From the Principal's Office: Establishing a PBL-Friendly Culture in Your Classroom, School or District

“PBL (Project Based Learning) offers a unique opportunity for teachers and students to join together in the inquiry process.” Thom Markham, Project Based Learning: Design and Coaching Guide

With the advent of Common Core Standards, there's a great deal of talk from school districts about moving to Project Based Learning because the kinds of learning asked for in those standards can better be approached through a PBL model. I have heard several districts speak about this change in instructional approach as if it were some kind of basic cosmetic change that could make to their schools. Many still view PBL as instructional strategy that can be added or bolted into their existing schools and classroom systems. Unfortunately, Project Based learning won’t work that way. It can’t be bolted on top of the existing classroom practice. To be successful with PBL requires a fundamental change in teaching philosophy for everyone, from the teacher in the classroom to the school board member.

Because teaching is fundamentally different in a PBL classroom, for that instructional model to work, a deliberative effort must be made to establish a “PBL-Friendly Culture,” as Thom Markham calls it in his book, Project Based Learning: Design and Coaching Guide. This is no easy year-long agenda of PBL workshops and get-togethers either. Changing a school into a PBL friendly culture means letting go of a lot of conventional school beliefs and norms and deliberately fostering new ways of thinking about school.

Establishing a “PBL-Friendly Culture” basically means to establish and classroom and school that “Builds on Trust and Care.” On the surface, this is a fundamental, must-have shift in thinking, from “controlling students” to moving toward a more learner-centered approach where students have a great deal of autonomy. In practical terms, it means showing students that you trust them by allowing them to take more control of what happens instructionally and culturally in the school and in the classroom.

According to Markham, three core factors can maximize our effort and desire to successfully establish a “PBL Friendly Culture” in your classroom, school, or district.

  • Caring Relationships: It is a fundamental truth that people perform better when they know people care about them. If they don’t think people care about them, then instead of engaging in the tasks of the job, they look for escape. In a "PBL-Friendly Culture" a caring relationship begins with recognizing and respecting an individual student's autonomy. This means not seeing students as somethings to be controlled or objects of conformity, but as an individual to be accepted for who they are. It means giving them the freedom to inquire and learn. Autonomy, of course, does not mean there are no rules. It does mean that educators must rethink the nature of rules, in a word, that students don’t exist for rules; rules exist for students. Rules should fundamentally help students become increasingly autonomous. No student is going to perform at peak levels in the cold, impersonal atmosphere where they have no autonomy and the expectation is that they must check who they are at the door. We must care for the students in the classroom to foster in them the desire to perform at the levels necessary for PBL to be successful.
  • The desire for meaning and purpose: In a “PBL Friendly Culture” there’s no place for meaningless work, and busy work is seen as blasphemous. A teacher never, ever gives students work to “just keep them busy.” Assignments and activities must always have a place in the larger goal or purpose of the project. Our students are not dumb. They recognize busy work the minute it hits their desk. There’s no place in the "PBL-Friendly culture" for “Let’s-keep-them-busy-no-matter-what-thinking.” Giving students meaning and purpose in a PBL-friendly culture means doing that everyday all the time.
  • The power of mastery: The key to giving students the “True Power of Mastery” which fosters good feelings about what they've done or are doing, is to give, all-the-time, meaningful and relevant projects and learning assignments. Students feel great when they have completed a particularly self-satisfying project. That makes them want to do even more on the next project. The power of mastery lies in its ability to tap into intrinsic motivation which is a key to establishing a “PBL-Friendly Culture” in your classroom, school, or district.

As Thom Markham points, if you want to establish a “PBL-Friendly Culture” in your school, you must establish a “drive and thrive atmosphere.” In a nutshell, such a place is where students “work hard for results because they believe in themselves.” As Markham makes very clear:

“Check your beliefs here: If you hold a secret conviction that students are naturally unmotivated, or that they need to be frightened into learning, you will not get the results you want in PBL. Successful PBL depends on your belief that young people want to learn and will perform well when respected by an adult and guided appropriately.”

I fear that districts who talk about implementing project based learning across their schools, do not fundamentally understand all the changes necessary for successful implementation of PBL. Fundamental to making PBL work is establishing a culture that respects and accepts students as individuals, and that fosters student effort and desire to learn, not conform and make the next best test scores.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.