PBL in the Valley

In assuming the role of Assistant Superintendent in Abbotsford, I have been most impressed that our Secondary Strategic Operations Plan places the learner, both adult and student, at the centre of all our discussions. It is an ongoing discourse in which, together, we articulate compelling descriptions of exciting opportunities for learners based on best practices taken from the research on school reform.  As part of this work we are embracing practices to personalize learning that engage students in relevant, real world contexts; that embraces technology in classroom places; that provides multiple pathways for student learning; and that connect students to their passions. In short, we are committed to creating a culture of inquiry that engages students and adults in their learning.

A culture of inquiry is about producing the collective capacity to seek, critically assess and selectively incorporate new ideas and practices.  It’s as much about process, changing the way we teach and learn, as much as it is about data driven results. In accepting this and acknowledging the emphasis placed upon learning competencies made explicit in our new BC Curriculum, what becomes evident is that skill acquisition (in an age of ever changing and increasingly sophisticated product) is as important as content retention: we no longer ask, ‘Has a student mastered a body of information” but rather, “Have I helped move a learning community from doing to engaging with school and in so doing have I helped create ‘real’ learners?”


The underpinning of all of these initiatives is the creation of transformative learning cultures that help both students and staff see and appreciate that the time they spend in school is a vital and enriching part of their very real and very important lives. Concomitantly, the one operating principle is that school should be viewed as a base camp for inquiry: personalize learning to maximize the possibilities for innovation, collaboration, creative thinking, and igniting passion in students while allowing teachers to bring their own passions to school.

IMG_0187aaIn addressing this culture of inquiry and new ways of doing, forty
teachers and eight administrators recently attended the two day “PBL in the Valley” workshop facilitated by Andrew Miller from the Buck Institute for Education.  I can think of no better way to summarize the experience other than, with her permission granted, to share some excerpts from feedback offered by W.J. Mouat English Teacher, Coleen Fillion:

This was the best workshop I’ve been to in a long time.

  • The presenter was funny and engaging as well as knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. While it is important to celebrate and share with skilled people within the district, it’s also beneficial to get the perspective of secondary teachers elsewhere who are also working towards improving student learning
  • He practiced what he preached not just in his classroom but at the workshop. I respected the effort he made in designing the workshop to be PBL in nature in order to model for us what it’s like for students to participate in this type of activity and to help teach us how to implement and manage it.
  • It was practical. I left there with two outlines for PBL projects complete with valuable feedback from a colleague from another school as well as feedback from the presenter.
  • He was realistic. He was quite clear about how a project needs to be designed in order to truly be considered PBL.  However, he was also clear that not everything lends itself to being a PBL project and that’s okay, too.  I appreciated that he believed in a balanced and diverse learning environment.
  • I finally learned the difference between a project and a PBL. My light bulb moment was the metaphor he used comparing a project to dessert and a PBL to the main course of a meal. PBLs drive the learning rather than come at the end of it. In the end, it turns out that it takes no more class time to do most well planned PBLs than it takes to do a unit with a project at the end of it.  It’s more about reorganizing your teaching than needing more CLASS time.

Along with many other things I’m learning, I’m going to give it a     shot next semester when I have a spare. I’ll let you know when I do

Thank you to Coleen and the other 47 participants for starting the work of creating a network of PBL teachers across the district – a network that in serving our students will help us to identify the new skills and competencies required for teachers and administrators as we pursue the dual promise of personalization and inquiry based learning in education.