Supporting Teachers in Their Shift to Project-Based Learning
A district leader discusses how they determined the best way to scale PD and prepare teachers to implement project-based learning.
By Megan Raftery and Maggie O’Brien
“What does Project-Based Learning (PBL) look like for Norwalk?” This question has been Tina Henckel, Director of K-12 STEM in Norwalk, Connecticut’s primary focus since she first came to the district in 2018.
Norwalk is a large urban district with 22 registered schools and approx. 12,000 students. When Henckel arrived, after serving over 10 years as Assistant Director of STEM at a neighboring district, she faced a challenge: how could she build capacity and support for teachers to move district initiatives forward with no coaches, no subject area leaders in the content areas and no clear definition of PBL for the district. This became her mission.
One of the ways Henckel and her team keep grounded in the support for all of the schools is by defining what PBL looks like for Norwalk. When she began working for the district, she noticed people using the word “PBL”, but there did not seem to be a solid understanding of what the components of a good PBL unit looked like and the training was inconsistent. Tina wanted to create a clear definition of PBL so that regardless of what school the teachers were located in or what content area they are teaching, they can have a rich conversation and use their time wisely. To achieve this, she spent 2018 identifying the resources that could show the teachers what good PBL looks like. Tina sent some teachers to training with Defined Learning, some to PBL Works and also sent teams to observe best-practices at local districts.
Armed with research and a clear sense of purpose, her focus for the past two years at Norwalk has been on PBL design and implementation. Tina quickly recognized that Norwalk’s teachers needed an anchor to synthesize resources together and move the work forward. To accomplish this, Henckel created two planning templates for teachers: 1.) an overview planner which focuses on the broad picture of a PBL unit of study and 2.) an implementation planner that goes into lesson design. The templates create a solid foundation for the teachers to design really good authentic PBL tasks and experiences for kids no matter what level or subject
To help teachers get going and provide a launchpad for PBL implementation, Henckel provides Defined Learning – an online resource with standards-aligned PBL tasks based on STEM careers. Using Norwalk’s curriculum maps, Defined Learning identified the tasks that align with Norwalk’s units of study which saved teachers time curriculum planning. “We tried having teachers implement PBL without the use of the templates and Defined Learning last year and the teachers became frustrated and the work was very disjointed. The teachers had a very hard time visualizing where they were going. The templates and Defined Learning helped us increase momentum. Teachers finally started to see where the learning was going and how to design a robust unit rooted in a PBL design.”