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Administrator’s Edition

Preface 1

Project Based Learning (PBL) can be a very effective educational practice. However, implementing PBL at a school site can be very much like a project in itself. This handbook is meant to provide an overview of Project-Based Learning (PBL) for administrators. While many details and aspects of PBL are discussed in this handbook, it is not intended to be a comprehensive manual on PBL. Rather, it is intended to expose administrators to the workings of PBL and how they might be able to implement it at their schools. Most administrators I know are incredibly busy. Hopefully, this manual can give them a jump start in the PBL process without being overwhelming. For those looking for more information, the end of the handbook contains links to other resources and readings that might be useful. This handbook is the result of research and data collection for a Master’s project. For a copy of the project, including the relevant research and references, please see the link in the resources page at the end of this handbook. Vince Wolfe March, 2012

Table of Contents 2

Introduction Description of PBL 4 pillars of PBL What PBL is NOT Why use PBL? Whole School Practices that Benefit PBL Systems and support School culture School-wide implementation of PBL Resources Technology Money for training Curriculum Database of Projects Collaboration Why it Matters It is a Process Improving Effectiveness Professional Development Training teachers who are new to PBL Professional Development practices Additional Resources References

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INTRODUCTION  Description

of PBL  4 pillars of PBL  What PBL is NOT  Why use PBL?

Introduction: Description of PBL 4

While there is no widely accepted exact framework for PBL, there are some clear pieces that should probably be found in every PBL curriculum model. First, projects must be integral to the curriculum, a centerpiece of the learning, as opposed to an application of an already learned topic. This means that they should not be tacked on to the end of a lesson as a way to reinforce the content of that lesson. The project should be the vehicle for the learning. Next, there should be a central question or problem that drives the project and leads to an independent investigation to solve that problem. Ideally, there are several solutions or ways to solve the problem or question at hand, which makes the project open-ended. PBL must be student driven and directed. While the teacher will have to help scaffold the project, in the end, it is the student that will be investigating the topic and seeking solutions. Artifacts or products should be created. These products not only show the culmination of the project, but can initially help drive the student to investigate in pursuit of that product. Finally, the project must be complex. This is important because it ensures challenging, academically rigorous work. For example, while making a garden is a project, it may not be academically rigorous to a student who has already done that at their own house, at least not without supplementing that project with some deeper investigation.

Introduction: Pillars of PBL 5

Pillars of Project Based Learning

Driving Questions or Problems


Student Choice


Driving Questions or Problems: This is the directions you want the students to go and/or what you want them to learn Authenticity: The project/problem topic must be interesting and authentic to the student. Student Choice: There must be an element of student choice so that they can buy into the project and drive it independently. The choice builds in relevance Product: There must be a product at the end that drives the project.

Introduction: What PBL is NOT 6

There is often confusion about what makes a project a project. Many teachers regularly use projects to supplement their lessons. Usually, these projects are done using material already learned in the previous lessons. The project is an application of that learned material. While these projects can certainly be valuable, they do not necessarily constitute PBL. They especially may not address the requirement that the projects be interesting to the students. In fact, ideally, teachers provide the general direction while the students are the ones generating the projects. PBL is not:  

A “dessert” to follow the “main course” of teaching


A supplemental exercise that uses already learned material


A sidebar “project” in a textbook that build off of what was taught in a lecture or a reading

Instead, PBL is an investigation, with several possible solutions or products, that is inherently driven by the students. Most of the content the students learn in the project should be learned independent of the teacher. The teacher role may be that of an advisor and manager, once the PBL process has begun.

Introduction: Why use PBL? 7

PBL offers the possibility of allowing students to learn more deeply about topics that otherwise might get skimmed over in traditional lesson pacing. Not only that, but according to some researchers, PBL more closely aligns with how people actually learn. PBL can also help motivate students. Since there is built in choice, and the topics should be authentic and interesting to the student, they may be more likely to pursue the goals of the project. This can benefit both low and high-achieving students. PBL can also help students be more metacognitive, where they analyze the way that they are thinking about or approaching a problem, how they will solve it, and what that solution will look like. PBL also builds cognitive skills such as critical thinking, organizing, collaborating (especially in group work), and communicating. These skills, while useful in high school, are arguably imperative in most careers, not to mention daily life. PBL gives students the opportunity to practice and refine these cognitive skills.


