Sunday, September 2, 2012

PBL Symposium: The Buck Stops Here

Last week Whistler Secondary played host to a three-day learning symposium for educators in the Sea to Sky School District. It was great to see 115 teachers sign up and work with instructors from the Buck Institute of Education, building their knowledge of Project Based Learning (PBL) during the last week of their summer vacation, along with another 35 who attended a one-day early learning workshop. Principals and district staff also attended at least some of the sessions and many principals were able to make enough time in their start-up schedule to join in the learning for the entire time, designing projects as members of a team along with their school staff.

The PBL symposium was designed with heavy input from district teachers, who had expressed an interest in learning more about this type of instruction. Project Based Learning is different than simply doing project work as part of a unit or as a culminating activity. True PBL occurs when the learning is designed around the project, with the project introduced at the beginning, its success dependent on the aquisition of the specific skills and knowledge outcomes that the course demands. "In PBL, the project is not", as the trainers from Buck were prone to reminding us, "the dessert in the unit. It needs to be the main course."

According to our conversations with teachers and the feedback forms they completed, the learning sessions were very well received. Aside from the timely nature of the subject matter and overall educational merit to the concepts, there were some other qualities the sessions had going for them that we would be wise to duplicate whenever possible, both in our adult learning sessions and in our classrooms. These included:
  • engaging instructors with a high level of expertise
  • a highly collaborative learning environment with plenty of feedback
  • ongoing learning geared to the learners' needs and interests
  • learners exiting the session armed with resources they were able to use
  • and, certainly not to be overlooked, very high quality lunches
One of my favorite lines is one used by a former Deputy Minister, "If its worth doing, it's worth doing badly," a lesser known and oddly counterintuitive version of a similar expression. I prefer this take, as I think it is more valuable to celebrate trying a new practice that won't be perfect the first time, as well as the willingness to work through an implemenation dip, and the acceptance that learning can be messy. Sometimes the best learning is exactly that. That sentiment was echoed by superintendent Lisa McCullough, who encouraged teachers to take risks and spend less time worrying about the curriculum.


After 100+ years of the factory model in education, we have incrementally refined our work using this outdated concept to the point where we are now doing a mediocre thing pretty darn well. It is exciting to finally see that, after talking about it for many, many years, we may finally be on the verge of taking some bolder steps towards larger and more significant modifications to the system. If teachers and students can do that well with something that spends as much time getting in the way of learning as it does supporting it, imagine what can happen when we are able to design a structure that always puts learning and learners first.

More photos from the SD48 Learning Symposium


  1. Peter
    Exciting post and initiative! I know there are a growing number of teachers who see real value in PBL. At my school, it looks like there will be a teacher directed learning team dedicated to PBL. It might be a great to share notes.
    Best of luck in your new role - sounds like you are off to a tremendous start. Looking forward to connecting!

  2. Thanks Johnny. I'm really enjoying the learning culture in SD48 and look forward to the journey. Normally I'm not too keen on outside consultants, but this model does work if 1) they are really keen and knowledgeable ("eduholics" was the term they used), and 2) the learning is ongoing. We have some follow-up sessions planned for later in the year, and the content is TBA - after we find out from teachers what aspects they want more support and conversation with. Would love to share notes. Cheers, PJ