Our school introduced Professional Learning Teams a few years ago to provide greater opportunities for our staff to collaborate on authentic learning experienced that are really relevant to the needs of their students.
Our PLTs are made up of teachers from between 4 and 6 teachers, from various faculties, who meet for a 100 minute block fortnightly which is built into the timetable as a part of each teacher’s teaching load. Yes, we are very lucky to have a principal who provides us with so many opportunities for Professional Learning!
The program has been very successful and popular with teachers who have recognised the value in having time to work with colleagues on issues that have an impact on all teachers and students in our school.
I think one of the main reasons for the success of our PLTs has been that we have endeavoured to model our PLTs on the Project Based Learning process as closely as we can. In designing these learning experiences, this has also allowed usto model to our staff new ways of approaching common elements of PBL.
We also try to ensure that all of our PLTs are linked to the Australian Teaching Standards.
Our latest PLT focus, sees us reflecting on those aspects of Project Based Learning that are core components of the inquiry-based process, but that our teachers may sometimes neglect or may not completely understand their benefits. We particulary focused on the Know and Needs to Know process, the Group Contract and Group Management and the use of Benchmarks.
The submission for our teachers for this PLT focus was to construct their own professional blog (that we are aiming to use for the remainder of our PLT focus areas) and to compose a some public blog posts, reflecting on how their learnings from the PLT have translated into changes in their own practice in the classroom.
I’ll try to outline how the PLT was structured and some of my key learnings from the process.
The Entry Event
Our entry event for this PBL PLT consisted of two components. The first was a letter, written from one of our year 9 students to their year coordinator. The student was well-versed in how PBL should work and was concerned that maybe we could all (students and teachers) be better at our work in constructing high quality projects, and in working through the PBL process. The student had well thought-out points explaining which aspects of the process were working and which ones were not. He also took the time to pose some of his own solutions to these problems.
The second part of the entry event was a video collage of interviews of some of our students discussing important aspects of the PBL process: the use of knows and needs to know, group selection, the group contract and benchmarks. What was interesting was that these students all presented different experiences in regard to these elements. It highlighted that there were some clear inconsistencies among our teachers in the way they were utilising these essential PBL approaches.
This entry event was quite effective in that it was very relevant to our teachers. The student voice was well received and this provided breadcrumbs for our teachers in developing their knows and needs to know for this project.
Knows and Needs to Know
We decided that we would focus on the Know and Needs to Know process for our first PLT session as these would be one of the first things our team members would construct together in competing the project. The entry event had made clear that a main weakness in our K/N2K process was that the list produced was not seen as a living document to be added to and amended each lesson. To model this to our teachers we introduced Scrumblr, an online live whiteboard for teams to complete their Knows and Needs to Know in. This allowed our teachers to continually move their Needs to Know into the Know column once they felt they had achieved this goal. Scrumblr is a terrific site, and well-worth a look as a supplementary tool to support project organisation.
This session allowed us to discuss the importance of the Know/Need to Know process, showed how it should be used to drive the learning forward in the project and also modelled different approaches to presenting Knows and Needs to Knows to students.
Our next focus was on group construction. True to PBL form, we started by looking back at our Knows and Needs to Know and moved those questions we had answered into the Know column on our Scrumblr board. We then looked at back at the entry event video and letter to identify what the students had said about how groups were constructed.
We then looked more closely at different ways of constructing groups and the research that supports it. One resource in particular that I liked was this webpage from Carnegie Mellon on forming effective groups. If discussed the differences between homogenous and heterogeneous group selection and offered some suggestions as to how to form groups.
This was also a great opportunity for us to discuss as colleagues our different approaches to group construction and to think of better ways to team students up. I think that, for many of us, the selecting of the groups has become a bit of an afterthought. This has led me to include a new section on our project planning template, asking our teachers to reflect on how they intend to select groups for the project they are planning and why. Hopefully this will provide an opportunity for them to think about the best way to group students for each particular project.
Group management was our next focus area. This is probably one of the most challenging aspects of PBL, particularly to those who are newer to this approach to teaching and learning. I remember my first year teaching PBL, where I completely lacked the skills needed to manage groups properly. My (limited and poor) understanding of PBL was that we spent weeks writing a project before handing it over to the students, dusting off our hands and leaving them to it for the next 5 to 8 weeks! Fortunately it only took me one or two disastrous projects to realise that group management strategies were a ‘need to know’ for me.
This session had some great resources on ensuring student groups are focused. I’ve added a few of the resources I particularly liked below:
Our last focus area was on benchmarks in PBL. This is a concept that I think has been challenging for some of our teachers to grapple with. Benchmarks should really be signposts in learning, or checkpoints along the path towards the final product. I think that too often, we see these as activities to complete, rather than as opportunities to formatively assess students’ progression towards a larger goal.
This was a really good opportunity to discuss in our PLT group how we can use benchmarks to map student learning, and how we can have students work with us to determine what the logical benchmarks are for any particular project.
We watched a really great video from some New Tech Network students determining the logical benchmarks for a project they were working on. Unfortunately, it is not available for public broadcast. It was terrific to see students planning and mapping out their own learning path!
A great example we discussed was the way we might establish benchmarks if the end product for students was an original drama production. Working with students, we might be able to cooperatively formulate the following benchmarks, which would be very similar to the approach taken by someone in the theatre industry:
Benchmark 1: Play theme and synopsis
Benchmark 2: Draft script
Benchmark 3: Set Design, props and costume design complete
Benchmark 4: Dress rehearsal
Each of these benchmarks clearly leads towards the final product and would elicit Needs to Know from the students when they arrive at this point in the learning.
When we map out our benchmarks collaboratively with our students, this also affords us with the flexibility to have students working on different benchmarks at any one time. We also looked at how we can use tools like Scrumblr to create a visual map of where our students are on the path towards the end product. This then allows us to see which groups need extending and which groups need additional support.
The culminating product for our PLT PBL Project was a blog post (this blog post is serving as my end product!). We asked all of our staff to create a their on professional blog and share it with their peers and to start blogging about their learnings from their PLT. This was particularly timely as our students have just moved towards using online digital portfolios to showcase their learning and to reflect on the learning process. This was a great time to have our teachers share in this reflective experience.
For many of our staff, this was their first experience of blogging and I am so happy that many have found the experience both enjoying and rewarding! Lots of our staff members are now regular bloggers and have started to write about other aspects of their teaching. These blogs will also serve as way for our teachers to reflect on their learning in future PLTs.
The aim of this PLT was to realign our teachers with some of core aspects of PBL. I think that as teachers who were usually taught traditionally and have experience teaching traditionally, it is very easy for us to revert back to traditional practices. Often we need a shunt to push us back out into orbit, beyond our comfort zone. I think that for many of us, this PLT helped to achieve this.