Hands-on Professional Development Demonstrates the Power of PBL

A New Jersey superintendent shares her successful strategy for introducing educators to project-based learning.

By Dr. Joanne Mullane

If you had walked into a Hopatcong Borough School District classroom two years ago, you likely would have seen students seated quietly, with a teacher standing at the front of the class giving a lesson. We knew we needed a change. In 2015, Hopatcong’s goal was to increase engagement for our 1,550 students spread throughout five schools. District leaders agreed that project-based learning (PBL) was the answer.

Knowing that many teachers had never engaged in PBL before, our district set out to provide educators the support they needed to break away from traditional teaching models. We asked ourselves, “How do you teach educators to teach project-based learning?” The answer we came up with was that you invite them to do it themselves.

Teaching the Teacher with a Hands-on Approach

As we were considering our approach to preparing for PBL, I attended a local conference where I engaged in a hands-on PBL workshop with other educators. We were separated into groups and asked to complete a performance task. As a group, we used the provided resources to conduct research, collaborated to produce a final product, and presented it to the rest of the group. Completing the task for myself allowed me to see the benefit it could have for students, teachers, and our district’s goal of student engagement. The hands-on professional development session also made me realize that appropriate training can level the playing field for teachers who may have never tried PBL.

After making the decision to adopt Defined STEM performance tasks, we dove in head first with training. To implement our new model, we decided to follow a train-the-trainer model to create a handful of PBL experts at each school. The PBL experts then conducted trainings with educators at our five schools. Today, they continue to serve as the experts for PBL implementation and an open resource for our educators to ask questions.

I didn’t want our educators to feel like PBL was just another new initiative district leaders were “making” them do. I know from experience that a top-down approach isn’t very effective. I knew for them to see the power of PBL, they’d have to experience it for themselves.

All my teachers went through a hands-on training session similar to what I experienced at the conference. Teachers were split into groups and completed a performance task just as students would. They conducted research using the resources, then had to design, draw, and present their projects.

Working through a task allowed teachers to experience how performance tasks increase student engagement and allow students to use their knowledge to discover solutions and answers for themselves. They were no longer providing answers to students, but were facilitators of the classroom, guiding them to explore a new style of learning.

In-class Implementation

During the first year of the implementation, each building had the freedom to implement PBL in their own way, but all teachers were required to do at least one performance task with their students. For example, our 4th– and 5th-grade building implemented PBL by grade level, so 4th-grade students worked on one cross-curricular project in all classes showing them how math, science, English, and social studies are connected in the real world.

This approach was wildly successful for Hopatcong. At the end of the school year, we had a group of students present one of their projects to the school board to showcase their growth in all content areas. We also took time for teachers to showcase their student’s work during a faculty gallery walk.

Pamela Brennan, a middle school teacher at Hopatcong, had this to say about her experience with PBL: “I encourage my students to focus on their strengths. I use cooperative group work to give my students opportunities to collaborate and problem-solve. I can say that the overall learning experience for the students was an eagerness to work on the project. They were excited to work together and determine the best strategy to use to get to the final project.”

Ongoing PD—Don’t Forget This!

Hopatcong provides a plethora of PBL PD opportunities for our educators, including full- and half-day in-services, collaborative lesson-planning time every six days, team-building time, and faculty meetings to ask questions and share best practices. Defined STEM’s staff is always available to answer any user questions and provides ongoing professional development for staff, too.

Once teachers see students actively participating in their learning, it’s contagious. Teachers realize the benefits of PBL are worth the hurdles because there’s nothing more gratifying than seeing students excited about learning.

Dr. Joanne Mullane is the acting superintendent for Hopatcong Borough Schools in Hopatcong, New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @HopatcongSchool.

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