A Superintendent’s Perspective: The Elements of a Successful PBL Strategy

Project-Based Learning Resources

By Dr. Art Fessler


To make sure our students are future-ready, learning in District 59 reflects the real work being done in the world, empowers the learner, solves real-world problems, and provides for student agency. We are moving from a traditional means of education to an environment where kids are empowered to learn. Our lessons now require an emphasis on critical thinking, collaborative problem-solving, creativity and the active use of many higher-level cognitive skills. We do this by implementing project-based learning (PBL) in the classroom.


Research on PBL proves that it increases student engagement and achievement, and helps students develop the 21st-century skills they need to succeed in their future careers.  PBL has been used throughout our district for many years, however, as we shift into a modern learning environment, I wanted to ensure educators had a shared understanding of what PBL looks like.  We made visits to local programs engaging in PBL and worked closely with their administration and coaches to help us identify a path to implementation and develop our own PBL opportunities.


Here’s our strategy for implementing PBL:

  • As a leadership team, we spend a significant amount of time discussing and building a shared understanding of best practices in instruction and leadership so leaders have the requisite skill to inspire and lead. Both building and district leaders are required to spend a portion of their day in the classroom and grade-level meetings to gain an understanding of the challenges staff face. Asking good questions, collecting data, and providing meaningful feedback all play an important role in building leadership credibility and empowerment. For PBL to reach its full potential, teachers must learn to step back and be facilitators in the classroom. This is a change that requires thoughtful and ongoing professional development.
  • We attempt to build teacher buy-in by allowing voice in the process and autonomy in the design. We ensure every resource we provide allows teachers the flexibility to modify and really personalize lessons to meet the needs of their students and provide some level of choice in learning. We provide educators the tools to make the learning applicable and engaging and to prepare our students to be successful in life.
  • We use multiple professional PBL guidance materials and resources including the Buck Institute and Defined STEM.  While Buck Institute has helped us kick-start our PBL program by providing educational blogs and actual units, Defined STEM’s project-based learning resources have saved us valuable time spent curriculum planning.


If our educators can inspire students to be passionate about learning, the possibilities for developing self-directed learners for the 21st-century are limitless. They are provided a venue to transfer their knowledge, passions, and results of risk into a tangible product to be shared with classmates and others beyond their school-based sphere of influence.


Art Fessler is the Superintendent at Community Consolidated School District 59 in the Chicago suburbs. Follow Art on Twitter @afess7.



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