Project-based learning is the name of the game now in Westmoreland County’s schools. It has steadily gained more and more prominence, even being a key consideration in the design of certain elements of the new high school. At last month’s School Board meeting, the practice was again on the agenda, with Deputy Superintendent Cathy Rice on hand to update the School Board on progress made with training teachers in its use. By any measure, they had come a long way to getting things settled in ever since it was first adopted.

“Our ultimate goal is to increase student learning,” Rice explained, “not just of the content, but the ‘Five C’s’ that Virginia has established. In order to do that, teachers need to have the capacity to do it, schools need to provide the conditions for it, and the district needs to make sure that coherency, that we’re supporting the schools and teachers so that they can empower the students.”

To that end, things are organized around a divisional PBL leadership team, as well as another for each school. Comprising the teams are the school’s principal, assistant principal, the instructional technology specialist, and at least three teachers.

“The school PBL teams are very active and critical to the success of project-based learning in each of the schools,” Rice continued, “so we’re very grateful to those who take out additional time to serve on those teams.”

According to Rice, everyone on the PBL teams has worked through a series of PBL leadership team development activities, starting back in 2017. The final activities are slated for later this year.

Furthermore, many faculty are working on familiarizing themselves with project-based learning to provide additional help to the rest of the folks in their building. This is rather useful since it gives people strategies on how to coach others in project-based learning without having to be a total expert on the subject.

“We’ve worked through a series of leadership development activities together, working with PBL Works out of the Buffet Institute for Education, so we’re getting high-quality training,” Rice mentioned. “We’ve also had teachers from the schools and administrators around the division that took things a step further and went to PBL coaching academies. These are individuals that have gone to be trained so that they can provide extra support to the other members of their faculty.”

Probably one of the most important facets that Rice laid out was the distinction between actual project-based learning and project-oriented learning.

“This is not ‘teach everything and then do a project at the end.’ The students learn the content through doing the project. We’ve all done stuff where you learn everything and then show it off, this instead flips it, so it’s a major mind shift.”

It was after Rice finished her presentation that Dr. Wallace, the School Board’s vice chairman, chimed in, asking a very important question

“PBL is a fantastic program,” Wallace said. “I like it for a number of reasons, but it takes a lot of effort. I think this is something that needs to be sustained, but how do we avoid burnout?”

According to Rice, the biggest way for avoiding that is the PBL leadership teams at each school.

“Each month, the principals and leadership teams prepare something that is PBL-related in terms of professional development- an activity or support- some kind of training for the staff that they present at the faculty meeting. Our school leadership teams also sometimes provide opportunities for teachers to bring their own projects in and provide feedback. The other thing that helps is sustained site visits that take place after the first course in PBL. We talk PBL all the time. If you go into a school at least once a month, teachers are getting support on how to do PBL. We’re not all the way there yet, but we’re also building up a project library that will let teachers fine-tune projects for everyone else to access. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it.”

Project-based learning was adopted by the county’s schools back in 2017, and has been part of the curriculum across the county ever since.