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Extending Teacher Professional Development for Project-Based Learning During COVID-19

Today, we find ourselves in a complicated world with little guidance in how to navigate it. The impacts of COVID-19 have provided vast challenges to everyone, including youth and educators. While the challenges facing K12 education due to COVID-19 are immense, reflecting on these challenges can reveal opportunities to innovate and expand opportunities for learning for youth and adults alike. At RTI International’s Center for Education Services (CES), one area we’ve been working to do this is by providing ways for teachers to deepen their knowledge and skills in the area of project-based learning (PBL) through innovative professional learning design and micro-credentials.

PBL Implements Real-world Challenges

PBL provides students the opportunity to engage with real-world problems. PBL promotes inquiry and critical thinking by requiring students to define and investigate problems, analyze and evaluate information, develop informed solutions, and present and defend their work to authentic audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a poignant example of why we need to help students to develop the ability to think critically and creatively about open-ended problems. Implementing the experiential, real-world learning that PBL provides helps students develop the crucial skills they will need to solve the world’s greatest problems. However, the design and implementation of high-quality PBL can be challenging for teachers. To implement PBL effectively, experience tells us that teachers and school leaders need to deepen their knowledge of PBL and develop tools and strategies to overcome common challenges.

The Impacts of PBL

PBL has been shown to be effective in helping students develop critical skills in problem-solving, collaboration, communication, and creativity,[1] and interest in PBL continues to increase nationally and internationally. To support the growing need for assistance, RTI has developed technical supports for schools and districts implementing PBL. An external evaluation of these services has shown promising results. In a multiyear engagement with a 30,000-student school district, RTI provided training and job-embedded support for more than 200 teachers to support community-engaged PBL. Post implementation, the results of the evaluation revealed high levels of student collaboration and increased lesson rigor including 81% of teachers reporting increased rigor and 95% of students reporting that teachers held them to high expectations. One teacher noted the positive impact PBL made in her classroom:

I've just been amazed at what [students] have been capable of doing through this project that prior to it I'd never believed they would have been capable of accomplishing. Like just looking at them and knowing where they come from an academic perspective. I was impressed with the products that they produced. And the amount of information that they gained through the process on their own.

Results and testimonials like these inform us that PBL is effective, and there is no more of a critical time than now for educators to deepen their understanding and grow their skills in implementing high quality PBL. 

Extending Opportunities to Learn

To expand PBL support for teachers, RTI has recently developed a new pilot program for PBL micro-credentials. The program builds on RTI’s PBL Design Academy, which helps teachers prepare students to transform our world by addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through high-quality PBL. These micro-credentials allow teachers to deepen their skills and understanding of essential practices related to PBL.

The micro-credentials provide a competency-based approach to professional development that allow educators to enhance specific skills and knowledge in a targeted area of practice. RTI has worked to develop a set of competencies that define essential PBL practices as a basis for the development of the micro-credentials being piloted. The pilot of 3 micro-credentials includes the following topics:

  • Culture of Collaboration Micro-Credential
  • Managing PBL Projects Micro-Credential
  • Feedback, Assessment, & Reflection Micro-Credential 

Each of these micro-credentials is applicable to K12 teachers, coaches, and instructional facilitators who have participated in past RTI PBL professional development and who want to deepen their practice in specific aspects of PBL implementation. The current pilot is being conducted in spring 2020 after which RTI will consider how to expand the program.

Now More Than Ever

The COVID-19 crisis has shed new light on the critical need to provide students with learning experiences that help them become informed and creative problem-solvers who are ready to embrace complex challenges. The crisis has also shown us that we need to continue to explore new ways to support teachers in doing this important work.  With programs like PBL micro-credentials, we look forward to continuing to partner with K12 educators and policymakers to develop the education innovations needed now and for a sustainable future.


[1] Bell, S. (2010). Project-based learning for the 21st century: Skills for the future. The Clearing House, 83(2), 39-43.

If you would like to learn more about RTI's PBL micro-credentials, contact Frank McKay in the form below.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by H. Frank McKay (Education Consultant) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.