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by Katie Martin
Director of District Leadership

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December 6, 2017
5 Ways to Collectively Improve PBL Practice

by Katie Martin
Director of District Leadership


As many schools and districts are moving toward PBL as a way to develop the skills, knowledge, and mindsets of learners, teachers are finding they need more time to plan and collaborate, opportunities to get feedback from peers, and learn about new and better strategies. As a result, districts have shortened schools days, utilized guest teachers or creatively configured the schedule to allow for non-teaching time to be built into the school day. This is a good thing, however, just providing the time isn’t always enough.

“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they aren’t good enough but because they could be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Dylan Wiliam and I truly believe it, but to create this culture requires prioritizing time and experiences that help us learn and improve. This type of collaboration not only develops expertise but builds the community and develops shared norms and belief that create a culture that supports PBL. The power in the collaborative time is not in the time alone, it is the opportunity to network and engage in meaningful conversations, and generate new ideas to impact the students we serve. Here are five ways to help teams collectively improve their PBL practice which should be happening regularly in collaboration.

1. Celebrate
There is so much that happens throughout the week and it is easy to get bogged down by the challenges, but it makes such a difference when we focus on the positives and celebrate one another. Taking five minutes to highlight what you notice in others and focus on what is going well can build each other up and intentionally create rituals that ensure the individuals feel seen and valued and inspired to continue on the path to high quality PBL.

2. Set Goals and Reflect on Progress
Most of us have goals—personal and professional—that are probably written down somewhere on an evaluation sheet or were created at the turn of the new year. Creating goals is not often a problem but if we don’t focus on them or track progress, we most likely won’t reach them. Carving out time to share updates on our personal and collective goals creates transparency in learning and helps to hold each other accountable and provide support as necessary.

3. Peer Teaching
As teachers, we spend a lot of time teaching our students but so rarely teach our peers.  There are so many lessons that we learn each day and strategies that impact learners that could impact so much more if teachers took time to teach their peers. Likewise, there are many challenges that we deal with and we could all benefit from the collective wisdom of a group to help figure them out. Learning something new doesn’t have to come from a formal professional development session or conference. So often the most impactful learning can come from a peer who is teaching the same groups of kids and understands the context.  Taking time to teach one another about PBL is important in learning communities. Take turns teaching a new strategy, tool, or lesson learned, read articles, and try something out.

4. Critique + Revise
Presenting challenges, providing feedback and creating actionable next steps are valuable exercises that help improve learning experiences to positively impact students. The tuning protocol BIE uses in its work is one example of a structured, safe way to do this. The tuning protocol can be adapted in a variety of ways. Teachers can look at models of other projects to get ideas and practice this process in a non-threatening way. They can present a lesson idea or a project that they are just beginning. It is also useful midway through a project to help improve it and determine next steps, or to get feedback on a challenge. One of the most powerful uses in my experience, however, is to use this protocol to look at student work from your own projects. When educators look at student work to determine strengths and implications for designing learning experiences collectively, we can learn a great deal about our impact on desired learning outcomes and continue to improve.

5. Problem Solving
Solving problems is a central design element of PBL and we need to embrace this practice as learners and teachers. Creating the space for people to put problems of practice on the table for the group to collectively solve builds capacity and trust in a team. When teams take turns sharing a problem of practice, they can leverage the expertise of the group to collectively solve challenges, and although they may be specific to one person they usually have implications for the rest of the team to learn from.

When valuable collaboration time is spent reacting to events rather than prioritizing time to delve into the real challenges teachers are facing, we aren’t maximizing the learning opportunity. Seth Godin puts it this way: “There’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.” This message is so important for us busy educators to remember. If we are always reacting to the urgent—including updates, logistics, and completing tasks imposed by others—there is never time to get better.


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