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Constructive Rabble Rousing

  • Constructive Rabble Rousing

Project-based learning (PBL) is an approach to K-12 education designed to engage students through solving real-world problems. For example, rather than learning botany, geology, and horticulture in the abstract, students might redesign a community garden. Working in teams, students learn to identify and describe the problems, design solutions, and work together to fix them. Proponents of PBL cite the central role that solving problems and working collaboratively has in students’ further education and careers. It is a skill that extends to their ability to think critically and tackle difficult issues as future productive citizens.

Learning through doing has a long history.

Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Nonetheless, helping teachers make the transition from an instructor-lead pedagogy, where students have a fairly passive role, to one where students take an active role in their own learning is not trivial. Guiding this process was the challenge for Alice, an assistant principal in a public charter school.

To ingrain PBL, Alice sees her role as a rabble-rouser, someone whose job is to engage faculty and get them to question the status quo, observe what is happening, use what works, and move the process forward themselves. To do so, she employed many of the Seven Levers of Change. To begin with, each faculty member was trained in how to implement PBL. This training was not simply mass exposure, focusing on explaining how good the method is. Rather it taught them how to create and implement PBL courses to challenge students and help them work together to solve real-world problems. Training that develops skills and demonstrates how to work under the new change is an important example of Infrastructure, one of the Seven Levers of Change.

In Alice’s words, “After the training, some teachers were gung-ho, but others were stuck in their traditional—creative, but traditional—methods. It is my job to leverage the enthusiasm of the faculty who understand the value of PBL. It means so much more to hear something from a colleague than from me.”

Leveraging the energy of faculty who grasp the value of PBL to spread the word is a great example of fostering contacts with advocates. In addition to encouraging teachers to share experiences, Alice also employed what she described as “soft-power” approaches. One example is assigning a gung-ho teacher to take minutes at a meeting. This helps assure that PBL successes are recorded and emphasized.

Constructive Rabble Rousing

Monetary reward for public school teachers is typically not an option, but other sorts of reward and recognition for successes can be arranged. For example, on their own initiative two teachers, one in English and one in social studies, developed a Humanities course using PBL techniques. Besides the intrinsic reward of developing a creative and effective course, Alice made sure that their accomplishment was recognized. She asked them to present their new course as a central part of professional development for faculty.

Finally, leading by example is always important. Alice made sure that the value to the students from PBL was part of every communication. Every letter to a parent, whether it was about a field trip or a parent-teacher conference, included some mention of PBL criteria or successes. The agenda for every faculty meeting included PBL expectations or accomplishments. Everyone knew the direction that the school was headed.

The four levers that Alice used: infrastructure, fostering contacts with advocates, reward and recognition, and leading by example, are the four that are needed to implement almost every change initiative.

The remaining three: mass exposure, hiring expertise and shifting resistance are sometimes also needed. But, because they have more potential for side effects, they should only be applied with caution. The levers are always used in combination, but the combination that is appropriate will vary for each organization and each change.



About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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