We all know that teaching is a difficult job. Becoming a good teacher with student-centered, inquiry driven PBL curriculum is uniquely difficult. In my nine years as a teacher and five years as instructional coach I have learned some basic ‘teacher moves’ that consistently help teachers improve as a teacher using PBL.
1. Prepare your “go-to” questions: Be prepared to ask initial questions, follow-up questions, and questions that get students defending their thinking. If we want to develop student critical thinking, communication, and analysis we as teachers need to stop talking, ask more questions and listen. This needs to become a new habit so prepare some simple questions that you can use over and over. As students begin to expect them you will notice a shift in the depth of responses. Questions that worked for me were:
2. Go old-school: Technology, laptops, and tablets are powerful tools for collecting formative assessment data but don’t forget the reliable clipboard, roster, and pencil. I found this was frequently easier than balancing my laptop and trying to type while looking at and listening to students. Prepare a clipboard for each class, with the class roster listed by student group. This allows you to easily and quickly capture formative assessment evidence as you meet with groups, individuals, and whole class observations. Create columns that indicate what you are looking for and assessing - specific content, collaboration evidence, aspects of written or oral communication, etc. - and use plus, check, minus signs for indicators of proficiency. You can then use this data as purely formative, or maybe they become part of a project’s collaboration score. You also have evidence to support any communication with students’ families and support services.
3. Create routines of kindness: In our larger social culture of bullying, trolling, and put-downs the act of being kind needs to be intentionally practiced. If we want students to take risks with their learning then they need to feel that the environment is safe. I developed a weekly ‘Circle-O-Kindness’ where the class would gather in a circle on the floor and everyone took turns saying something kind about someone else. This could be some way that a classmate helped them, some way that they noticed a classmate helping someone else, or a random act of kindness that they personally committed that week. Even high school students began to appreciate and look forward to it, reminding me on the day it was scheduled. I learned so much about the students that I would not have known otherwise, and it feels really good!
4. Trust your students (and their brains!): The adolescent teen brain is going through the physical stage of strengthening synaptic connections and pruning others away. This synaptic strengthening is a part of learning. The more that you can activate and have students practice the types of thinking you want them to learn, the more those synaptic pathways are strengthened. The more that the reason for the learning is relevant to their own experience in some way, the easier it becomes for students to show their interest, which then reinforces the natural tendency of human curiosity and learning. I found that the more I trusted my students the more they would engage with their own learning which then reinforced my trust in them!
5. Be clear (as possible) with your intentions: As a teacher, the more clarity you have about what you actually want students to learn the better you can guide their learning and ask better questions. If you want them to think critically about the content and apply it in different authentic situations then you must ask them to do that and design that into the unit or project plan. This is not about writing learning targets on the board, or in the digital daily agenda. This is about you as teacher intentionally creating opportunities for your students to learn, practice, and get feedback on the skills and knowledge you want them to learn. I find this helps teachers be more reflective of their work and be open to improving their own teaching.
These are not the magic spells that will make your PBL unit unfold smoothly with amazing deeper learning for students! However the more these are practiced along with Gold Standard projects your PBL teaching will improve. What has helped your PBL teaching improve? Let me know on Twitter @istevenson75
Previously posted on bie.org
The Gold Standard Project Based Teaching Practice of “Build the Culture” focusing on student independence and growth, open-ended inquiry, and attention to high quality work is crucial. However, in my instructional coaching and professional development work I hear teachers across the country say, “But doing that takes time away from all the content I have to cover!"
I usually respond with an inquiry approach by asking, "How does building the culture align with your standards?" In the back of my mind I am looking to drop bread crumbs that lead teachers to the realization that the Common Core Standards (and most other state standards) and the NextGen Science standards INCLUDE culture building!
First: The CCSS ELA Speaking & Listening standards include engaging "effectively in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners.” From Kindergarten where the goal is to "follow agreed upon rules for discussion" to the 11-12 grade goal of working "with peers to promote civil democratic discussions and decision making." You now have standards aligned to culture building where one of the learning goals is to improve team spirit and open-ended inquiry. The focus and time taken in learning and practicing those skills is now justified.
Second: The CCSS Math standards from K - High School include a math practice of making "sense of problems and persever[ance] in solving them," "reason abstractly and quantitatively," and "construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” Those are clear descriptors of a PBL culture where growth, open-ended inquiry, and attention to quality are valued. So be empowered to spend part of your precious time building those skills, and your problem and project based learning plans become even more tightly aligned to standards.
Third: The NextGen Science standards also include building a culture of inquiry and attention to detail. The Science and Engineering Practices of “planning and carrying out investigations to answer prior questions or test solutions to problems” in K-2 extend through grades 11-12 with “formulating, refining, and evaluating empirically testable questions and design problems using models and simulations.” Intentionally building this culture into projects creates the opportunity for students to learn and practice the skills, and you are on your way to becoming a Gold Standard PBL teacher!
Four: Just about all teacher evaluation systems include language around planning and designing lessons and units that are standards-aligned, and promote engaged student learning. As you intentionally scoop these culture-building standards into your project and capture evidence of student learning you are building your own evidence of professional growth.
As you backwards plan your projects using these CCSS and NextGen standards, be sure to check for understanding along the way. Use self and peer reflection along with collaboration rubrics as the formative assessment checkpoints. Use different student-led discussion protocols as the instructional strategy for student learning and practice.
My experience has shown that students appreciate the chance to learn about the WHY behind PBL and that HOW they learn makes a big difference. Administrators appreciate seeing that your planning aligns to standards. Parents appreciate knowing that learning how to communicate will help their child succeed in school and life. If you find yourself saying, “I don’t have time with all the content I have to cover” try to remember that culture building IS part of your content!
So, just like when I hear teachers say "I don't have time to teach that along with my content" I ask you—how do you build a classroom culture that aligns with student learning?
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