Whole School Practices that Benefit PBL Systems and Support   School Culture   Authentic Learning   School-wide implementation of PBL  

Whole School Practices: Systems and Support: 9

PBL is not really a top down curriculum type. In order for it to succeed, it is imperative that the administration gives support to the staff. This support can include:  

Access to technology


Staff training and professional development opportunities


Directed, goal-oriented collaboration time. This can be done as part of CPT or paid for by a grant or other discretionary funds. Allow staff to contribute to ideas about how to effectively run projects (or even with the scheduling and organizational infrastructure that accompanies that process).



Clear communication with parents about what PBL is and how it benefits the students.

To support students, administrators can:   Be available and present when projects are happening across the campus. This can include giving feedback at presentations or whenever projects are culminating.  

Consider doing a project yourself, such as a Who Am I project, in front of the school. If the leader is doing it, so can the students.

Whole School Practices: School Culture 10

For Whole School Community: One way an administration can help set up a culture to support PBL is to set up a school community that leads to interactions between administrators, teachers, and parents (Donovan et al., 1999). When parents feel welcome to be a part of their students’ education, and when teachers feel able to contribute to the curriculum at a site, a positive community can be built. This is because the participants see themselves as having a shared investment in the goals of PBL and may begin to see themselves as part of the greater school community For Teachers: Away that administrators can help get more teachers to contribute to this culture is by changing the way that information around the PBL curriculum is transmitted. It is often the case that the administration acts as a sort of control-and-command center, issuing orders down to the teachers. However, if an administration is able to move away from that model and towards a more comprehensive model where teachers help develop and implement PBL curriculum, teachers may begin feeling more ownership in the process. For Students: Unlike many traditional curricula, students will not always have a clear pathway to the solution in PBL. Therefore, both students and teachers need to feel that it is acceptable to make mistakes. This, in turn, can help create a sense of community in the classroom and across the school.

Whole School Practices: Authentic Learning 11

Many students believe that the “real world” is outside of classroom walls. Sometimes, it is easy to see why. Inside the walls of many schools are textbooks that no one outside of school reads, worksheets no one outside of school attempt, and tests no one outside of school uses. Outside the walls, in the real world, there are people actually building, designing, solving problems, collaborating, and working with their hands. Why not get students involved in that? Perhaps the best way to get students exposed to authentic learning is through an internship program. There are many ways to do this, but essentially, it allows students to implement projects at an internship site, a project that has a direct benefit to the site and to the people working at that site. This is probably the most authentic learning possible in PBL. If internships are not an option, another great way to get students engaged in the “real world” is through required interviews or shadow days. Students can decide what they are interested in, find someone who is doing it out in the community, and interview them. They can then bring this back to campus and hopefully implement some of those ideas into their projects. Another way to facilitate a more “real world” feel at school is to bring people into school. Guest speakers are great, but often, administrators have even better resources right at their finger tips; family and friends of the students who are working in the real world. Ideally, an administrator can try to set up a database with all of the people associated with the school. This will most likely be hundreds, if not thousands, of people involved in the community that can be brought into the schools as a speaker, to teach a lesson, or to sit in on a particular project happening at the school.

Whole School Practices: School-wide PBL 12

Especially starting from scratch, implementing PBL on a campus can be very difficult. Teachers, students, and parents may be unaware of exactly how PBL works. Also, many teachers have not themselves participated in PBL, so while they may understand it intellectually, they may have a more difficult time implementing it in their classrooms. Research shows that schools that adopt school-wide PBL are more likely to succeed than those that only have a few teachers trying to manage it on their own (Ravitz, 2010). The research specifically mentions that teachers often select PBL curriculum reform in an “a la carte” way (p 291) and, because the curriculum is not integrated into the school structure and culture, PBL may not be as beneficial to the students. School Wide Projects: One way to improve school-wide PBL practice is to implement schoolwide projects. These are projects that all students do, across the school. School wide projects can facilitate:   Building school culture   More consistent assessment   Student-driven assessment (using panels, for example)   Chance for all teachers to adapt and improve the project, creates collaboration opportunities For an example of a school-wide project, please see the Additional Resources page.


Resources: Technology Financial Curriculum Database of Projects Google Docs Sample

Resources: Technology 14

PBL requires computer technology, in most cases, such as internet research, live data (weather, for example), forums and blogs, and a medium to discuss their projects with other students and even professionals throughout the world. Technology can also be used to help express the final product, whether it be through a presentation, a spreadsheet, a website, or some other digital format. Thus, one important way for administration to provide support for their staff and students is through by finding a way to secure computers and other technology. Some ways to use technology:   PowerPoint or Google Presentations   Creating online Portfolios   Creating Digital Storytelling sites   Blogging as part of a project   Creating Pamphlets, Newsletters, or Brochures   Interviewing experts throughout the country online   Making mini-documentaries Technology can also facilitate staff collaboration, “storage” of projects (for staff and students), stronger communication between students, staff, and parents.

Resources: Financial 15

Obviously, every administrator would love to have extra money sitting around to train their staff. However, it may be necessary to secure at least some financial means to support PBL curricula. For an administrator wanting to implement PBL on their campus, there are a lot of ways to use financial resources to enhance PBL practice.  




One of the most important resources is technology, as mentioned on the previous page. Offsite staff training could be a very beneficial use of any discretionary funds. There is a significant amount of research that shows that prolonged professional development, off campus, can have a significant impact on implementing PBL effectively. This will be addressed further in the section about professional development. A project fund can be established. This allows students and teachers to buy things necessary to complete their projects. Examples are tools, software, video editing equipment, and transportation money. A fund to pay teachers for summer development of training or project curricula.

Resources: Curriculum 16

Project-Based Learning curriculum is different from most curricula in that it is not necessarily a prescribed set of directions for teachers and students. In fact, many times, the curricula is simply a starting point for students and teachers. The same teacher, using the same curriculum, may have a significantly difference experience each time they do the project, for example. Also, factors such as the demographics of the school, age ranges, academic interests of the students, and local resources may dictate which direction a project might lead. Often, the scope of a project is defined by the goal. In general, the more specific the goal, the more prescribed the project must be. For example, in history, if there is specific content that needs to be addressed, such as the Civil War, that project may be more prescribed and have less flexibility in terms of the direction that students can take the project. If the scope is greater, there are more options. For example, if a thematic history unit is created, where students can create a project around any historical theme (immigration, war, struggle, democracy, etc.), the project becomes much more open-ended and broad. Projects can become even wider in scope Because of these factors, there is often no perfect PBL curriculum. Rather, there are ideas that can be explored, there are support materials that can be utilized to help guide projects, and there are students to help adapt and modify projects to meet there needs. The best resource for curriculum is the staff and students, since they are the ones implementing the projects. In the teacher version of this handbook, there are some specific project ideas, tools, and links to other resources for helping to build PBL curriculum.

Resources: Database of Projects 17

Database of Projects: One potentially effective tool that an administrator can set up is a central database or collection of projects. While physical binders can be used to store hard copies, digital versions tend to be better because of the constant adaption and change that projects may go through. Digital versions also allow staff (and students) to access the projects from home, a conference, or anywhere else where they might be inspired to improve upon them. Perhaps the best tool for this digital storage is something like Google Docs. Google Docs is free, the data stored in the “cloud” and therefore does not tax existing computers, and the documents can be set up to be “living”, so that different people can collaborate on and add to documents, spreadsheets, or presentations. All of the information can be very private or shared with anyone, including being public. Links can also be established to Google Docs from a school website or newsletter. Documents (with project lessons, for example) can be stored and organized with as much detail as desired. For example, they can be stored by standard, by subject, by learning objective, or by grade level. Or all of the above. In order to preserve the institutional memory of a school, some kind of collection center for projects is highly recommended. The following page has an example of a Google Doc setup.

