What does your P stand for?

I’ve just returned from my final coaching visits with some great teachers in Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, WA. We’ve been exploring PBL together. They’ve been developing and implementing PBL units and we discuss what they’ve learned and how that will impact their practice in the future. This last visit was the third in a series of three, and I’m so proud of the work these teachers have done—and their administrators. This has been such a rewarding experience because not only have teachers taken risks and tried new things, but their administrators have supported and encouraged them. They’ve become learners themselves, and have explored PBL right along with their teachers, acknowledging they have questions and want to learn, as well.

Steve Doyle PBL

Steve Doyle connects history with current events through his PBL unit in his social studies class.

I was also fortunate to share some ideas with the full faculty of both schools—Legacy High School and Harmony Elementary. We explored some of the characteristics of PBL and what that might mean for their lessons. I also got to showcase the work and experiences of the great residency teachers I’ve been working with, who have really dug in and have the best stories to share.

You’ll notice I just use the term “PBL” and don’t elaborate. That’s because the P in PBL can mean different things to different people. Both in the textbook I’ve co-authored and in many schools where I’ve embarked down the PBL path with teachers, I like to acknowledge this. And often I ask people what they think the P should stand for?

For many, the P in PBL stands for project. I’m good with that. A really good project can be an engaging source of deeper learning—especially when that project requires students to develop new knowledge and skills that they can then demonstrate through that project. In this case, the project is the learning, and not just something students do at the end. It’s not that they won’t need some guidance, and even directed learning, as they work on their projects, but the project isn’t just something tacked on at the end of other learning. Teachers don’t have enough time to add on projects after the learning, so the best projects are the learning. But for me, simply engaging students in a project is not enough to make it good PBL.

With the changes in the summative assessment landscape over the past decade, some people also suggest that the P in PBL stands for performance. I like that one, too, partly because almost all of the learning my own students did led to some kind of a performance—a public performance. I was a band director. So whether it was Friday night on the football field, in a concert hall or cafeteria, or performances of soloists or small ensembles, my students engaged in PBL activities that led to a performance. My work in developing performance tasks is actually, in part, an attempt to accomplish what my last principal suggested I help him with. He asked me to help him figure out how to get other teachers, whether math, science, English—whatever—to get their students to “perform” their content. PBL can do that, but again, just adding a performance doesn’t get to the best PBL.

Laura Buno, Harmony Elementary

Principal, Laura Buno, explores PBL by visiting and learning with the faculty at Harmony Elementary.

For me, the one P that I think should be in every PBL unit is a problem. A real problem. A complex problem. Real-world problems help kids get to the level of strategic thinking unlike academic problems that can be fairly sanitized and yield only one correct answer. These are what Wiggins & McTighe would refer to as exercises, not problems. They’re important, because they help students develop knowledge and skills, but what for? To tackle real problems, of course, and so in my PBL, I try to ensure there’s some real-world problem students are investigating. You can have a project with a problem, and you can include a performance at the end of a project, but without a problem, your students are going to miss out on the greater benefits of PBL and not reach those higher levels of cognitive demand that lead to deeper learning and transfer. What does your P stand for?

When asked to reflect on what makes good learning memorable, some of the faculty and staff at Harmony Elementary reported that memorable learning is:

  • Authentic
  • Provides student choice
  • Builds on individual strengths
  • Promotes independence
  • Hands-on
  • Engaging
  • Not limited by time
  • Fun
  • Group-based
  • Thought provoking
  • Connected to things outside the classroom
  • Collaborative

Sounds like great PBL to me!

SAMR: Have we missed the point?

I’m a big proponent of continua theories of change simply because change is complex and doesn’t happen quickly. We progress and grow in stages over time. It’s not like today I’m not fluent at Spanish but tomorrow I will be. Or bowling. Or particle physics. Developing expertise with anything takes time, especially technology.

Different continua have been used to describe the ways teachers and other educators develop technology proficiencies. Probably the first, or at least one of the most well-known early continua theories, was developed through the original ACOT (Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow) project (Dwyer, Ringstaff & Sandholtz, 1991). In the late 80s and 90s, teachers were observed learning to use the new Apple personal computers, and the observers described patterns of how teachers routinely developed proficiency across five stages.

To date, I believe the ACOT project resulted in the only continua of proficiency based on evidence from practice. It was observational evidence, which is not like conducting a research experiment, but there was still sufficient evidence to make generalizations about how teachers develop proficiency.

And I use the word continua, not continuum, because the ACOT researchers developed a multi-dimensional look at technology proficiency. The ACOT continua describes ways that technology proficiency can develop across five stages by considering

  • What the teacher is doing
  • What resources are being used
  • What the students are doing
  • And the learning environment

ISTE (the International Society of Technology in Education) has also published continua related to their National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers. While not based on observations of a known set of teachers, the standards and the continua are based on expert practitioner advice. In ISTE’s case, that’s 10s if not 100s of thousands of expert practitioners across the globe. It’s still not an experiment, but pretty good advice.

And ISTE took the continua idea to a new level, developing continua for all five of its NETS for Teachers and the substandards that support them. The ISTE continua also describe how teachers use technology to help promote student learning—and learning in complex ways—like communication and collaboration, and critical and creative thinking. Again, the focus is not just technology, but how teacher use of technology supports student learning.

These standards are under revision and will be announced this summer at ISTE’s annual conference. I look forward to see what the new continua look like as they will have to address the new NETS for Students released last year.

Sometimes, Simple is Not Best

This brings me to the current fascination with a popular continuum: SAMR. It’s the current darling of the EdTech world, especially for EdTech departments in districts and teacher preparation programs. I have no personal vendetta against SAMR, but I’ve come to realize why I don’t find it very helpful. One of those reasons is, perhaps, the primary reason for its appeal: it’s simple. For me, it’s too simplistic. Or perhaps the way we interpret is.

The acronym stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition. So, on the surface, it’s a continuum, right? Yes, but a continuum of what? What’s the focus? During conversations I’ve had in the districts that have adopted SAMR, usually the focus is the technology. The most common interpretation is that Modification is better than Augmentation is better than Substitution because of the technology teachers use.

But I counter, what’s the purpose of school? