Laying the Foundation for PBL Culture

“All great changes are preceded by chaos.” 
—Deepak Chopra

So, you are a school leader. Your school plans to implement High Quality Project Based Learning (HQPBL). First of all, congratulations! This journey will bring rich rewards to both students and the educators that serve them. Second, there is a lot to consider. Students, teachers, and you, their fearless leader, all need different supports. To Deepak Chopra’s point, there is likely to be a bit of chaos getting such an initiative off the ground. What sets the conditions right for any major shift is a healthy, supportive PBL culture. This blog delves into some core elements of such a culture and ready-to-implement strategies. 


Components of a Supportive PBL Culture

When moving to a constructivist pedagogy such as project-based learning, you must be an instructional leader, regardless of your primary leadership style. What does it mean to be an instructional leader?

“Becoming an instructional leader entails time spent solving pedagogical problems, taking action to improve teachers’ instruction, as well as holding teachers accountable for improving their instructional skills. This pursuit to improve learning within the school community requires leaders to have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy and practice themselves.”

In this blog, we present six (6) components of a supportive PBL culture adapted from Brandon Wiley’s blog, It Takes a System for High Quality PBL. They help you model the instructional components that need to be present in classrooms.

  1. Community agreements
  2. Shared decision-making structures
  3. Collaboration across the system and structures and policies that support and promote high-quality PBL
  4. Success celebrations
  5. Structures focused on teacher and student agency and “voice and choice”
  6. (New!) Calculated risk-taking with teachers

Time to add more color and texture to these components. A brief note at the end of each section explains how the component appears in a PBL classroom.


1. Community Agreements

Community agreements, sometimes called norms, are a framework that guides how a group wants to work and learn together. They are co-created by all the stakeholders in the system and agreed upon. The agreements articulate the positive behaviors (behavioral or procedural) we wish to see in the working environment.


Procedural Behavioral

Provide the agendas before the meeting

Silence Slack notifications during meetings

Begin and end on time

We listen to understand

Monitor Airtime

Assume positive intent

Remain open and curious


For a longer list of examples, see this helpful set of sample agreements/norms from Elena Aguilar.  

There are a variety of ways to facilitate the creation of community agreements. We have included below some high-level steps for creating community agreements. You can see the full instructions, with some choice options, in Working Agreements from the University of Maine’s Jane Haskell.

  1. Set the stage - Frame why the group is creating agreements. Offer a starting list if that is most appropriate for your group.
  2. Individual contributions - Allow individuals to think of ideas and/or reflect on the agreements offered by the facilitator.
  3. Small group share and consolidation - In small teams of 3-4 people, have participants share their agreement recommendations. Move into consolidating or prioritizing which agreements they wish to share with the larger group.
  4. Whole group share - The small teams share their prioritized list with the larger group. The facilitator records agreements.
  5. Refinement - The larger group reviews the list of agreements. Work to consolidate or revise as needed. Is there redundancy? Do the agreements reflect the ethos of the group, school, learning, etc.?
  6. Agreement - Ask participants to commit, nay agree, to the agreements! If there isn’t consensus, tune the agreements until you do. These only work if everyone is willing to commit to them.

Take those community agreements you created and make them visible! Use them in the following ways.

  1. Open meetings with the agreements. Invite attendees to review the agreements and select a focus for themselves during the session.
  2. Close meetings with the agreements. Check-in—How did we use or model the agreements as a group and/or as individuals?
  3. Offer them as starting places for sessions with individuals outside the school community. Facilitating a session with parents? Great! Offer the agreements, or a subset of them, as an initial offer. Ask them to add or revise as they see fit. Then, move to agreement.
  4. Revisit the agreements periodically! Not all agreements are a fit. Commit to reviewing them at some sustainable interval (e.g., one per semester).

Community Agreements in the PBL Classroom

Teachers and students co–create community agreements at the classroom and small group level—think project teams. Teachers can modify the processes mentioned above to get started.


2. Shared Decision-Making Structures (Focus on Implementation)

Time to set the table for shared decision-making. What is it?

“​​School-based decision-making is a concept based on the fundamental principle that individuals who are affected by the decision, possess expertise regarding the decision, and are responsible for implementing the decision, should be involved in making the decision.” - StateUniversity

Akin to what happens in a project-based learning classroom between teachers and students, PBL schools thrive when there are shared decision-making structures. With the high levels of design, innovation, and risk-taking teachers undertake, shared decision-making helps to create more trust, ownership, and buy-in. Here are some things to consider for implementing shared decision-making at your school.

  • School governance councils - This refers to a body of representative stakeholders representing all affected parties, such as teachers, parents/caregivers, staff, and school leaders. Set up a process for membership and convene the group as needed.
  • Create community agreements - See the first component of PBL culture for details. Community agreements are a crucial step and one not to be missed!
  • Reach collective agreement or consensus - Ensure you bring a question or decision that actually needs to be addressed through shared decision-making. If decisions are being made top-down, you don’t have shared decision-making. Get clear before jumping in.
  • Extended discussion time - Time is by far the most valuable resource we have. To reach the best decisions in a way that honors the needs of all stakeholders in the room, plan thoughtfully and intentionally concerning time. 
  • Clear and timely communication to the larger community - Communication is key for others in the system to trust the council. When possible, highlight the process for reaching a decision and the outcome. Include impacts on the various stakeholders and outline any expectations, next steps, and timelines.

Shared Decision-Making Structures in the PBL Classroom

PBL is a constructivist approach to learning—which means students construct meaning and make decisions about their work and learning. Much like shared decision-making at the school level, this is not completely open-ended. Some areas of shared decision-making for students include the following.


Culture Content Process Product

Community agreements

Collaborative structures and processes

Key standards


Research process

Experiment design

Engaging experts

The who/how of feedback

Product format


3. Collaboration Across the System, Structures, and Policies that Support and Promote High-Quality PBL

This component is a big one, so we will split it into two parts—(1.) collaboration across the system and (2.) structures and policies that promote high-quality PBL. Briefly, let’s define collaboration in PBL.

Notice throughout the section how the four (4) domains show up.


Collaboration Across the System  

Here, collaboration is defined as interdependent work and learning towards a shared or common goal.

Learn Interdependently

To meet the definition of collaboration above, group members must co-construct meaning. They do this in a few ways. First, they learn from each other’s existing knowledge base or schema. Allocate time for them to do so. Honor the wisdom in the room. Second, have them engage with new content. New content means everyone is on a level playing field. They have the opportunity to build knowledge together. Thirdly, challenge them to do something beyond demonstrating a basic understanding of the concepts. Perhaps groups are tasked with coming up with a solution or presenting the ideas in a new way or for a novel purpose.

Share the Goal

Collaboration quickly becomes cooperation without a shared goal. In some cases, the group can decide this. Facilitate a quick brainstorm and revision to articulate the goals for the collaboration. Like community agreements, ask all individuals in the session to commit to the shared goal. Sometimes it will make the most sense to present the goal. For example, there is a challenge with scheduling experts for exhibition night presentations. The team has a clear goal: come up with a solution. Regardless of the method, ensure the destination is clear and well-communicated.

Collaboration Configurations

Healthy, supportive PBL cultures have vertical and lateral collaboration within the system. Lateral collaboration would be individuals working with their like-peer group based on role. Think administrators working with administrators and teachers working with teachers. Vertical collaboration can be teachers working with administrators or teachers at different grade levels working together.

It can be tempting to keep these collaborative configurations local to the school. When possible, engage district office-level personnel, support staff, or community members. Their perspectives can shed light on understanding or solving an issue or a challenge and promote buy-in for the PBL initiative.


Structures and Policies that Promote High-Quality PBL

How can structures and policies promote high-quality PBL? They work in service of teachers and students having the time to design and learn. While each of these is simple to say, they can be a heavy lift to implement.

Planning and collaboration time

  • What - Protected time for teachers and support staff to design, refine, and reflect on their PBL practice individually and in groups.
  • So What - Without this time, you leave quality planning and meaningful reflection up to chance. Also, you make time for the things you value. Show the team this is valuable. 
  • Now What - One possible next step is to look at your school calendar. Create time for collaboration! In addition to using professional learning time, consider adapting existing meeting times and/or leveraging all-staff meetings.

Block scheduling

Implementing project-based learning is not impossible in a traditional 50-minute period. It is also not easy. By the time you set the stage and send students off to work, it is time to pack up. Explore the possibility of block scheduling to support your PBL initiative.

Common rubrics

Use rubrics to ensure shared understanding about quality. For project design, consider a rubric like this—HQPBL Rubric. Other rubrics you may use across classrooms, subject areas, and/or grade levels include product rubrics, content rubrics (or learning continua), and skills rubrics (such as 21st-century skills like creativity and critical thinking). While it is important to have shared rubrics across teachers, encourage teachers to, as needed, create rubrics for projects in their classrooms. The rubric also norms performance within a classroom, which is equally important. Use this process to co-create rubrics with students or even teachers!


Collaboration Across the System and Structures and Policies That Support and Promote High-Quality PBL in the PBL Classroom

Collaboration happens on numerous levels in project-based learning. Foster effective collaboration using these elements noted above.

