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Getting Staff On Board With PBL

In previous editions of the eduSTEM Review, we’ve shared our learnings and insights on how to successfully execute a PBL unit. In these articles, we’ve mainly focused on how to design a unit and what to do in the classroom to ensure the project stays on the rails. However, the challenge for many schools often comes long before they even get to this point.


In our experience, whether a school’s push for greater adoption and incorporation of PBL into and across the curriculum succeeds rests largely on how well that school gets their wider teaching staff bought in to and on board with this new direction. Alex Symonds & Ryan Gill of Masada College emphasise the importance of prioritising teacher buy-in to a successful introduction of PBL, yet we so often see this overlooked or given insufficient weight in a school’s planning. This mistake can often be the difference between a school’s fledgling PBL efforts thriving or atrophying.


If you sometimes feel like the ‘PBL champion’ at your school – the constant cheerleader who encourages other staff to step out of their comfort zone – or if you are a Leadership Team member contemplating how to move your school towards innovative and 21st Century learning, building staff buy-in can be a perennial challenge. In this article, we set out our strategy for overcoming this obstacle.


Start with Why


You might have read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why or seen his TED talk . If not, the premise of it is simple. Sinek explores how the world’s most successful leaders and companies can inspire trust and encourage people to follow or support them. The secret, according to Sinek, is to repeatedly communicate the Why; your mission, your vision, and what you stand for. By doing so, you can connect with people on a deeper, emotional level, which is a more effective way of inspiring action and trust than simply telling people what you do or want to do.

This same premise is a foundational principle of change management, especially when it comes to changing the way teaching and learning occurs within schools. When things have been done a certain way for a long period of time, selling the virtues of a shift towards greater PBL incorporation can be challenging. It means more work and uncertainty for most teachers, so the status quo seems more appealing. We’ve seen this inertia stymie many schools’ attempts to get PBL off the ground in anything resembling an embedded approach.


Communicating the Why


The key to every successful PBL implementation and change management approach that we’ve seen in schools is that they relentlessly communicate the Why. Every staff member is crystal clear on why the school is taking the approach, why it is necessary, and why continuing to approach teaching and learning the same way is no longer an option. This is different for each school – it might be the need to lift student engagement or the desire to better equip students with thinking and interpersonal skills – but the underlying approach of consistently sharing their vision is the same.


We don’t use the word ‘relentlessly’ lightly, either. A mistake schools can make is to explain the reasons behind a push for greater PBL adoption once at a staff meeting and then assume everyone will get on board. Instead, the key is to constantly communicate to staff why moving to PBL is a necessary and impactful strategic decision. This should be done at every staff, faculty, and planning meeting where the adoption of PBL is being discussed. A good rule of thumb is that unless a staff member has had the Why explained to them ten or fifteen times, it likely won’t sink in and be internalised by them.


Another important facet of communicating the Why of PBL adoption is to do so at two levels: a school-wide level and at the level of an individual teacher. It can be more natural to default to explaining the macro, ‘greater good’ of why implementing PBL is desirable, focusing on student skills and the need for them to be better prepared for life after school. Whilst this is a worthy reason for introducing PBL, emphasising this aspect of the Why alone effectively asks teachers to endure the short term pain of learning something new and changing the way they deliver curriculum as the trade-off for the long-term benefit to students that will only be realised after they leave the school. For many staff, this makes buying in to the vision a little harder. That is why it is more effective to communicate the Why of PBL so that staff understand what it can do for them in the short term, and so that they understand the long term benefit to the school and students.

An underappreciated aspect of PBL is the positive effect it can have on staff satisfaction. PBL’s ability to engage students and help them appreciate the real-world relevance of curriculum makes a marked difference to their in-class demeanour and desire to learn. This has a very real and tangible impact on the role of a teacher in a classroom; they can spend less time on behaviour management and wrestling (metaphorically) with disengaged students to keep them focused. Students must learn to be more self-sufficient in PBL and drive their own learning rather than relying on having the answers handed to them; this skill also enables teachers to spend less time ‘managing’ a class and more time extending and coaching students. And the impact of developing skills like critical thinking and creativity aren’t only felt when students enter the workforce; building higher-order skills allows them to think and work at a more advanced level in their subjects whilst at school.


We’ve consistently seen PBL increase student engagement and academic performance and, in turn, enhance staff satisfaction. Change management is about helping people understand both why the end destination is important and why it is in their own interests to get on board. Schools who successfully transition to greater PBL incorporation with the full support and engagement of their staff do so because they relentlessly explain the Why of PBL at a whole-school level and for each individual teacher.


Using the ‘Golden Circle’ to scaffold your messaging to staff


In Start With Why, Simon Sinek created his Golden Circle theory for driving organisational change and inspiring others to take action. His model contains three concentric circles, each representing a different layer for how to structure the implementation and communication of change management.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Why is at the core of the model – this is where every leader or organisation should start when proposing a change or a new course of action. However, what is noticeable about the model is that the outermost layer – and therefore the final step – is to communicate the What of PBL introduction. This is another trap that schools can fall into, where they jump too quickly into solution mode and communicating what their PBL program will look like, in which subjects or year levels it will run, and what its focus will be. Though often intended to make the vision more concreate and inspire excitement, it can often have the opposite effect.


By communicating the What too early, it can seem overwhelming or intimidating for staff. Even if they have bought in to the Why, the communication of the What will prompt staff to compare where they are now and where they are expected to get to. If this gap is perceived as being too great, or if it actualising the vision will require significant work and stress, it is natural for staff to become resistant to the implementation of PBL even if they conceptually agree with the reasons for it. This can breed a ‘sounds good, just not in my class’ response.


Instead, schools should pair communication of the Why with the second step in Sinek’s model – the How. What is most important after laying out the vision is to show staff how they will get there and how they will be supported, which helps reduce uncertainty or apprehension as to the effectiveness of the proposed change or the amount of work required of them. If staff know they will be heavily supported and provided with the tools and skills to make that transition more seamless, this acts as a force maximiser to the vision and further encourages staff to embrace the adoption of PBL.


There are different facets of what the How of PBL adoption should look like, and we’ll have more to say on it in subsequent editions of the eduSTEM Review. However, the blueprint followed by Ryan Gill and Alex Symonds at Masada College – build staff understanding and skills in Professional Learning, further communicate the Why at staff meetings, and provide direct support with the teachers directly implementing PBL – is a great example of the Golden Circle model in action. It was only after explaining the Why of PBL adoption at Masada and then implementing the steps associated with the How that the school then embarked on the What and identified which faculties and year levels would start integrating PBL. In our experience, this is a sustainable and replicable strategy which can help ensure the adoption of PBL isn’t just a once-off but instead becomes embraced and embedded by your school as a core teaching and learning strategy.

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