Motivating and involving teachers in applying Project Based Learning

Motivating and involving teachers in applying Project Based Learning

The big decision has been made and three letters are to dominate the curriculum at your school- and your professional life consequently-  in the foreseeable future: PBL

And YES,  project based learning has invaded your and your colleagues' teaching. In previous posts I have referred to the problems one may encounter when integrating it into the syllabus ( Roseli Coffee Desk: Integrating PBL into your syllabus) and how 
technology can help (Boosting PBL with the aid of technology). But another equally important problem arising is how teachers can be motivated and be actively involved in applying PBL rather than shifting into the automatic pilot mode.

Top-down or Bottom-up approach?
Integrating projects in the syllabus can be done either by the school leadership or  by the educators -
top-down approach: D.Primalis 2014
taking into consideration to a certain extent students' preferences and interests and receiving feedback and guidance from the Director of Studies (D.O.S.) or coordinator. The former is a strategic move and ensures relevant uniformity that serves the learning goals set by the school while the latter allows for more flexibility and active involvement of the main stake holders  ( teachers and students).

Personally, I've always preferred the second one as it:

A bottom-up approach: D. Primalis 2014

1. Stimulates creativity and involves teachers
2. Focuses more on the classes' needs and lets teachers personalize parts of the project  
3. Encourages collaboration between staff
4. Allows directors of studies and coordinators  to have a "bird's point of view" and guide, facilitate or modify when necessary rather than carrying the heavy workload of designing everything.
5. It is more flexible and does not exclude alternatives or optimization.

Who leads the way?
"Debates, blogs, videos, webquests ???!!!" "Who on Earth is gonna do all these with scores of grammar exercises awaiting to be done?" this could be an original script from a staff room dialogue when teachers are asked to design a syllabus incorporating projects.
In that spirit, it is highly unlikely that any teacher will expose herself to friendly fire by proposing anything innovative or out of the ordinary. Who is going to show the way then?

A dedicated colleague, Vassilike Koutsioukis, once expressed the best practical advice I'd ever heard, condensed in a few words. "Don't merely suggest. Do it with your class and share what and how you

have done it". It is only natural for most  teachers to play it safe rather than venture into unknown -often shark-infested waters. Once shown though, they can build on the original idea and help it take off!

Working with teachers of other subjects
Having a busy schedule, very often it is quite difficult to come across teachers of other subjects if you work at a primary or secondary school. Misunderstandings, delays and lack of communication can occur very easily in cross-curricular projects. I found the following tips useful and I feel they made my teaching life much easier:
1. Meet at the beginning of the year to define goals
2. Give them time to express their goals, the anticipated problems and the restraints they may have in terms of time and resources
3. Be less ambitious in your goals
4. Be more flexible when choosing topics. Luckily, language is involved practically everywhere.
5. Keep in touch - even through emails- re the progress of the project.
6. Allow and encourage observation of lessons. Feedback can be valuable and it helps everybody grasp a better overall picture of the work done.
7. At the end of the year,  assess the projects and decide on the modifications necessary for the following year.
8. Discuss any issues arising on the spot rather than letting them augment or stall the project.

Rewarding and acknowledging
PBL requires a lot of extra work that in most cases is not rewarded in terms of money. Acknowledging effort and praising both students and teachers is a "must" if a school wants to continue on this path. Otherwise, the effort will soon fall flat.
Organizing a mini project exhibition at school can give the opportunity to students and teachers to get to know and appreciate the work that has been done and gives the opportunity for creative discussions that may lead to even more productive and successful projects.

Does uniformity have to be achieved?
Uniformity can kill creativity and motivation. Gone are the days (are they?) when students had to produce an identical piece of writing to the one in the book or recite a whole text without deviating a single word from the source. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” stated a long time ago, Deng Xiaoping, a Chinese head of state. As long as basic learning goals are achieved, it does not matter if there is  a diversity of versions.

If you are a coordinator or director of studies, you may find the following helpful:
1. Give the guidelines but be flexible
2. Allow variations of the main theme from class to class
3. Encourage originality as long as it serves some educational goals
4. Encourage cooperation between teachers and classes for a project of a bigger scale. They are both likely to benefit from being exposed to different teaching and presentation styles.
5.The most impressive project is not necessarily the most useful in terms of learning. Ensure that it is within the students' linguistic and schematic (knowledge of the world) range.
6. Contact parents and explain what benefits you expect their children to reap e.g. Learning how to search for data and synthesize instead of copying and pasting. Clarify that you expect their children to develop these skills and not the parents. Therefore, there is no point in them doing the projects of their children. On a humorous note, warn them that if they are so eager to do project work, you can assign them a special project exclusively for parents.

Implementing Project Based Learning is definitely not a stroll. Yet, once it gathers pace, it compensates both teachers and students for getting out of their routine and makes learning memorable, fun and an activity everyone is looking forward to!

Dimitris Primalis


  1. great article ! thnx. and now am a member and a follower to this site , thnx again :-)

  2. Thank you, Zumrut! I am glad you find it interesting!

  3. HI, Dimitris,
    Great post!
    You may know I have implemented PBL in my school and we have been working like this since 2009.
    I agree that bottom-up is more motivating for both teachers and students and that it may mean lack of uniformity, but with clear guidelines from DOS it can become more coherent.
    It is also important that someone leads the way through example. Good project results are contagious!
    I definitely agree that uniformity can kill creativity and motivation.Allow for choice, both for teachers and students.
    Finally, be supportive with your teachers, especially if they are new to PBL. Share ideas and work with them regarding assessment of projects and class management in a PBL class.

    It's amazing to see so many coincidences!
    Vicky Saumell

  4. Thank you, Vicky! You are absolutely right! The directors of studies need to support and guide. Motivated teachers can make a big difference!
    This is only a blogpost and needs to be brief but maybe I should elaborate a bit and provide examples in an article on the same topic.
    It is great to see that teachers from all over the globe have so much in common!

  5. I liked the post. In the low-stakes summer program I run, I've implemented a PBL approach to assessment, and hope the teachers use the projects throughout the sessions for the learning outcomes too. At a university course, however, (my other job), it's a little harder to create a project that touches on everything that's needed in EAP, but we keep trying.

    1. Thank you, Tyson! My main teaching context in the last 7 years has been at primary school and even though the focus is not on exams, it takes time and effort to implement it successfully and reap benefits. Often a part of the success has to do with the educational/cultural background of the students and whether they are used to working in groups or individually. Thank you for sharing your experience!