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Project-based learning in schools is taking the world by storm. Student-led project-based learning in particular could revolutionize education as we know it, instilling in learners a lifelong passion for learning and preparing them for the future.
But can this transformation happen if student-led PBL operates inside a vacuum; inside one classroom, facilitated by only one teacher in a school of 20 teachers?
Likely, not. So I encourage the scaling of student-led project-based learning schools, and WHY is the focus of this post.
I have been teaching educators, parents, principals, and program directors about student-led project-based learning for about 5 years now.
A common theme inevitably comes up: some teachers and educators of a school are doing student-led PBL and others are not.
In other words, there is a disconnect between the models, philosophies, and visions of staff members, and that disconnect trickles down to students in a not-so-good way.
That can make things super complicated, overwhelming, and isolating within a community that should be on the same page.
For example, I heard from a teacher this past year who wanted to start student-led project-based learning with her students, but she was the only teacher doing it in the whole school. She felt isolated and unsupported.
I talked with a director of a school who wanted all staff members to implement student-led project-based learning, but he was met with a lot of resistance from some staff members and excitement from others.
The benefits of student-led project-based learning in schools are there, no question. You can certainly explain the benefits to teachers. But again, that will inspire some teachers and not others.
You can show example after example of student-led PBL experiences in action to get teachers inspired, and again, some will be inspired and others will not.
But nothing will be as effective as scaling student-led project-based learning across your entire school or program, meaning, all teachers not only implement student-led PBL in their own classrooms, but they work together to build a school culture and mission around student-led PBL.
So here’s my suggestion: discuss with ALL staff members the importance and benefits of scaling student-led project-based learning in schools using the five points discussed in this post.
Share those benefits and then download the following free checklist.
This checklist is a step-by-step how-to guide for scaling student-led project-based learning in schools; for building that shared process, culture, and vision.
Resistance to student-led PBL often stems from exhaustion. Teachers don’t need more on their plates, such as learning how to scale project-based learning schools. So give them the why and the how on a platter.
Now, let’s get into why scaling student-led PBL in schools is SUCH A GOOD IDEA!
5 Benefits of Scaling Student-Led Project-Based Learning in Schools
1. Streamlines Learning
Scaling student-led project-based learning schools gets everyone on the same page; students and staff.
When philosophy, goals, vision, structure, schedule, strategies, systems, and even learning tools are shared, the implementation process of student-led project-based learning is SO MUCH SMOOTHER.
And smooth is what we want, right? No one wants to deal with the extra challenges that come along with not being on the same page.
Those challenges include student confusion, classroom management issues, frustration and arguments between colleagues, and more. Who has time for that?
Scaling student-led project-based learning in schools irons out these unwanted hangups that cost us all the time and energy that we don’t have enough of as it is.
2. Built-in Support System
One of the best parts about scaling project-based learning in schools is that you get a built-in system of support and mentorship.
Remember the teacher I told you about that told me how isolated she felt being the only teacher in her school taking on student-led PBL? That feeling is eliminated when the entire school is working toward the same goals and mission.
Imagine you want your students to design PBLs around a heritage theme, and you want to give them structure, but aren't sure how. You pop over to your teacher bestie’s classroom and bounce ideas off of each other, and you can because your teacher bestie ALSO knows how to design and scaffold PBLs.
Let’s say you are having trouble keeping track of all of your student’s PBLs. You ask for advice from one of your PBL colleagues who gives you a spreadsheet that she uses to stay organized. Problem solved.
If you were the only teacher in the school doing student-led PBL, going to your neighbor for advice, tools, and brainstorming sessions wouldn’t be an option, and that can be really difficult and debilitating.
3. Collaborative by Nature
One of my favorite parts about working in a project-based learning school is the collaboration and partnerships that can be formed not just between teachers but between students as well.
For example, my colleagues and I design and execute PBLs together, which all of our students can participate in if they choose.
For example, I have a background in biology and one of my colleagues has a background in math. Together we designed a subject-integrated PBL around building a pollinator garden.
He helped students build raised beds for the garden. I helped my students design and lead their own PBLs related to different pollinators and their needs.
Teachers often team-teach project-based classes or seminars as well.
The way we’ve scaled student-led project-based learning in our school also allows for students from different classes and advisories to do PBLs together if they choose.
We even have school-wide committees that are reflective of project-based learning.
For example, one of those is an exhibition night committee. This group of students works together to plan and host project-based learning exhibition nights where students showcase their PBLs.
4. Shared Benefits
Scaling student-led project-based learning schools also has an equity component.
As I’ve said, there are a variety of advantages and positive outcomes that come along with PBL, so why should some students in the school have the opportunity to gain those outcomes and not others?
Student-led PBL results in content knowledge AND 21st-century skills. Student-led PBL is real-world, personalized, and meaningful, which results in a passion for learning and the intrinsic motivation to learn.
Student-led PBL prepares students for the future and a lifetime of learning. Students manage their own deadlines, ask their own questions, and find information on their own.
They are learning HOW TO LEARN through the process of project-based learning. What other learning experiences can do all of that?
Is it fair and equitable to prepare some students in the school for life and not others?
5. Culture of Inquiry, Curiosity, and Self-Direction
One of the reasons I would try to persuade you to scale student-led project-based learning in your school is for culture-building purposes.
All schools have a culture, and that culture is built around something such as a framework, values, priorities, expectations, actions, beliefs and more.
I urge you to make project-based learning the focus of that culture and to be intentional about building that PBL culture.
A PBL culture is one of inquiry, curiosity, and self-direction. It is one where students feel safe taking academic risks. It is one that values mistakes and sees failure as a learning opportunity. It is one that values student input, choice, and voice. It is a culture and community of passionate, lifelong learners.
That shared culture just makes the learning community stronger.
A culture will naturally develop in your school whether you like the culture that is being developed or not. It can be a self-directed PBL culture or it can be something else.
But if what you want is for your school to take on a PBL culture, the entire school will need to be a part of it.
You’re not going to have a PBL school culture if only a teacher or two are actually doing student-led PBL with students.
If you’re a school leader reading this, I want to stress the importance of support and clarity from you and other school administrators. Initiate and sustain the transformation process.
Share the benefits with staff members and give them the confidence to take on student-led PBL with the free “how-to” checklist.
I encourage you to go through this guide together as a group and brainstorm ways you, staff, and students can scale PBL together.
You won’t regret it!
If you have any questions or could use tips or support from me, please reach out. I worked in a PBL high school for 10 years.
Also, one of the best ways to scale student-led project-based learning in schools is to have teachers use the same teaching tools and receive the same training.
Check out some of these resources to help you get started:
Browse professional development and workshop options to streamline training:
Student-Led Project-Based Learning Blog Posts:
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.