  • Learn interdependently and share goals  - Leverage protocols and routines to ensure this happens. Check out this resource for details.
  • Collaboration time - Ensure students have explicit and protected time to co-create and collaborate on their work and learning.
  • Common rubrics - Norm the understanding of quality and learning expectations; use the rubric for development, feedback, and final assessment.


4. Success Celebrations

While one can learn a lot from something that didn’t work, it doesn’t tend to motivate people. Celebrating success does. Here we outline a few ways to do so. The methods move from simple and highly localized to (potentially) global!


Meetings Newsletter Exhibition Nights Go Public

Have a recurring meeting section to share celebrations with the team. These can be big or small!

Over time this will help tune everyone’s attention to looking for the wins. 

If you have a newsletter that goes out to families, caregivers, and/or the community, include a section for wins you want to share. 

Host an exhibition night! Invite families, caregivers, and community members to see student work and hear them talk about their learning.

Resource: School Exhibition: Make Learning Visible

Reach out to local officials or new agencies to share the incredible products and learning! Social media is also a way to get the word out.


Before you dive into one or more of these celebration types, consider the following questions to ensure a healthy, supportive culture.

  1. How do individuals like to receive recognition?
    Some people adore the spotlight; others shy away from public recognition. Get to know how people feel best seen and celebrated. And develop a clear policy for how student-related celebrations are shared to protect privacy.
  2. How will recognition be determined?
    Do individuals have to nominate someone else? Can individuals share a win they wish to elevate? When and how are these successes shared, and with whom? Make this process clear for both informal (meetings) and formal (exhibition night) celebrations.
  3. What will you do if the high performers or more outgoing teachers are the only ones being recognized?
    This is likely to happen. Despite our best efforts. Consider how you can cast a wider net and tease out the wins beyond the high performers and outgoing staff.
  4. Is the recognition aligned in magnitude with the type of share?
    While a small win can make a big difference, how the win is shared and celebrated should be aligned with the size of the success. For example, a teacher was able to significantly improve students’ algebraic thinking scores during their most recent project. Calling your local news outlet or putting out a press release may not be your first go-to, but for something as impactful as this, the community may benefit from hearing about it. Consider a PBL Success Stories feature in a monthly newsletter or social media post. Again, draw upon your knowledge of how people wish to be seen and recognized.

Success Celebrations in the PBL Classroom

Celebrate success, big and small, formally and informally, in the classroom often! Celebrate risk-taking and quality work. Do this for in-process and finished work. Then, reflect on what can be learned from those successes. Use them as fuel.


5. Structures Focused on Teacher and Student Agency and "Voice and Choice"

For this component, let’s start with students. In project-based learning, students decide how they learn and work and what they produce to varying degrees. Several factors impact students’ choice opportunities—age, PBL readiness, the content to be learned, the product, etc. The ability to make such decisions is often called “voice and choice” in PBL. Project design must include fixed and flexible elements for students to make such choices. Below are some project examples. Notice how different aspects of a project can be choice-based at different times.


Science Project Humanities Project Math Project Dance Project
FIXED: Content standards, final report, and presentation FIXED: Socratic Seminar, genre, reading standards FIXED: Research methodologies, content standards FIXED: Guest speakers/experts, dance style
FLEXIBLE: Students design their experiments to run FLEXIBLE: Creative writing piece style and topics* FLEXIBLE: Select the most appropriate graph types and presentation format to share information with the audience FLEXIBLE: Choreography, staging, musical selection

*Note: This means students may select slightly different writing standards; therefore, the writing standards are flexible.


If young people are to learn in this way, teachers must also have their own “voice and choice” in developing project-based learning units. How can leaders support this work? First, you have to figure out the boundaries. Once you know the boundaries, you can create a safe container for innovation and risk-taking with PBL. Here are some things to consider.

  1. What are the assessed standards or competencies?
    Teachers should emphasize the assessed standards or competencies. How does the makeup of these impact teachers’ voice and choice in project design?
  2. What are the required district/state assessments and their timing?
    Projects should be taught in a way that aligns with the content and timing of these assessments.
  3. Does the schedule of those assessments dictate the content to be taught in a particular order?
    In some spaces, units and their related assessments can be taught in different orders, while others strictly adhere to a particular sequence. Projects need to be designed with this in mind.
  4. What are the areas of need at your school?
    Of the assessed standards or competencies, are there any overarching needs? Is the school underperforming in algebraic thinking? Do English language learners need more opportunities for listening and speaking practice? Use these to identify priorities for project design.

With these areas identified, everyone can rest easier knowing the “must-dos” and the “may dos” are.

Structures Focused on Teacher and Student Agency and “Voice and Choice” in the PBL Classroom

The table below will look familiar (hello, shared decision-making!) These are some areas for voice and choice in the classroom. They can relate to both actions taken by the teacher or student.


Culture Content Process Product

Community agreements

Collaborative structures and processes

Key standards


Research process

Experiment design

Engaging experts

The who/how of feedback

Product format


6. (New!) Calculated Risk-Taking with Teachers

In project-based learning, there isn’t a “right answer.” PBL challenges young people to venture into the unknown, manage uncertainty, and ultimately take risks that may or may not work out. If our students are doing this, then so too must the educators that serve them.

Often, school systems and accountability structures do not incentivize teachers to take risks. Test scores, performance evaluations, and merit pay lead teachers to focus on knowable and familiar paths to success. All of this is completely understandable. Shift their willingness to be a learner who will succeed and fail at times by incorporating protocols like the Tuning Protocol and Design Sprints.


  Design Sprints Turning Protocol
What it is

A time-constrained process for identifying a problem and designing a solution or prototype.

A simple feedback protocol used to get input from others on the design of a PBL unit.
How to use it There are two major use cases here: 
1. To design a project, which can be done individually or in teams.
2. To solve problems teachers and students care about.
Among other uses, give feedback on a project design before teachers implement it.
Benefits For Project Design
Teachers have an opportunity to get out of their heads a bit and focus on being creative with a time crunch! 

For Problem-Solving
All stakeholders have a say in which problems are addressed and how.
Teachers can crowdsource new ideas and identify possible roadblocks before implementing their projects. 
Resources For Project Design
How to Use Design Sprints, PBL, and Genius Hour to Get Kids Making (A.J. Juliani)

See the section on Design Sprints.

For Problem-Solving
How to Run a Design Sprint at your School in 9 Steps (Ariel Raz | Medium)

Note, time and scope can be adjusted as needed. 
Tuning Protocol (School Reform Initiative)

The Tuning Protocol: A Framework for Personalized Professional Development | Edutopia (Edutopia)  

Calculated Risk-taking with Teachers in the PBL Classroom

Use both design sprints and the tuning protocol in the classroom with students! Consider how you can use these strategies to scaffold students’ success who may struggle with a constructivist approach to learning and deepen learning for all.


Putting it into Practice—Components and Approaches

This table combines all the approaches and protocols recommended above. Think of this as your cheat sheet!


  Component Approach
1. Community Agreements Create community agreements using one of the methods presented here. And check out this sample list of agreements.  
2. Shared decision-making structures Create a school governance council comprising representative stakeholders. Set them up for success using the following:
  1. Create community agreements
  2. Reach collective agreement or consensus
  3. Extend discussion time
  4. Clear and timely communication to the larger community
3.a. Collaboration across the system Ways to achieve this: 
  • Learn Interdependently
  • Share the goal
  • (Varied) collaborative configurations
3.b. Structures and policies that support and promote high-quality PBL Impactful structures include 
  • Planning and collaboration time
  • Block scheduling
  • Common rubrics
4. Celebrate success Use the best-fit method from one of these offerings (or others if you think of them!). 
5. Teacher and student agency Determine what is fixed and flexible so that teachers and students and design and create within those parameters safely. 
6. Calculated risk-taking DESIGN SPRINTS
For Project Design
How to Use Design Sprints, PBL, and Genius Hour to Get Kids Making (A.J. Juliani)

See the section on Design Sprints. 

For Problem-Solving
How to Run a Design Sprint at your School in 9 Steps (Ariel Raz | Medium)

Note, time and scope can be adjusted as needed. 

Tuning Protocol (School Reform Initiative)

The Tuning Protocol: A Framework for Personalized Professional Development | Edutopia (Edutopia)  


As with most things, there is much to consider. Start small. Be intentional. Be gracious with yourself and others. Let us know how it goes in the comments!



About the Author

Dr. Gina Olabuenaga is a professional learning designer and facilitator for K–12 educators. Her areas of expertise include project-based learning, social and emotional learning, and other constructivist practices. Her professional life has been an extension of her doctoral study on effective professional learning. As the former Director of Curriculum at PBLWorks, she led and supported the design and facilitation of workshops and services. Along with her partners at ACP, she has written 3 books: Connecting Together: Collaboration Strategies for Online and Physically Distanced Learning, SEL Connected: Accessible Strategies to Bridge Social and Emotional Learning to Everyday Content, and their latest, HQPBL Connected: An Educator's Guide to Creating Meaningful Project-based Student Experiences. You can find Gina on Twitter @OlaDoctorGina or at


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