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Professional Opinion

Learning to lead K12 project-based learning

The administrator’s role in PD efforts
Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.
Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.

Project-based learning is an inquiry-based and applied learning approach incorporating authenticity, student ownership, reflection, revision and public work. It is one of the leading instructional pedagogies to address today’s learning.

In recent years, thousands of teachers have participated in PBL professional development. It is pervasive in today’s professional learning.

However, little has been done to address what it takes to lead PBL.

As the founding principal of a project-based high school (DAmag.me/mck12), it was apparent to me that the successful implementation of PBL depended on the expectations, culture and collaboration that our district leaders facilitated. There was an effort to create a schoolwide environment where PBL could thrive.

Here are four areas for PBL leaders to consider.

The icon of innovation

PBL involves both students and teachers taking risks, stretching themselves and venturing into uncharted territory. This may produce fear, insecurity, frustration and even a temptation to quit. Our ability to push others—by pushing ourselves—is paramount.

Leaders need to be transparent and to show all stakeholders that they, too, are part of this cycle of risk and innovation. Leaders need to demonstrate their fears of failure, their insecurities, their doubts and their moments of wanting to quit. But through this transparency and vulnerability, leaders show that they are truly lead learners.

Run the run

Often known as “walking the walk,” this is a good leadership practice. PBL is not just a pedagogy. It is a professional lifestyle. Leaders need to live it and model it.

For example, PBL involves student voice and choice. Learners should have a say in what they learn, how they learn and how they show what they learn.

PBL leaders can model this in many ways—through taking regular student surveys; meeting with students individually and in small focus groups; inviting students to participate on interview panels; and even encouraging student input on schoolwide policies and governance.

Going public

Publicizing the work is a key element of PBL. Administrators, not teachers, should facilitate these public opportunities.

Showing student work includes face-to-face events (showcases, exhibitions, presentations) and digital showcasing (social media, websites, blogs, video, portfolios, YouTube channels).

PBL schools should also institutionalize the expectation that all students reflect upon their work (metacognition).

At Minarets High School, we did this with our year-end portfolio presentations, called the Personal Brand Equity (DAmag.me/pbe), and with our senior project, the Senior Legacy Experience (DAmag.me/sles).

Practices and protocols

We don’t want project micromanagement, but we can benefit from institutional practices, such as schoolwide presentation and collaboration rubrics.

Leaders can help facilitate regular student feedback and, more importantly, how faculty uses that feedback.

Leaders can encourage teams of students to pitch ideas to them—and to community partners—and ultimately work to implement the best ideas.

Leaders can also begin every school year with schoolwide design challenges that focus on building skills, culture and a PBL environment.

Consider how New Tech Napa High School Principal Riley Johnson kicks off the year for his entire student body and staff (http://damag.me/ntdt).

All 415 students participate in a cross-curricular, cross-grade challenge for three days, addressing questions such as, “How might we tackle a problem that our community—global, national or local—faces?”

Creating systems in which students and teachers understand common expectations and vernacular will lead to more high-quality PBL.


Longtime educator Michael Niehoff writes on transformational leadership and professional development.