. But research shows it works and is a great way to provide students with what they need in these challenging times.
By: and | July 28, 2021
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Sarah Schneider Kavanagh is an assistant professor and Zachary Herrmann is executive director of the Center for Professional Learning at Penn Graduate School of Education.

Sarah Schneider Kavanagh is an assistant professor and Zachary Herrmann is executive director of the Center for Professional Learning at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

As schools prepare for the year ahead, there is broad consensus that teachers need to be supported in using active, student-centered approaches to engage youth after a year and a half of disrupted learning. But meaningful changes in how students experience school will require significant changes to how we as educators approach our teaching and leading.

Our university runs a professional learning program to help teachers and school and system leaders succeed with project-based learning, an inquiry-based approach in which students explore real-world issues through projects. PBL is an ideal teaching tool for this challenging yet promising moment in education. Recent research studies show rigorous PBL improves student achievement, engagement, and aspects of social and emotional learning. The gains are evident across groups of students, indicating PBL can be a lever for improving equity. But it’s a complex practice that requires professional support for those working across the ranks of schools and districts.

Our program is built on research we conducted into the core practices needed to shift to high-quality PBL instruction. These practices center on disciplinary rigor, authentic purpose, robust collaboration, and iterative processes and they are designed to push on traditional approaches to schooling that do not value student agency and real-world problem-solving.

While strong professional development for teachers is critical to make PBL work, educators say they simply can’t move from more traditional instruction to teaching through projects unless leaders shift how they lead. Specifically, leaders should try to implement some of the following approaches.

Establishing an ambitious yet specific vision 

We often hear school leaders saying they know high-quality project-based learning when they see it. But they aren’t specific about the details and can’t seem to see the parts of the whole. Leaders need to move away from that vague language and get to know the specific teaching elements and practices involved in rigorous PBL. It’s not enough for leaders to have a vision for what classrooms should look like without knowing how to describe that vision in a way that others can clearly understand. Beyond ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ leaders must build a sharper understanding of “it” and work to develop a clear, shared vision across their school or system.

Principals, coaches, and others overseeing teaching and learning need to know how to develop staff and support those working on implementing PBL. As summer winds down, leaders should be making plans for how to work with teachers to set concrete goals around shifting their practices. It’s true teachers are sometimes weary of what they perceive as changing fads and trends. With that in mind, rather than framing PBL as the ultimate goal, it may be helpful for leaders to focus teachers on a compelling instructional vision and allow PBL to be the means through which that vision can be pursued. We center our work around four driving goals for PBL: learning that is rich in disciplinary learning, authentic, collaborative, and iterative.

Redefining what classrooms should look like

When it comes to teachers, we often hear them say they can’t make the changes to their practice that are needed due to the traditional views held by school leaders about what classrooms should look like.

For example, if school leaders expect to see a learning objective on the board whenever they enter a classroom, they might be surprised to find that missing in an inquiry-based class focused on student-led discovery. In such a classroom, students may be on somewhat different learning paths and there may not be one learning objective.

Teachers also say some principals, and others who observe and evaluate their work, continue to have difficulty seeing collaborative, active work as anything other than disorderly or chaotic. And the truth is, things can look messy when a teacher is first moving to project-based learning. Administrators need to be flexible, employ a growth mindset when it comes to their teachers, and understand that making the transition from lecturing and textbook-based instruction to active learning and PBL is tough. There will be a learning curve. Teachers need to know their school leaders understand that and support them.

Meaningful PD

School and system leaders play a vital role in shaping the professional development opportunities available to teachers. One-day workshops are not going to help teachers implement PBL effectively. They need to be supported with expert guidance to make the transition and need sustained support and opportunities to see PBL in action and experience it in the classroom context.

Most of today’s classroom teachers have not personally experienced high-quality PBL. Strong professional learning opportunities should give teachers the chance to try it by wearing a “student hat,” taking the perspective of students in a PBL classroom. Leaders also should prioritize professional learning circles, peer observations, open-classroom policies, and other strategies that bring professional learning into the classroom and create more opportunities for teachers to learn from each other.

Setting priorities and re-evaluating policies

It’s also important when moving a school or system to PBL to evaluate existing policies and make sure they’re not getting in the way of your efforts. For example, some student discipline policies block effective implementation of project-based learning, perhaps laying out that students should be seated and quiet during core instruction. Curriculum and pacing guides that force teachers to “cover” massive amounts of content may make it difficult for teachers to find time and space to create learning experiences that allow students to go deeper, explore, and create.

Leaders need to examine schedules and bell times to ensure there is enough time for project-based learning. As schools in the San Francisco Unified School District have expanded their use of PBL in middle-school instruction, for instance, they have allotted more time for the subject to ensure the approach is effective.

Making the transition to project-based learning isn’t easy. But research shows high-quality PBL works and is a great way to provide students with what they need in these challenging times—evidence-based instruction that engages them in school and helps them grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Education leaders who want to move their schools in this direction must devote time to understanding what is required and supporting teachers in taking the critical steps required.

Sarah Schneider Kavanagh is an assistant professor and Zachary Herrmann is executive director of the Center for Professional Learning at Penn GSE. They are two of the co-authors of the newly released book “Core Practices for Project-based Learning. A Guide for Teachers and Leaders,” published by Harvard Education Press.

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