Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Improving PBL Practice with TeachThought

At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, we were very fortunate to have a three day Project Based Learning (PBL) workshop led by Drew Perkins, Director of Professional Development at TeachThought.

For me, the three day workshop was an opportunity to fine tune my understanding of PBL, work with teachers on new ideas and dig into strategies that can help teachers think through the planning process.

Day 1: Aligning from the Top Down

Some of my big takeaways from the first day of our professional development with Drew was that when designing a project with specific skills or standards in mind, it helps to begin by brainstorming possible products, purpose and audience and projects, in terms of Bloom's Taxonomy, really start at the top and as students work through the project they move down into understanding and remembering. 

In my role as coach, when I work with teachers to develop PBL, I think the audience piece is really important for us to consider more carefully. Often when planning we think of a possible audience last or we skip it because it's easier to think of potential projects. When you can identify an authentic audience (and with that purpose) for a project the learning and the product of that learning becomes more meaningful for the students. For example, when the Johnson third grade class designed their entrepreneurship project this year, they worked closely with the Fort Thomas Sesquicentennial Committee to design souvenirs for the city's 150th Anniversary. The students were incredibly invested in this project, hitting the streets to make sales quotas so they could be sure to donate money to the city's big projects.

As we learned through the morning, my second big take away was when Drew talked about how Bloom's Taxonomy relates to Project Based Learning. Because students are grappling with creating a project to demonstrate their learning for a specific audience and purpose, they are working from the top of the Bloom's pyramid down to deep understanding and remembering.  When students begin with the end in mind, they can sort through the content to analyze and make new meaning.
Morning Sketchnote of PBL Workshop Day 1

Day 2: The Importance of Assessment

I am infinitely grateful for the guidance Drew has given me as I have wrestled with learning all I can about PBL. One of my earliest and biggest mistakes was really poor assessment practices. During the first time I used PBL in the library I did not have project check points or even a rubric.  As a librarian I knew I wasn't going to grade projects, and I didn't bother with check points because I figured I would just tell students what to do each week.  This resulted in student projects that had nothing to do with the driving question - one 3rd grade group made an 11 minute video about princess and squirrel and forgot entirely to discuss the dangers of poor digital communication. 

By year three of using PBL in the library with students, I had learned, with Drew's coaching, that I needed to post a timeline of due dates, build in check points through formative assessments like conferences, graphic organizers and project expectations charts and I even began to design, at Drew's recommendation, Single Point Rubrics that all really helped to guide student work and the quality of the projects received. 

When I work with teachers to develop project based learning experiences for students I try to use some of these experiences to help them see possibilities. This year we worked a lot with digital interactive notebooks that included built in rubrics, conference checkpoints with reflection based questions and planners.  


As we discussed assessment, I realized that one piece I may be missing with teachers is encouraging the use of project calendars or timelines that are embedded in digital notebooks or posted on Schoology calendars.  This could be a great way to communicate to students due dates and expectations for successful time management. 

Here is an example of a notebook template I worked up for a 5th grade Math PBL.  For this work-up, I added the timeline/calendar option, and the teacher would be able to fill in the missing pieces like rubric, final driving question, dates, expectations etc.



Our discussion that day was a good reminder to me that I need to make sure I check in on assessments so that teachers can be sure they're getting the best quality work out of their students.  So often I work to help teachers figure out the possible projects and standards and I slack off on helping them fine tune their assessment practices.  PBL is not a time for slacking on assessment.

Day 2 was also the day we began looking at strategies for critiquing work. This is a topic that I really needed to hear about as a "new" coach, and it will for sure be a topic I continue to explore as I add tools to my coaching toolbox.  During a "gallery walk" time, teachers posted project ideas on large chart paper and informally wandered around the halls to preview the beginning steps of the project and left "I wonder" statements.  The feedback in the gallery walk was to be focused on the project tuning rubric that TeachThought uses in their workshops, which considers their five levers of quality PBL.  

During the gallery walk I tried to think of ways that I could use this same strategy digitally with teachers. So often we don't have time to meet during the year to talk through our ideas.  I think teachers could do a similar exercise virtually across district with slide deck templates ( like the example below). Teachers could use our project planner and upload to O365 or Google Drive, share with others virtually and make comments using comment features in those web based tools.  I think this is a long term idea, and we can work to build skills to move towards that approach.




I really enjoyed seeing new ideas being generated and connections that could be made between disciplines and specials areas with the PBL. I was also excited to see teachers discussing how the strategies we were using in the workshop would be perfect to use as their own students developed work as a peer or class conference strategy.  I hope in the near future we see students and teachers using digital tools to conference and peer review their work.



Day 3: Strategies for Success

On the third day we discussed some of the nitty gritty things that would have to happen to make the projects a success.  Teachers need to think of grouping, managing projects and hooking the kids in.  We do focus in our planning guides quite a bit on "entry events" but we do not often in that planning phase think abut grouping of students.

We worked on a Project Tuning Protocol through part of the afternoon, and that was extremely fascinating and beneficial to me.  The project tuning phase, unlike the gallery walk, is done in small groups that rotate.  The tuning protocol relies on fairly structured procedures with each person being designated a time for talking or time for quiet/listening. The quiet/listening phases was the hardest since by this time people were bursting with ideas and explanations. 

I keep trying to consider if this is a model that can be moved to a digital environment, but I can't help but think that something in this process would be lost without the group being in the moment together.  I think processes such as this would be best utilized periodically during faculty meetings. With a process like this, teachers could use it as a project design check point, or as a review of completed project that looks to troubleshoot problems.


Final Thoughts

I am so glad that I finally got to participate in an authentic PBL workshop.  So much of my learning with this topic has been on my own or virtual that it has been nice to take some time to learn new strategies, review ideas and work with others as a collective, with the idea that the more minds there are working to support each other, the better.

I really believe that after those days the teachers who participated are better equipped to think through possible scenarios and are ready to take on critically looking at their own work to improve their practice.