One District's Approach to Transitioning to an Integrated Approach Through PBL


The motto for the Westminster School District is “Building Tomorrow’s Leaders Today.” This motto frames the work of all-district teams, including the Department of Educational Services. “Our goals are firm, but the means are flexible.” Lori Hernandez, the Executive Director of Teaching and Learning for Westminster School District in California knows the importance of helping teachers understand why an initiative is important and feels that making connections for them and letting go of control are vital for success. A culture of investigation is an important element of the professional development plan for the district.

Westminster School District is a K-8 district in Orange County, California with 13 elementary schools and 3 middle schools. With 77% of the district’s ten thousand students classified as high need, the leadership team and school board developed a vision for subject area integration through project-based learning (PBL). Their goal was to create a “destination district” that would attract students and families through personalized learning and specialty schools focused on voice and choice.


Michelle Watkins, Executive Director of School Specialty Programs and former principal and teacher in the district, is a firm believer in the power of PBL to integrate curriculum and increase student engagement. She oversees a collection of specialty programs from a gifted and talented magnet to a computer science academy. “No matter what the site initiative is, teachers can use an integrated approach to add rigor and engagement,” according to Watkins.


In an effort to help teachers make the transition to an integrated approach simpler, Westminster School District partnered with Defined Learning, a PBL solution for K-12 educators, to train their teachers on project-based learning and performance tasks  Defined Learning also provided Westminster’s teachers with an online library of customized performance tasks that aligned with their units.


The initial pilot and adoption in 2013-2014 was focused on helping teachers integrate STEM into their lessons, but as new standards were introduced and curriculum adopted in science, the district began to “rebrand” their use of Defined Learning as a way to add rigor and integration to their math program. Although all teachers were trained at the time of the initial adoption, the product had evolved and the district’s approach required a different set of skills and understanding.


In addition to working with Defined Learning to create custom tasks to embed in weekly lesson plans in the district curriculum, Westminster created 6 cohorts to receive additional professional development to learn what was new in the product. “The teachers are beginning to see the use of Defined Learning as a unit. Our ‘techies’ were drawn to it right away, but we are seeing an increase in demand for training from other teachers as well,” says Hernandez.


She credits their early success to customizing training with a specific school-based lens. With a variety of different site-based initiatives, groups of teachers are using Defined Learning in a variety of ways. For example, the district offered training specifically for primary grade (K-2) teachers. The teachers learned how to use the videos and specific parts of a task, guiding the students with a whole-group approach until they became comfortable with the requirements of the tasks. When Watkins was a principal, she led the charge to integrate the elementary curriculum using a culminating PBL at the end of each trimester. Her staff created a yearlong plan, infusing Universal Design for Learning (UDL), depth and complexity icons, and writing with a science focus. The environmental science magnet school is planning an open house to highlight student products from tasks that were custom-aligned for their school’s mission and vision.


“The teachers must see Defined Learning as a valuable investment,” says Hernandez. One major problem Westminster has had to overcome is giving teachers permission to deviate from the state-approved reading and mathematics curriculum which is not currently integrated. District leaders, principals, and coaches work with staff to remove traditional single standards-based lessons in favor of a more intentional and integrated approach. Through facilitated planning time, leaders help build the capacity of their teachers and include Defined Learning and PBL as part of the focus for the year. They focus on the actual intention of each standard as opposed to the provided sequence.


While Hernandez and Watkins are clearly in consensus “We are nowhere near where we want to be”, they are hopeful that the current distance learning situation is highlighting a need for an integrated approach. They feel teachers’ comfort level with technology is growing and previously challenging resistors of Google Classroom and asynchronous grading are starting to come around.



Watkins hopes this increase in demand will lead to an understanding that the Defined Learning platform is a great way to start an integrated style of learning. In service of that goal, she includes Defined Learning tasks in the remote learning guidelines teachers receive each week. She is also preparing to offer additional professional development and support to remaining teachers who have not been re-trained since the initial adoption of Defined Learning, including engaging principals in a task so they can support instruction at a higher level. They hope to build a clear consensus around the question, “What does an integrated classroom look like?”


Through Westminster School District’s investment and focus on PBL and an integrated approach to learning, they are well on their way to “Building Tomorrow’s Leaders Today” for their students and their teacher leaders.


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog