Leading PBL Implementation through a Core Team

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By: Jeff Spencer, Principal

Southport Elementary School

Southport, IN



Change process and leading successful implementation of Project-Based Learning requires staff buy-in, leadership support, and a shift in structures and process.  Before I jump into those concepts in more depth, I want to share my story and the reason Project-Based Learning has been my guiding light as an educator.

PBL has been my personal passion for over a decade.  I have been a facilitator, instructional coach, administrator, and even a parent in a PBL environment.  From early implementation, PBL provided a why and relevancy for my students and I have been a passionate advocate and implementer ever since.  After fourteen years in Decatur Township located in Indianapolis, Indiana, I took a risk and moved my family and professional career to Plymouth, Indiana to serve as the principal at Washington Discovery Academy (WDA), a K-4 New Tech Network PBL elementary school.

I had admired Plymouth from afar as they committed to a K-12 PBL implementation and was excited to join the team.  WDA is an exceptional school and we were recognized as the first elementary school New Tech Network Demonstration Site and also won the Best in Network Award for the best project in the entire New Tech Network while I worked there.  I strongly suggest a visit if you are thinking about PBL. While I grew and learned so much, Plymouth was too far away from home and Indianapolis so we moved back after two years in Northern Indiana.

I was fortunate to be selected to serve as principal of Southport Elementary School (SES) in Perry Township.  SES was another outstanding place of learning, nationally recognized as a Title I Distinguished School and also a recipient of the Founders Awards from the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.  The staff was incredible and while I wasn’t hired specifically to integrate PBL, it became a natural fit.

Perry Township using NIET’s Best Practice rubric and embedded into the expectations of daily lessons are aspects like motivating student with content that is personally engaging and relevant to students and lessons that build inquiry, curiosity, and exploration.  There are also high level indicators that focus on getting students to ask questions and then attempt to answer them, give high quality feedback to peers, and thinking practically by applying their learning to use and implement what they learn in real-life scenarios.  Sounds a lot like PBL, right? Our staff was a high functioning school seeking what could push them to the next level. I left Plymouth thinking my PBL journey might be done but found a perfect place for another PBL implementation.

As you lead change, it is important to think about those key ideas from earlier: staff buy-in, leadership support, and a shift in structures and process.  There would be no PBL training before my first year, but we did have time for key shifts and learning that would support the PBL journey.

Staff Buy-In

Staff buy-in was the first key shift.  At our first retreat, we used the Connections Protocol to build culture and introduce protocols in a low risk environment.  We watched Simon Sinek tell us about the power of why and allowed teachers to document their reason for being an educator, which hung in our staff lounge throughout the year.  Staff created visuals to identify the traits and characteristics of our ideal graduate, which identified many things that quality PBL created for students.  Our retreat sessions offered staff an opportunity to learn an overview about PBL and challenged them to find a simple way to make learning more relevant. Finally, our weekly adult learning focused our early learning around practical thinking and making learning more relevant for our students.  These early shifts laid a foundation for PBL work and helped get staff excited about the possibilities for our students.

Over Fall Break, around 20 staff traveled to Plymouth to see PBL in action at Washington Discovery Academy.  This visit allowed staff to put concrete examples to theoretical discussion and theory. The staff was challenged to take pictures and videos and create a presentation for our full staff.  We had a critical mass of staff members energized about the journey and presenting their reflections to our entire staff. At this point, there was a clear buy-in for PBL as an instructional model at our school.

Leadership Support

As a leadership team, supporting our teachers was a critical aspect of our implementation.  Our school is highly successful, and we have a hard working staff that expects great things for our students and hold themselves to a very high standard.  As leaders, we had to encourage risk and possible failure in an environment that supported but also reflected on those experiences. We also had to build the vision and get people to buy-in along the way.  We were very transparent from the beginning that this was something we felt was right for the building, but we also acknowledged that it would have to fit into the way we do things and that it was not a mandate.  Finally, the support had to allow the early adaptors to flourish.

The support included many different roles and approaches.  Our administrative team, administrators and instructional coaches, observed and provided feedback to teachers as they implemented our first project.  Our staff is also fortunate in that we have three PBL Certified Educators on staff that allows for informal coaching and check-ins for those implementing.  Finally, we sent PBL Unit reflections to teaching teams after implementation so they had meaningful reflection on their work.

Shift in Structures & Processes

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, key structures and processes were put into place for the next step of our implementation.  All staff was invited to apply for the opportunity to be a part of some summer training around PBL. They had to commit to do some virtual learning around PBL and project planning before training, attend a two-day session with Magnify Learning, implement their project during the 2018-2019 school year and meet monthly as a PBL Learning Team (Magnify Learning has adopted the term Core Team).

Our two-day training focused on deepening our PBL understanding, finishing a refined PBL unit, crafting an elevator speech about why staff should do PBL and creating some structures for the year.  

This year’s implementation has had bumps but been an overwhelming success!  Our PBL Core Team created sub-groups to support our team’s learning, staff learning, sharing our story with stakeholders, and identifying external checks for quality and recognition.  Those teams met throughout the year and created the following outcomes:

  • Critical Friends Groups for Core Team PBL Projects

  • PBL Newsletter that informed families, community, and staff about PBL implementation

  • Staff breakfast to inform staff about projects and PBL process

  • Application and recognition as a IDOE Stem Certified School

  • Fall and Spring PBL Community Partner Breakfasts

These systems were key in a successful implementation and also allowed us to “field test” what PBL should look like in our building before we implemented PBL building wide.  This summer, our entire staff will go through an on-site training with Magnify Learning with a full implementation scheduled for the 2019-2020 school year.

Our journey is unique because a critical attribute of successful implementation is customization.  There are important aspects of PBL, but you have to define those elements in the context of your staff and students.  At the same time, there are key pieces that work in all environments. I challenge you to think about how to bring teachers along in the process, support their work, and build structures and processes for a successful implementation.  This was my first time using a Core Team as a part of the implementation process, and it has been a success for us. We were able to identify what worked and now are poised to replicate it as we bring PBL to all students in all classrooms.

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Jeff Spencer is currently the Principal at Southport Elementary School in Indianapolis, Indiana, a Title I Distinguished School and TAP Founders Award winner. Previously, Jeff was the principal at Washington Discovery Academy, the first New Tech Network Elementary Demonstration Site. Prior to moving to administration, Jeff taught 7th and 8th grade social studies.  Because 7th and 8th graders don't typically care about social studies, Jeff quickly moved to PBL as an instructional model.  Jeff married to his amazing wife Amy and they have four wonderful children.  When he is not doing professional tasks, Jeff enjoys spending time with family, reading, sports, and playing golf.