book: good bye bye, hello PBLWorks

Some of you might find this post to be a bit “inside baseball” but indulge me; for over 18 years I’ve worked for the Buck Institute for Education and we just rebranded to PBLWorks, so I’d like to reflect on “BIE” and its work, and why we’re changing.

When we first started talking about rebranding ourselves just over a year ago, soon after we hired (our first ever) Director of Marketing and Communications Debbie Woo, my first reaction was “whaaat!?” Many of our staff and National Faculty felt the same. We already had a strong brand! OK, maybe the acronym “BIE,” launched in 2008, didn’t fully take off – we weren’t like “KFC” and most people outside of staff still used our full name or called us “Buck” – but we were known and respected by folks in the progressive education/deeper learning/PBL crowd. National Faculty members proudly attached our name and logo to their bios. Our conference presentations were always packed. Our publications were cited and our workshops were highly recommended, often by word of mouth among teachers and school/district leaders.

But then I thought about it… It was true that when I told people I was with the Buck Institute for Education, I would often have to immediately explain, “…and we focus on Project Based Learning.” (If the people were non-educators, of course I would then have to explain what PBL was, but that’s another story.) So it was at least a two-step process. The teachers and school/district leaders we worked with had a similar issue. “Buck Institute for Education” was a name they may or may not have recognized or remembered all that well. It sounded vaguely reputable, academic, but you couldn’t tell what it did.

Here’s the argument that convinced me of the need to rebrand.

Our mission is to bring PBL to all students, and we’re serious about it because we believe in its power to transform learning and students’ lives. With the recent upsurge of interest in Project Based Learning, we feel the urgent need to spread the word to educators and stakeholders who are not aware of what we do, but would pay attention if they saw “PBL.” As our ED Bob Lenz put it succinctly, “We chose the name PBLWorks because it tells everyone what we do and why we do it.”

It’s also reassuring to know that “Buck Institute for Education” is not going away entirely; it will still be the “parent brand” behind PBLWorks and will appear in smaller font on our logo, website, and written materials. (For those of you who remember, about 10 years ago the George Lucas Educational Foundation did something similar when it launched “Edutopia” as its flagship website.)

The Secrets to Our Success

I recently asked our former Executive Director John Mergendoller for his thoughts on the rebrand and our 20+ years of promoting and supporting PBL, and he gave these reasons for our success, which will continue to hold true for PBLWorks:

“I have frequently been asked how BIE became the go-to organization for high quality PBL—not only in the U.S. but internationally. I think there are four key reasons.

Quality, in its publications and its people.

BIE pilots, critiques and revises obsessively. It chooses the best educators to staff the organization and lead professional development. 

Individual and organizational learning.

BIE staff continue to learn from the teachers and schools they work with and incorporate this learning in their daily work and in BIE's continuing growth and development.


Effective classroom practices have to be more than right—they have to be learnable and doable. BIE professional development provides practical examples and chances to practice doing High Quality PBL.

Customization is expected.

BIE knows that schools and teachers exist in different contexts and face different challenges, and they will tinker with and adapt the basic BIE approach to make it work in their context. Educators are trusted to educate and decide how best to implement PBL in their classrooms, schools, and districts.

These certainly aren't the only things that made a difference—the retreat from NCLB caused a huge wind that helped blow us to the head of the parade. But I don't think we would have remained there if not for the four things above.”


I can’t end without looking back on the fun we had with wordplay around our old name. In my writing I might have said something about the Buck stopping somewhere and even last month titled a blog post about our workshops, “More Bang for the Buck.” Bob Lenz took to calling our staff “Buckies” and a painting we all made at a staff retreat hangs in our office kitchen:

BIE buck painting

Our acronym “BIE” is going away, so the Bureau of Indian Education, the Bureau International des Expositions, the Building Industry Employers, and the Biology of the Inner Ear course at the University of Chicago can have it to themselves.

My former colleague Dave Ross, founder of the National Faculty and our PBL World event, came up with a nice souvenir for that first gathering in Napa in 2012: a bottle of red wine labeled, “CaBIErnet” (the white wine was a lovely “PBLanc”). I’m going to open it soon, for a toast; the QR code on the label still works, and I assume it will have aged well—like the Buck Institute, haha.bottle of wine ca b i e rent

My other former colleague and punster supreme Alfred Solis, who played a big role in branding us starting in 2009 and created the design and look of our PBL 101 workshop, made several plays on “BIE” that I’m going to miss, so let’s give a nod to a few examples:

  • “freeBIE” – the free downloadable PBL tools and documents on our website
  • “newBIE” – the new members of our National Faculty (we tested “oldBIE” for the veterans but decided it wasn’t working)
  • “baBIE” – what we put on the onesies given to staff members expecting a baby

I hope you’ll agree that “PBLWorks” works, and it’ll grow on you.

a baby onesy with baby on the front spelled b a b i e
Photo courtesy of Gina Olabuenaga

We have new products and services on the way—along with some swag—that will make it a name to be remembered and proud of. You’ll see our new brand reflected on our beautiful new website, with new colors, fonts, images, and overall feel. Our workshop slides and workbooks are being redesigned for release this spring and at PBL World 2019. You’ll see a colorful new graphic design for our Gold Standard PBL diagrams of the Essential Project Design Elements and Project Based Teaching Practices. Our presence on social media looks different, and our staff and National Faculty are getting new email addresses next week. It’s a very exciting time for me and for all of us at Buck PBLWorks, so here’s to the continued growth of Project Based Learning!

John is an education consultant and writer. He was the editor in chief at PBLWorks for many years.