4 Truths About Effective PBL Leaders

Jennifer Cruz

At the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) we get many calls from site and district leaders asking how to create a school system organized for effective Project Based Learning (PBL). We partner with those who are willing and able to engage with us for a multi-year PBL implementation effort. BIE’s systemic partnership coaches support leaders as they progress on their PBL journey. After years of this work across the United States and around the world, we have discovered some key truths about highly effective PBL leadership.

The most effective leaders begin with why.

I was recently at a school with exceptional performance on high stakes tests. While exploring whether to commit to PBL, they struggled to reconcile changing their teaching practices with their current success by traditional measures. What happens if teachers try something new and scores decrease? What will parents say? What will district administrators say? To move school staff and parents past this dilemma, leaders started with questions that refocused them on their mission and vision for the future, What do our students need to be successful in the future? Is traditional academic knowledge enough? What kind of teaching will make our hopes and dreams for our students come true? For other schools, the questions might be about increasing student engagement, building a better school culture, or finding new strategies for raising test scores. When we ground everyone in the why, the how (PBL) becomes crystal clear.

To reach the goal, everyone has to know the plan.

So you’ve started with the why, and your team agrees that high quality PBL is worth pursuing. Now what? How do we get there? Every great coach has a plan for winning a game, so BIE’s PBL implementation planning sessions help leaders craft a shared vision, then create long-term, mid-term, and short-term outcomes. We co-create the specific supports and activities the staff and community need to meet their outcomes. But even though the PBL planning team is made up of representative stakeholders like parents, teachers, central office staff, and students when appropriate, best-laid plans can fail if they are not communicated well to everyone. Make your work public – repeatedly – in various formats, settings, languages, or whatever it takes to make sure all the players know the game plan.

Effective leaders are model learners.

PBL leaders see their work with their staff as a project and model the best practices of PBL teaching. It’s important to learn side by side with your teachers. Don’t be “that guy” (or gal) who reads email or leaves constantly during professional development sessions. Model the learning behaviors that you want your teachers to use. Ask questions, dig in, make it clear that you value lifelong learning and your staff will too.

Many PBL leaders actually bring the essential project design elements into their leadership practice. Open meetings with a driving question – for example, How should we schedule the student day to maximize learning time? What structures can we implement to ensure that staff have time to collaborate? Collect “need to know” questions at the start of a big initiative and revisit them over the course of time. Create a culture that encourages collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

Make time for reflection and celebration.

Successful sports teams reflect on their performance. They watch previous game tapes, recall what they did well or want to improve on, and together plan how to get better. Educators can take a lesson from athletes. How often do we come together to analyze a lesson or unit, then practice the complicated parts before trying it again? PBL leaders need to help teachers deprivatize their practice. Teachers should be in each other’s classrooms to learn how their colleagues teach and reflect on how it might apply to their own classroom. They should engage in ongoing professional learning cycles to examine their work using protocols like those in BIE’s “professional learning loop.” Leaders should be in each other’s schools observing high quality leadership practices unfold and engage in consultancy protocols to solve problems of practice. Have a leadership thought partner who helps you uncover your personal growth areas. Tell your staff. They will respect the reflective model you set.

Successful athletes are also known for hoisting that hard-earned trophy over their head.

PBL leaders should do the same at their schools. Continuous improvement through reflection and use of protocols is important, but don’t get so dogged about improving that you forget to celebrate accomplishments. Some schools do shout-outs at the start of each staff meeting. Others use newsletters or email blasts to point out the good work the staff is doing to move PBL forward. For more ideas and resources to grow your PBL leadership, visit bie.org.


To learn more about leadership and Deeper Learning for leaders, check out:

This post is part of our “Preparing Leaders for Deeper Learning” series.  If you have thoughts about what today’s school leaders should know and be able to do and how they should be prepared, we’d love to hear from you. Contact [email protected] with the subject “Preparing Leaders” for more information.

Jennifer Cruz
 is Director of Implementation at the Buck Institute for Education. 
Follow Jennifer on Twitter with @jencBIE.

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