Why PD Matters So Much for PBL Teachers

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Benjamin Franklin
Ultimately, I learned how to ride a bike by getting up the guts to hop on my Huffy and try. Sure, watching my older brother cruise down the sidewalk and listening to my dad tell me all of the steps to riding helped, but it was the experience of doing it myself that made me feel confident on two wheels.
What does this have to do with project-based learning (PBL) for teachers? PBL has many elements. For example, see Gold Standard PBL from Buck Institute of Education (BIE). All of the steps are important to the overall outcome (just like bike riding – 1. Hold the handlebars 2. Get on the bike 3. Push with one foot and then the other 4. Off you go). However, if only told about these elements, the outcome may be less desirable (i.e., you may end up falling, not truly riding). Teachers need to have on-going experiences and support with PBL themselves in order to make all of the elements work in tandem, just like when learning to ride a bike.
In a recent article from Peter Glenn at CrowdSchool, he shares a quote from John Larmer, Editor in Chief at BIE , that speaks to this point:

“Teachers didn’t experience [PBL] when they were in school, and they naturally tend to teach like they were taught.”

Ironically, even if professional development (PD) is about an engaging learning approach (such as PBL), we often in our own learning use “five minutes of ‘turn and talk‘ sprinkled among ninety-minutes of staring at a presentation screen and listening to one voice drone on” instead of engaging in the actual practice itself.
Not only should teachers get to experience PBL, but they also need support during the implementation stages. As I took my first couple of rides, my dad had a hand on the back of my seat. When I started to gain understanding of how to ride, he watched as I wobbled but his hand went away and his support came in the form of verbal cues. As we continue to learn about effective teaching approaches, there is more and more evidence that teachers need this same type of support during the implementation of new strategies and instructional approaches:

“The largest struggle for teachers is not learning new approaches to teaching but implementing them. The reason traditional professional development is ineffective is that it doesn’t support teachers during the stage of learning with the steepest learning curve: implementation. In the same way that riding a bike is more difficult than learning about riding a bike, employing a teaching strategy in the classroom is more difficult than learning the strategy itself. In several case studies, even experienced teachers struggled with a new instructional technique in the beginning. In fact, studies have shown it takes, on average, 20 separate instances of practice before a teacher has mastered a new skill, with that number increasing along with the complexity of the skill. “

Enough about what isn’t happening. Let’s focus on what PBL-focused PD experiences and options are available for teachers:

  1. Experience PBL World this June, either in-person or virtually.
  2. Work on a challenging problem or driving question that pertains to your school or community to expand your leadership skills.
  3. Play an online PBL game (don’t be afraid to try one that your students use), complete a PBL challenge or create a project with an online tool like Scratch.
  4. Participate in TeachQuest! While TeachQuest is not necessarily PBL, it involves play and inquiry, which can be a part of the PBL process.
  5. Take a course, like one from the New England Board of Higher Education
  6. Complete a module from Leading Educators, where you can work on projects focused on specializations such as coaching others or leading teams
  7. Visit a New Tech Network School–a national network of PBL schools and be a part of PBL teaching & learning

When teachers have the opportunity to experience and practice PBL, they’re given the skills they need to get their students’ learning in motion, and the ability to step back and watch creative minds take off on their own.
Have other ideas or know of other opportunities for teachers to engage in PBL? Share them with us in the comments below or contribute to the It’s a Project-Based World campaign.
For more on project-based learning, see:

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Emily Liebtag

Emily Liebtag, Ed.D., is Education Reimagined's Senior Partner for Systems Transformation. Formerly, Emily served as the Vice President of Advocacy at Getting Smart.

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