My Roadtrip with PBL (Part 1)

Part 1 PBL

Kristin Nan recently shared her blog Beyond Flexible as part of IMMOOC Season 4, which resonated with me in a huge way. When I think about my learning experiences in elementary and high school, there isn’t much that stands out for me, other than a history project that involved researching my family tree (still love this memory) and an outdoor ed class in Grade 12. Both were hands-on, both involved experiential learning and both pushed me out of my comfort zone. Now, some of this lack of memory could be attributed to my age, but when I push my much younger colleagues to think of their extraordinary learning experiences as children, they can’t come up with much either. Unfortunately, we were all taught to learn through one experience, and for most of us, this meant compliance, something I aced growing up.

I want so much more for my students and staff than the blah, blah, blah. As we wrestle with our learning, I want those opportunities to be flexible in ways that meet our needs, and by our, I mean both our students and our staff members. The upside is that teachers every where are continuing to move away from the one-size-fits-all means of instruction in different ways.

In comes project-based learning, an idea that we are tackling with our middle years programming. In our infancy with this approach, this is going to be tricky, for any number of reasons. How do we ensure that our students are not only engaged in their projects, but that they are becoming critical thinkers, that they are expanding their learning, that they are becoming more resilient and that they are becoming problem-solvers? How do we ensure that they are developing their writing and reading skills and that they are proficient and engaged in math? How do we foster their creativity and questioning? How do we ensure that this is more about the learning than about the show? How do we support our teaching staff so that they feel challenged to do this work without feeling insanely overwhelmed? How do we meet them where they’re at so that they aren’t losing their minds?

As we work through these questions to ensure that PBL is not simply a pocket of innovation in our schools, here are the first steps that we’ve taken.

Do your research.

My first step as an administrator in this process…I read…a lot…about anything that I could get my hands on that spoke to PBL. Being involved in all four seasons of the IMMOOC definitely helped, as it gave me access to countless resources, in both human and written forms! If you aren’t already, follow John Spencer @spencerideas. His blogs are inspiring and really help me to see the bigger picture. Loved his latest blog, What can food trucks teach about project-based learning? (! The Buck Institute for Education also has great resources to support a start-up with PBL. You can follow them at @BIEpbl or connect with them at We have also purchased a number of books for our team as they go through this process as well. These include:

My take-away. There is no right answer. This work will be messy…it will be challenging…and teachers will need to be seriously fluid with what is going on in the classroom. Some of it will work beautifully, and some of it will suck exponentially. When that happens, be prepared to redirect…not once, but frequently. What I also learned is that I will need to be very creative with the schedule for this to work, so that our teachers can develop their ideas, at times individually and at other times, with their team members.

Observe…Observe…& Then Observe Again.

It is one thing to read about PBL in blogs, articles or books. It is a completely different ballgame when your team has the opportunity to see this work in action. We reached out to Shauna Cornwell, an Enrichment and Innovation Consultant with the Winnipeg School Division and were put in contact with Jon Paintin, a STEAM Support Teacher, who runs two STEAM classrooms (@jppaintin or @WSDSteam) at both Pinkham and Rockwood Schools (@steamrway). He accepted to meet with us, so a team headed off to Pinkham School for the morning to observe his Grades 4 to 6 students at work. There were design challenges, thought-provoking questions, collaboration and critical thinking integrated into math, science and languages. Their focus for the morning was to develop a water filtration system to address challenges brought about by a water boiling advisory that has been in effect in Shoal Lake for close to two decades. We took notes, asked questions and spoke with the students.

Our take-away. Relatively few behavior challenges…student engagement and excitement were very evident…curricular objectives were being met…8- to 11-year olds were thinking critically and blowing it out of the park with their iterations.

We then spent an afternoon at Nelson McIntyre Collegiate (NMC) (@nmcLRSD) in the Louis Riel School Division to observe two Grade 9 PBL classrooms. We first met with Charlene Smallwood, Vice-Principal (@crwsmallwood), to get her perspective on the program. She took the time to answer our questions and share their experience with us. Then, we spent time observing students in two different classrooms as they worked together and individually. The teachers responsible for this program collaborated to work on the same driving question, but approached it in two very different ways, one from a humanities perspective and the other from a science perspective. Follow Matt Fabbri @FabbriLRSD for more insight into the work that his students are doing. We then spent time with the teachers responsible for the Propel program (@propellrsd) for Grades 11 and 12 students, a more passion-based/interest-based initiative, and learned about the impact on high school students who could develop their passions, while meeting curricular objectives in certain subject areas.

Our take-away. 1. Even with the same driving question, each teacher doesn’t have to replicate exactly what his/her teaching partner is doing. 2. Thanks to Charlene’s insights, we learned that we don’t need to launch the program in one fell swoop. We can and should work at it progressively, so that we take the time to develop our ideas, without burning out. 3. The students are engaged in the process and empowered throughout it.


With all this information coming at us, taking time to reflect and to ask questions is essential. Following our last school observation at NMC, our team of teachers and administrators met to discuss what we had seen, learned and felt about our experiences. This led to more questions and concerns from all team members, as we unpacked what had taken place. As we discussed, we highlighted areas that we need to work on, further information that we need to gather and collaborative processes that we need to work through to address those areas of concerns.

My take-away. 1. Staff voices are essential to ensure that their concerns are heard and that they are part of the process. 2. Not everyone is going to be at the same starting point, and that’s okay. 3. We will need to work together to support each other, in order to make this happen. 4. Reflection and sharing is a key component to this process, for students and teachers alike!

Our Spring Break ends tomorrow, and as of Monday, we will be back at it. I will keep you posted on the next leg of our journey!

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