Ever feel like this guy?

I know I did.

I had just arrived in Suzhou, China at Etonhouse International School after leaving my 3 year dream job at High Tech High.

Neurotically, I thought I could accomplish the same thing we accomplished there.

But I soon realized that creating a culture of student-centered learning takes more than one zany guy innovating in the corner of a school.

And in less than a year I went from someone who thought he landed his dream career, to someone who wanted to leave the teaching profession entirely.

What happened? 

In short, I tried to go at change alone.

As edu-innovators, if we hope to gain momentum for student-centered learning experiences, we are going to have to enlist more support.

Doing so will take learning experiences that empower 30 students in our small classrooms, to 300+ students in the center of the school.

Below are strategies from PBL practitioners like yourself on how to get students, staff and parents on board.

Strategies to Enlist Students

Asking students to manage their own learning experiences over a 6-8 week period doesn’t happen overnight. Students need to build up skills of time management, innovation, collaboration, delegation, inquiry, and leadership. Here are some ideas on how to build those:

  1. Use design sprints and team building challenges like Marc Shulman of High Tech High does to build flexible minsdets. Above, students try and navigate a ‘minefield maze’ as teams, and later reflect on the experience. (Here is the maze activity
  2. Use mini-projects like Denise Rosenblum of River’s edge does to build creativity in students. She started this year with a cooking challenge. Students were divided into teams, given a bag of 5 ingredients, and asked to cook a meal and write a recipe. Kids loved it and are building skills for DEEPER dives!
  3. Start with division wide ‘Genius Hour’ like Mari Simpson of KPIS International School does to help students manage and innovate in small chunks of their time. In ‘genius hour,’ students choose to design video games, write comic books, create apps, design handicrafts, or whatever other activity aligns to their passion. Providing this space will help them more successfully mange their time in longer project-based experiences. Here is an inspirational video of 20+ ideas to get started.

Strategies to Enlist Parents

While some parents will understand the importance of student-centered project based experiences, most will revert back to what they remember school looking like as kids. To help gain momentum, try these ideas:

  1.  Exhibit, exhibit, exhibit! Do what Zach Post of the American International School did and host school wide exhibitions of student work. When parents saw their children speaking explicitly and confidently about their chlid’s learning, they couldn’t help but be sold.
  2. Hold parent coffees like Adam Broomfield of the International Montessori did to help discuss shifts in learning experiences, what to expect, and field questions from parents. Catching parents over an informal cup of coffee is better than trying to convince them through a powerpoint presentation!
  3. Create study guides for each project-based experience like Phil Cogbill of YCIS did with his teachers, to demonstrate the integration of standards and real world experiences. Send the study guides home at the beginning of each PBL launch.
  4. Do what Alexa Lepp, a technology coordinator and PBL Coach did and ask parents to serve as experts, panelists or mentors within the project-based experience.
  5. Use this video I created to link project-based learning to the top 10 future skills for the workforce (watch up to 12:45).

Strategies to Enlist Teaching Staff

Let’s face it, teachers have a lot on their plates right now. Transitioning to socially distanced learning has been hard enough; getting fellow staff members to enlist to a new approach is going to require connecting it to what they already know. Here are some ideas:

  1. Do what Linda Amici does with her grade level team and do the heavy lifting of project-based experience planning, and then ask fellow subject teachers where they might integrate their content. 
  2. Do what May Wu of Shenzhen Bay School did and pilot PBL with a small group of teachers to design one ‘authentic assessment’ and then let them share and build capacity with the rest of the staff.
  3. Do what Alison Phaup and Peter Davidson of Cambridge International School did and hold mini ‘project weeks’ with flexible timetables and interdisciplinary community based projects for staff to ‘get their feet wet.’
  4. Do what Alison Yang of KIS international School Thailand did and hold a ‘mini CoVid Related project challenge’ between units or after testing, with 5 project options for students to choose from.

p.s. Have a strategy for how you build momentum for PBL at your school?! I would love to hear it and feature it as a case study.