Career Exploration in the Middle Grades Case Study: District-Level Implementation of PBL to Drive Student Exploration and Engagement

District Level

Broward County Public Schools, Broward County, Florida

With a keen focus on the experience for the middle school students, Reimagining Middle Grades officially launched in Broward County Public Schools in July 2018. Commitment to impacting the pivotal middle grades years was amplified with the support from stakeholders like the Community Foundation of Broward, who partnered with the Broward Schools in offering the largest grant in their history.

Through intentional incorporation of project-based learning and social-emotional instruction, we believe that on-grade-level performance will improve in English Language, Arts, and Math, and that students will successfully transition to high school and beyond. The key levers in Reimagining Middle Grades have been:

  1. Exposure to more project-based learning experiences in the classroom;
  2. Creation of a warm supportive environment where students’ educational needs are met;
  3. Expanded opportunities for elective offerings; and
  4. Connection to extracurricular opportunities, such as clubs or sports.

With 44 different schools servicing middle grades students, we strategically divided some schools to have a focus in the project-based learning implementation model and others to have a focus on social-emotional learning. Twenty-five schools have participated in the project-based learning (PBL) implementation model.

To establish understanding and a common language about PBL, we have partnered with PBL Works to offer the professional opportunities to our teachers. Administrators have also spent time articulating their vision for PBL, creating capacity their building, sustaining the work, and crafting the culture that fosters immersive and connected learning opportunities where students are able to express themselves in meaningful ways. The initial step includes the principal along with the leadership team and key teacher leaders, who together give shape to the focus and approach for the project-based learning experience. The individual teams then receive planning time to determine their driving question, standards, calendar of events, project milestones, and public products.

Part of this learning is evidenced through presentations that show how learning is connected and relevant. These showcase a culmination of student learning and include audiences of peers, parents, and field experts (such as community members or business leaders) who bring a different level of critique to the student work. By making the product public, students will naturally want to revisit their product throughout the process to make sure their final presentation is truly the most polished version. These presentations of learning have occurred face-to-face and continued virtually.

Below is an example of one of our schools, Margate Middle School, which has integrated career exploration and project-based learning:

  • Students visit Junior Achievement, allowing them to develop a profile to determine their areas of interest and create plans for their future.
  • A partnership with Nepris provides students with exposure to a variety of careers through engagement with professionals, including health and medical experts.
  • The current realities of the pandemic have catapulted the inclusion of PBL as a school-wide practice at Margate Middle. Teachers have stepped outside of their normal mode of instruction to embrace PBL at a larger scale. This expansion naturally lent itself to collaboration among the teachers and the continuation of structures, such as a monthly professional learning community for PBL. Project-based learning experiences have even been incorporated into the extended learning opportunities offered through the Enrichment Spring Break Camp. Margate Middle believes that as a result of this pandemic, more teachers have embraced technology platforms and are taking their instruction to the next level.

Project-based learning naturally lends itself to the inclusion of outside experts. The principal, leadership team, and key teacher leaders help determine the focus and approach for the project-based learning experience, with input provided by other teachers as well. From that point, the teams then collaborate to bring the PBL to life. The role of the field experts allows for them to offer insights to students on the topic, critique student work, and even be authentic audience members for the students as they present their final product.

Here are some lessons and key insights we have learned along the way:

  • The thought that PBL experiences should be offered primarily to high-achieving students has been challenged and now PBL is offered to all The results affirm that learning should not be limited to pockets of students; with the proper scaffolds, all students can experience success.
  • Social-emotional learning has been incorporated along with key literature pieces to integrate relevant social issues and address trauma from the pandemic.
  • Teachers continue to refine their practice and each time, the implementation gets better. Teachers continue to deepen their learning in PBL, consider how to create standards-aligned rubrics, and define clear student outcomes.
  • Teacher buy-in is an issue, along with the abundance of standards available to teachers which can be overwhelming and too broad in nature. Time is a factor and many teachers believe that PBLs are lengthy in nature. The reality is that the experience to be created can be as short or extensive as desired.
  • To address teacher buy-in concerns, Margate would like to strategically partner teachers by their comfort level in PBL so that there is collegial guidance and the team stays on course. The school hopes to continue offering opportunities for career tie-ins and Nepris will be a big part of that.

Career exploration has broadened the perspective of our students, as they are now able to learn about fields they did not know previously existed. When you enter a classroom and observe students learning from a field expert, you can see the WOW in their eyes. Shifting to project-based learning with a focus on career exploration is a process. It requires patience and the baby steps must be honored. The reward will be greater when you let things take their course.

Visit the AMLE/ASA Career Exploration Resource Center for additional case studies, templates, research, and more.