All Posts By

Brad Sever

6 Factors that Make Project-Based Learning Sustainable

By | Project-Based Learning

Shifting from Traditional PBL to Sustainable PBL

by Brad Sever

Project-Based Learning (PBL) continues to gain momentum as a powerful instructional methodology. However, outside of public schools that are affiliated with specialized school networks such as High Tech High, or the New Technology Network, it seems challenging to find schools that have genuinely sustained standards-based, and rigorous project-based learning being implemented in a sustainable way. In my new book, Sustainable Project-Based Learning: 5 Steps for Designing Authentic Classroom Experiences in Grades 5-12, I go into depth on both the what and the how of designing, implementing, and sustaining PBL.  Here are six qualities that shift PBL to sustainable PBL (SPBL). 

Factor #1: Growing teacher collective efficacy through an intentional student learning goal

Too often when teachers are trained in PBL, they are only trained on how to design a PBL unit. It is important to know how to design a PBL unit and the elements that make a unit a PBL unit. However, if you want to sustain PBL, you need to know how to have ongoing conversations about the evidence of student learning among teacher collaboration teams before, during, and after the implementation of a PBL unit. This will grow what Dr. John Hattie calls “collective teacher efficacy.” Working in collaborative teams not only grows teacher efficacy, but the team provides support and accountability to focus on student learning outcomes.

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The 4 Stages of a Relationship with Project-Based Learning

By | Project-Based Learning

How to Make PBL Your Lifelong Partner

by Brad Sever

As educators, we often talk about how our job is “all about relationships.” The same can be said of an educator’s relationship with their favorite strategies, methodologies, and overall pedagogy. My favorite instructional methodology is project-based learning.

In my book, Sustainable Project-Based Learning: 5 Steps to Designing Authentic Classroom Experiences in Grades 5-12, I have seen the benefit of project based learning in classrooms that have maintained a long-term commitment to PBL. But there are stages of developing a relationship with PBL, and each is important. Just like a relationship with a life-long partner, there are four stages in a relationship with PBL: flirting, dating, engaged, and married.

Let’s unpack this analogy as it pertains to project-based learning.

Stage 1: Flirting with Project-Based Learning Ideas

Sure, you use things like simulations and choice boards in your work already, but you never forget the first time you saw or heard about PBL. Perhaps it was in a college undergraduate class or through a colleague, or across the room at an education conference. There is a lot to be attracted to! Maybe you got project-based learning ideas by reading Wiggins and McTye’s brilliant book, Understanding by Design (ASCD, 2005). Backward planning a unit of study is something that resonated with you.

At first glance, PBL is very attractive. Consider its qualities and features:

  • Inquiry

  • Performance assessments

  • Utilizing outside professional experts

  • Student collaboration

  • Student choice

  • Revision

  • Reflection

  • Integration of key SEL or employability skills such as critical thinking, creativity, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, etc.

  • Students transferring their learning to real-world contexts

What is not to love? These qualities intrigue you to want to learn more.


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Why Sustainable Project-Based Learning is Like Drinking a Smoothie

By | Project-Based Learning

5 Steps to Introduce SPBL Into Your Curriculum

by Brad Sever

As a parent, I struggle to get my kids to eat fruits and vegetables as often as they should. I know that many parents have mastered this art, I have not.

What I have found is that my kids will drink smoothies. They like smoothies with zero sugar vanilla Greek yogurt, strawberries, bananas, and protein powder. Maybe someday I will sneak in some kale just to see what happens. The truth is that having all of these healthy foods blended together makes it more practical and less overwhelming for them to eat healthier. They are much more likely to drink a smoothie than they are to eat a plate of bananas, strawberries, and a full cup of Greek yogurt.

This same idea of making things more practical and less overwhelming can be applied to the 5 Step Process of Sustainable Project-Based Learning.

Today, in schools educators have a lot on their plate in addition to all of the adjustments made for teaching through the pandemic. Initiatives on their plate include:

  • Participating in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).

  • Supporting students with their social and emotional well-being.

  • Implementing best practices in Unit and lesson design.

  • Considering best practices in assessment.

  • Participating in Multi-Tiered System of Support interventions.

  • Incorporating high-impact strategies (such as John Hattie’s Visible Learning Influences).

  • Ensuring students are either reading, writing, speaking, or listening on a daily basis.

Just like that full plate of bananas, strawberries, Greek yogurt, protein, and kale (again I have not tried this yet, but it is a goal), the 5 Steps of Sustainable Project-Based Learning create a process that encompasses multiple initiatives into one framework.

How to Use Project-Based Learning to Enhance the PLC Process

By | Project-Based Learning
by Brad Sever

I know Professional Learning Communities are designed to NOT pigeon-hole teachers into one type of instructional strategy.

PLCs are meant to provide teachers with the autonomy to adjust their instructional practices based on the needs of their students, whether that means PBL or not. I acknowledge this, but hear me out. Reading my friend and colleague Gabe Fernandez’s blog post about leading his school’s PBL work in 2019 inspired me to formulate some additional thoughts around PBL and PLCs.

What do we want students to know? How will we know if they know it? What will we do when they don’t know it? Those three key questions that PLCs should focus on have resonated with me since I started learning about Rick DuFour’s model of Professional Learning Communities. Professional Learning Communities have the potential to make such a high impact on learning. Providing teachers with opportunities to collaborate on crafting their own collective goals around student learning might be one of the most valuable things we can do as educators.

Project Based Learning can serve as a comprehensive framework to help cultivate meaningful conversations around DuFour’s three key PLC questions.

If I were to ask you what instructional practices (routines, strategies, activities, assessments, etc.) have proven to be successful for your students, you might say:

  • Socratic Seminars
  • AVID tutorials
  • Cornell Notes
  • Direct Instruction
  • An array of formative assessments
  • Bell ringers
  • Exit tickets
  • Scaffolding content to make it more accessible
  • Writer’s Workshop, Reader’s Workshop, Math Workshop

The list can go on. These are all fantastic strategies and activities. This leads to step 1 in how to connect PLCs to a PBL implementation effort at a school.

Teaching for Authenticity & Teaching for Transfer

By | Project-Based Learning

Teaching for Authenticity is not the same thing as Teaching for Transfer

by Brad Sever

After 12 years, I still had PBL wrong.  I still continue to grow in my understanding of this comprehensive instructional framework that I have seen empower students in urban, rural, and suburban schools. Reflecting upon my own practice, one must ask, what is the ultimate goal of learning? In my mind, the ultimate goal of learning is that students can learn at such a high level that they are able to transfer their learning.  Transfer, what a fun buzz word to say, it makes you sound smart, and probably plays well in a job interview, but what does it really mean and how does project-based learning prove to be a vehicle to allow students to transfer their learning?

Transfer to me simply means that the learner is able to apply their knowledge and understanding into multiple contexts.  When it comes to PBL, I mistook the concept of authenticity as being synonymous with transfer.  Authenticity refers to the extent of the real-world context the project involves and the connection the project has to a real world problem.  In other words, it is ONE context, not multiple. One of my all time favorite projects that I implemented in my classroom could have been more impactful for my students, if I had clearly distinguished the difference between transfer and authenticity in my project design.