Interview with Dr. Eric Williams, Superintendent, Loudoun County Public Schools, Virginia

Dr. Eric Williams

Q. Tell us about your district, it's size and demographic.

We have about 80,000 students in approximately 90 schools. We're a school division that performs very well on traditional academic measures such as state and national standardized tests and graduation indicators.

In terms of student demographics, just under 20% of our students are eligible for free and reduced price meals, and about 50% of our students are white with large proportions of Latino and Asian students and some African American students, and growing ... we have thousands of English learners and growing numbers of students in that area.

Q: What's the vision for your school district and for the students?

Our vision is that we want to put authentic, challenging problems at the heart of teaching and learning.

We want to empower all students to make meaningful contributions to the world. By meaningful contributions, we want them to make contributions through careers in the private sector, the public sector, the not-for-profit sector. We also want them to make contributions through civic engagement and community service. We think that we can best prepare them to do that by putting authentic, challenging problems at the heart of teaching and learning.

Q. Why did you choose Project Based Learning for your students?

We turned to PBL, because we knew that a test prep mentality wasn't taking us to where we want to go as a division.

We want to create graduates who are knowledgeable, critical thinkers, communicators, collaborators, creators, and ultimately contributors to the world. We know that a test prep approach isn't going to create the type of graduate that we want. Instead, we use project based learning as a means to developing the type of graduate we want so that they'll be empowered to make meaningful contributions to the world.

Q. What's been your experience with implementing PBL?

We have had an incredibly positive experience in implementing project based learning in Loudoun County. It's been powerful for a number of reasons. They really all come down to the notion of the joy of teaching and learning. As educators, we need to give ourselves permission to recapture the joy of teaching and learning. Project based learning helps us do that.

Q. How have your teachers responded to the shift to PBL?

Teachers find it to be hard work, but they also recognize that the payoff is huge. That's really where the joy of teaching comes in. We've had teachers who have said, "This is what I signed up for."

I say that it's hard for teachers, because we want them still to teach the significant content and important competencies of the curriculum. And now they have a new approach where it's not just enough for students to be able to recall information but they need to have a depth of understanding that enables them to apply information in new and challenging situations.

For example, there was one teacher who challenged his students to make a pitch for possible roadside historical markers. One group of students actually had their proposed historical marker approved by the State and installed at the Ashburn Colored School in Loudoun County. That teacher said, "This is why I went into teaching. I had a government desk job for several years and I left that because I want to make a difference in kids' lives." That was incredibly rich experience for this teacher.

Similarly I've had other teachers who have taught for years and feel like previously in the past they had an approach to teaching that really resulted in deeper learning on the part of students, but they felt like somewhere along the way in the era of test prep mentality across the state and nation, that they lost their way a little bit. They report that project based learning allowed me to get back to what I knew were effective instructional methodologies.

Q. How have the students responded to the shift, and do you have any examples you can share with us?

For students, project based learning is really hard work but it's also incredibly valuable for them. There's a different type of pressure when it comes to project based learning. A lot of that pressure comes from the expectation that students are going to create an authentic product, that they're going to do work that makes a difference in the world.

As soon as students have an audience beyond the teacher, that's a fundamental shift in the game. Students need to bring their A game. When I talk to students about their experiences with project based learning, that's what they say. They say, "You know, I knew that my teacher wasn't just going to be quickly looking at the work that I'm doing and then give it back to me. Instead, I was going to be talking to experts who know a lot and are going to be sincerely listening to what I have to say and they're going to hold me accountable for getting it right." The result is a greater sense of ownership from students.

Students say that's really important because when they describe their work with project based learning, they describe barriers that they face, but because of their sense of ownership with that work, they're willing to persist when the work is really difficult, and that really pays off.

Q. How does Project Based Learning help you prepare students for college, career, personal interests, and life beyond?

A key part of Project Based Learning is that it develops a sense of efficacy in students. They recognize that, hey, I can be an agent of change. Part of that is mentality, but it's also the development of a set of competencies that allows students then to be agents of change. Whether it's the hard work of collaboration, or it's wrestling with information in order to be able to apply it to solve a problem whether it's a water quality issue that they're struggling with or some other authentic challenge. They need to have that critical thinking that allows them to be successful.

Q. Could you describe your partnership with PBLWorks and how that has helped you in your journey?

Our partnership with PBLWorks has been crucial for scaling project based learning. Our challenge is not supporting a handful of teachers in a handful of schools. Instead, our challenge is to scale effective project based learning across 80,000 students in 90 schools.

PBLWorks has been incredibly helpful for helping us think strategically about that, have a long-term perspective that is focused on developing a shared vision and developing capacity, not only among teachers but among principals and district-level leaders.

What I particularly like about the PBLWorks approach is that Rhonda Hill and others that have supported us take the time to get to know our district and our district initiatives.

With PBLWorks, it was never a cookie cutter approach in terms of coming in. It was never, "Okay, here's what you need to do. We'll leave this with you and then we're out of town." No, it's all about taking the time to get to know our district. Our PBLWorks coach knows our district initiatives and helps make connections better than some district leaders.

It even extends to working with other partners. For example, we work with another organization that supports our work, particularly in the area of personalized learning. But, PBLWorks takes the time to work directly with individuals from this other organization so that we can collaborate in order to create coherence and connections between these initiatives. For these reasons, PBLWorks really is a difference maker in our ability to scale project based learning across 80,000 students and 90 schools.


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