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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Teachers Using PBL Need to Model Critical Elements of the Process

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There may only be 20 or so regular readers of this blog but because anybody can read it I'll need to keep this as generic as possible.  The reason is because of some trials and tribulations I've had this semester with helping teachers reach their full potential.

To start with, our school is extremely fortunate to have some really awesome teachers. And I'm being totally sincere and I'm not writing that just so I can build them up before I chop them down. I'd put our teachers up against any other middle school in Texas. It wouldn't even be a contest.

Now, are there better teachers at other schools? And do I know dozens of teachers who are better than teachers at our school? Absolutely. But most schools I know have to deal with some major issues with teachers who are dead wood.  They're collecting a paycheck but that's about it. We don't have that problem. And it's pretty nice.

So, what's the problem? Well, we're trying to create a school that is using PBL as its primary mode of instruction. And only a handful of our teachers are where they need to be. Ironically, that's not the issue! The issue is with a few teachers who are doing great things, individually, and are teaching with PBL. But they bristle whenever we push them to up their game.

PBL is all about collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. There are other 21st century skills that people throw in all of the time like work ethic and agency and digital citizenship. But the first three I mentioned are incredibly important for TEACHERS to demonstrate by their interactions with other teachers and administrators.

Collaboration takes on many hats. Teachers have to collaborate with the other teachers in their subject area and grade level. They have to collaborate with administrators and with instructional coaches. And, they have to collaborate with others, outside of the school, who might come on campus to visit. These visitors may be regulars, like district curriculum, or they may come from other institutions.

Critical thinking may not be as obvious as collaboration. But teachers have to think critically about how they will create a project idea and how they will incorporate real world authenticity into the project. They need to think about group dynamics. They need to think about scaffolding content and they must anticipate questions students will ask.

And, most importantly, teachers have to be able to communicate their ideas and plans. They need to create written plans and they must find ways to communicate project ideas to their students. They need to communicate issues or concerns to their administrators, the parents of their students, and to instructional help such as coaches at the school level or the district level.

Beyond these obvious three, there is something that is often overlooked as an important skill - reflection. People who are reflective in their practice are usually better at what they do. I don't have a scientific study to point you to that proves the point, but I'm sure it would be easy to find one. As a teacher in a PBL classroom we want our students to be reflective in all that they do. They critique their own work and the work of other students throughout the project. And, when it ends, students will critique the project as a whole. This gives the teacher valuable feedback on how things went and allows for corrections, should the teacher want to run a similar project in the future.

Similarly, in a PBL school we want our teachers to be reflective in all that they do. One of the elements of project ideation that is a focus with both the New Tech Network and with BIE is the Critical Friends Protocol. This protocol allows teachers to be reflective in a safe environment. In this protocol the presenter (in this case the teacher creating the project) presents the project idea and any supporting documents such as rubrics or a project calendar. The presenter then removes themselves from the conversation.

The audience discusses what they have heard. They first discuss things they like about what they heard. Then they discuss things they are wondering about. This is not the time to interject improvements. Instead it should be something like, "I wonder if they have considered the prerequisite skills needed for student success?" Finally the audience provides next steps that might be considered. These might be critical things that the presenter should do immediately or it might be something that is more of a suggestion that the presenter takes into consideration.

Critical Friends is not happening at our campus. There just isn't a system in place for that to take place. When I visited a New Tech middle school outside of Napa California last year I got to see a school that has a routine in place where teachers meet and are ready to listen to presentations and then give feedback via critical friends. It was awesome. I had critical friend envy. I truly expected that our teachers would be doing things just like that this year. They're not, and this falls squarely on my shoulders to fix.

Without something as structured as critical friends, I fear that there is little to no reflection going on within our teacher ranks. But when I start to bring this up it's either fended off as "one more thing for us to do" or it is seen as touchy-feely. These awesome teachers that I mentioned earlier in the post need to do more collaborative reflection. They need to hear constructive criticism. They need to start thinking about authenticity in their projects. They need to take their craft to a higher level. That, in turn, would bring up the level of the teachers around them.

If that happened, it wouldn't be long before all of our teachers would be running projects and we would have a regularly scheduled critical friends time. And we would have a more collaborative and reflective mindset in our school. We have really pushed our teachers this year and they have responded with everything we have asked of them. They are in the November slump and I know it. But when January comes around we'll need to re look at where we are and where we want to go. This needs to happen with each teacher, with each content area, with each grade level and with the entire campus.

Our teachers need to be collaborative, communicative, critical thinkers who are reflective in their practice. It's not like we're asking a lot of them. Well, actually, it is. We are asking a lot of them because they're that good. Our students deserve the best and it is my job to show our teachers their full potential. Ah, the life of an instructional coach. Wish us luck.