Powerful Project-Based Learning Professional Development

Teachers are inherently lifelong learners. They thirst for new ideas and practices to add to their teaching repertoire. However, teachers often feel overwhelmed when trying to innovate their teaching craft. Through well-designed Professional Development (PD) programs, schools can empower their teachers to be more innovative.

Teaching Efficacy in Professional Development

Self efficacy is an attribute that allows us to explore and implement new concepts and strategies in our daily lives (Bandura, 1977). In education, it is more finely defined as teaching efficacy (Protheroe, 2008). Essentially, the higher your teaching efficacy, the more likely you are to experiment with new teaching strategies in your daily practices, which facilitates professional development.

According to Bandura, efficacy can be developed through four modes of induction: performance accomplishments or mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and emotional arousal. In PD, efficacy is built through plenty of modeling, suggestions, self instructions, relaxation, feedback and desensitization to potentially averse emotion-inducing situations.

Professional Development Focusing on Project-Based Learning

I was recently tasked with the responsibility of facilitating a PD on Project-Based Learning (PBL) for new teachers. The teachers’ experiences in PBL varied greatly. However, the majority of the teachers in the PD had never taught a PBL lesson before.

PBL has always been a difficult PD focus. For teachers that are new to PBL, it can seem like a daunting task of implementing it in their classrooms. Teachers feel that using the PBL approach requires overhauling their existing teaching metods. There is a lack of clarity in PBL pedagogical practices, which can be confusing to teachers. PBL is also a relatively new concept for teachers, so they have limited-to-no first-and second-hand experience to draw from in lesson planning and implementation.

The PD as a whole was designed as a “project slice” – a wonderful idea borrowed from PBL training gurus at High Tech High. A project slice takes teachers through a project from start to finish. During this time, teachers get a feel for the project process through the eyes of a student. The project process involved seven steps that were derived from Buck Institute of Education’s (BIE) PBL Handbook : project launch, building general knowledge, team organization, building specific knowledge, creating a product, presentation and reflection, and assessments.

At each point throughout the project, I introduced specific teaching strategies used to facilitate a PBL classroom. The teaching strategies used were highlighted on a large printout of the Gold Standard of PBL model, and teachers were asked to reflect on these strategies at the end of each day as part of their “teaching toolkit”. They posted these reflections (how and why each strategy is used) on the school’s blog as a means of documenting their new teaching strategies, which could be easily accessed during their upcoming semester.

This practice of connecting practical teaching strategies to a conceptual model helped with bringing PBL to life. As one experienced teacher described: “Connecting specific teaching practices to the components of this PBL model is brilliant! I have been doing PBL for a few years now, and this model has never made more sense to me.

After each key learning point throughout the PD week, we stopped to take a mindful minute and reflect on our processes. The teachers vocalized their fears, concerns, or excitement about the processes of the strategies or information provided. There was no need for feedback at this time, but silent recognitions (the sign language action for “agreement”) were conveyed when a sharing was provided . This part of the PD was overwhelmingly successful. The teachers were impressed at how good it felt to voice their opinions, and the mindful environment within which they did the sharings reduced their existing anxieties.

Protocols were used to facilitate experiential learning and discussions on some more complex portions of the PBL process. During team norm settings, the teachers did an Inner-Outer Fishbowl protocol, which brought about a deeper discussion and sharing of norm setting and building strategies used by teachers. As one teacher shared: “Having students understand something as complex as a definition of what a behavior looks and feels like was something I either did too much of, ineffectively or avoided altogether. The fishbowl activity really brought to life simple, yet structured approaches that I will surely use in my classroom this semester.”

After we had completed the project slice, we circled back on the whole process through a case analysis. The teachers read a complete PBL case that was taken from the BIE PBL Handbook. They then designed a visual timeline of the strategies and protocols used at each point of the PBL process. “Creating this (visual representation) really helped me review the process again. It will come in handy when I get down to actually planning my project for the upcoming semester.

TImelines designed by the teachers on the Project-Based Learning (PBL) process. Image: Brad Walsh

Finally, a mini assessment was designed from the PBL Teaching Efficacy Scale (Tschannen-Moran et al, 1998) to see how the PD participants’ teaching efficacy in PBL grew over the PD week. Teachers provided their personal assessment on two main questions at three points throughout the PD week: 1) I have a good understanding of PBL curriculum and lesson design, and 2) I am able to organize and manage PBL activities effectively. As we reflected on our growth, the teachers were also invited to share the thought processes and experiences that got them to each point.

As a teacher coming from a public school, I was required to attend a PBL PD once. It was a lot of discussion about theory and making a lot of posters. After the PD ended, I really had no idea what they were talking about. What was PBL? How could I use it to help me become a better teacher? (This week’s) PD made me realize how valuable it is to actually practice and experience what PBL is if I ever want to truly implement it in my classroom. I am really excited for this upcoming semester, because I am going to put everything I learned here into practice!


Teachers’ self assessments on PBL teaching efficacy taken at the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the PD. Image: Brad Walsh


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191-215.

Protheroe, N. (2008). Teacher Efficacy: What is it and does it matter?. Available at: https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/resources/1/Pdfs/Teacher_Efficacy_What_is_it_and_Does_it_Matter.pdf (Accessed: 08/20/18).

Tschannen-Moran, M., Woolfolk Hoy, A. & Hoy, W. K. (1998). Teacher efficacy: Its meaning and measure. Review of Educational Research, 68, 202 – 248.

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