Resources: Google Docs sample 18


Collaboration: Why it Matters   It is a Process   Improving Effectiveness  

Collaboration: Why it Matters 20

One of the most important ways that an administrator can positively affect the implementation of PBL is by initiating a culture of collaboration among the staff. Because of the shifting nature of PBL, the staff will be constantly needing to wrestle with and improve their own practice, as well as any school-wide projects happening across the campus. Also, many great ideas can be spread around the school, but only if staff is given a chance (and a space and time) to collaborate. In fact, there is some research that, like students, teachers construct knowledge through social interactions with their peers (Krajcik et al., 1994). It makes sense that since collaboration and problem-solving are an inherent part of PBL, they should also be an inherent part of staff culture and practice. Creating a collaborative atmosphere can have a really strong impact on teachers. According to some research, staff members can actually have a great influence on each other’s teaching. According to McLaughlin and Talbert (1993), there is an association between strong professional communities within schools and more effective teaching and attitudes. Additionally, they noted that teachers in a strong professional community were more likely to incorporate new teaching strategies that lead to better student engagement. In other words, getting staff to share ideas, build projects together, critique each others’ work, and take ownership in the school curriculum can have a huge benefit to PBL.

Collaboration: It is a Process 21

Collaboration is a process: Some research has found that getting collaboration to happen is a process. Initially, teachers might treat the collaboration as a mode of transmission of knowledge, similar to the teacher-to-student model that they are used to. However, eventually, staff will participate more and became more responsible, doing things such as suggesting agendas exchanging more ideas, and bringing resources to contribute to the improvement of PBL at the school site. Eventually, teachers will be comfortable enough to participate and take chances with new ideas (Blumenfeld et al., 1994). In this vein, it is really important for administrators to set up a culture where sharing ideas and creating projects together is an expected and inherent part of the curricular process. Structuring Collaboration: Collaboration is most effective when there are clear goals established for that collaboration (Guskey, 2003). Having that structure collaborative time with an end product or goal to be met can improve the experience for teachers. Collaboration is also most effective when both parties in the collaboration process benefit (Blumenfeld et al., 1994). It is much better to have a collaboration that results in a knowledge exchange than collaboration with knowledge transmission from one participant to another (Knight, 2007). The next page discusses a few ways to improve the effectiveness of collaboration.

Collaboration: Improving effectiveness 22

Common Planning Time for Collaboration   Teachers run Common Planning Times   Teach teaching   Specific Goals set There are several ways that administrators can help increase the effectiveness of collaborative time. One way is to provide common planning time for their teachers with a specific goal of collaborating about PBL practices. Another way is to have teacher monitors run the collaborative planning time (Boyle, Lamprianou, & Boyle, 2004). Also, administrators can set up and promote networking across the campus, which allows communication between teachers and administration (Park Rogers et al., 2009). Google Docs would be a good tool for this. Another tool that can be used by administrators is team-teaching, which, according to Ling-Chian and Lee (2010), led to teachers reporting that they were more effective interacting with students. At least partly because of team-teaching, these teachers increased the learning outcomes for their students, including improving their organization, presentation skills, and communication ability. According to Ling-Chian and Lee, the best formula for team teaching was to have one content area teacher paired with a teacher who would teach a skill (a Geography and English teacher paired with a computer teacher, for example), which allowed the students to benefit most from both teachers. As mentioned, it is really important for the administrator to set goals and/or deliverables to be achieved in these collaboration sessions.  


Professional Development: General Guidelines   Research   Conclusions  

Professional Development: General Guidelines 24

Given that there is often a greater variation between classrooms within a school than between schools, improving teacher performance is arguably one of the most important ways to improve a school. Professional development may be especially important for PBL, where the traditional teacher models are often avoided. Instead, they are often replaced by a situation where the teacher is a more of a manger and helps students gain the skills necessary to do PBL, including the ability to work in groups, to work independently, and to develop metacognitive skills. PD should focus on in-depth engagement of teachers rather than simply covering some material and expecting teachers to absorb it. There are many workshops and PD sessions that are only one day or less than half a day, which may not give enough time for effective learning to happen for the teachers. Rather than a one-shot workshop, PD should be in-depth and sustained over a period of time Some traditional PD methods have included lectures, presentations, readings and the handing out of materials. While these methods may have some merit, they often promote a dynamic where the teacher is simply receiving knowledge and not necessarily getting the chance to reflect on or practice that new knowledge.


There has been a significant amount of research done about professional development (PD), both in general and also specific to PBL. Below is a sample of some findings: In a study by Boyle, White, and Boyle (2004), 77% of 779 participants in a longer term PD changed at least one practice, which was an improvement over short-term PD sessions.  

Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, and Yoon (2001) found a correlation between longer PD sessions and improved likelihood of teachers changing and improving their practice. They discovered that longer term PD led to teachers being more likely to produce enhanced knowledge and skill in the area they were being trained.  

According to Ward and Lee (2002), teachers may not successfully adopt methodologies that they have not experienced themselves. Therefore, it may make sense to have teachers participate in their own projects as much as possible before bringing them into the classroom.  

As much as possible, according to Burbank and Kauchak, PD must include the opportunity for an “active interpretive process” (p 500), where teachers are included in the conversation and where the PD session is partly based around teachers’ experiences and how they might better the school. Boyle et al. (2005) showed that coaching and research inquiry (which is similar to action research) was more effective than simply having teachers observe each other or passively share their practices.  

Professional Development: Conclusions 26

All of this research suggests that perhaps an ideal plan would be to have a PD session outside of the school followed by regular internal and external training that continued to support and enhance teachers’ practices around PBL. Also, it is really important that an administrator or lead teacher can identify which teachers are doing a good job and help promote what they are doing across the school. The professional development on site can be built around these teachers. Combined with collaboration and peer observation, professional development within the staff can continually improve. It can also enhance the staff’s own sense of community and ownership of the PBL process. This process can be especially useful to help struggling or new teachers teachers.

Conclusion 27

If utilized correctly, Project-Based Learning can be a very powerful tool to help students learn real world skills, deeply explore academic content, and become more motivated. However, there are many steps that administrators must take to support and sustain PBL at their school sites, including providing resources, building a strong school culture, setting up effective collaboration sessions between teachers, and providing effective professional development. For more resources, please see the next page. Be sure to visit the Teacher PBL Handbook, which has some concrete examples of projects and some tools that can be used in the classroom.

Additional Resources 28  






   Why is project based learning important?   School-wide project (the Who Am I Project)   PBL institute (prepares educators for PBL)   Webinar for using Google Presentations/Spreadsheets   Digital storytelling (overview, some links) Link to Teacher PBL Handbook (which has sample projects, additional links, and more detail about PBL implementation) MA project (with sources)

References 29

Blumenfeld, P.C., Krajcik, J.S., Marx, R.W., Soloway, E. (1994). Lessons Learned: How Collaboration Helped Middle Grade Science Teachers Learn Project-based Instruction. Elementary School Journal, 94(5), 539 – 551. Boyle, B, Lamprianou, I., Boyle, T. (2005). A Longitudinal Study of Teacher Change: What makes professional development effective? Report of the second year of the study. School Effectiveness and School Improvement 16(1), 1 – 27. Boyle, B., While, B., Boyle, T. (2004) A longitudinal study of teacher change: what makes professional development effective? The Curriculum Journal, 15(1), 45-68. Burbank, M.D., Kauchak, D. (2003)An alternative model for professional development: investigations into effective collaboration. Teaching and Teacher Education 19, 499–514. Donovan, M. S., Bransford, J. D., and Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (1999). How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington, DC.: National Academy Press, National Research Council. Garet, M. S., Porter, A.C., Desimone, L., Birman, B.F., Yoon, K.S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945. Guskey, T,R. (2003). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Phi Delta Kappanv, 84(10), 748-50.

References (continued) 30

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Krajcik, J. S., Blumenfeld, P. C., Marx, R. W. & Soloway, E. (1994). A collaborative model for helping middle grade science teachers learn project-based instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 94, 483– 497. Ling-Chian, C., Lee, G.C. (2010). A team-teaching model for practicing project-based learning in high school: Collaboration between computer and subject teachers. Computers & Education, 55, 961– 969. McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (1993). Contexts that matter for teaching and learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University. Park Rogers, M. A., Cross, D.I., Gresalfi, M.S., Trauth, A.E., Buck, G.A. (2009). First year implementation of a project-based learning approach: the need for addressing teachers’ orientations in the era of reform. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 9(4), 893-917. Ravitz, J. (2010). Beyond changing culture in small schools: Reform models and changing instruction with project-based learning. Peabody Journal of Education, 85, 290-312. Ward, J.D., Lee, C.L. (2002). A review of problem-based learning. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 20(1), 16-26.

Administrative Project Based Learning Handbook  
Administrative Project Based Learning Handbook  

An overview about how administrators can support Project Based Learning on their site. Some links to useful resources.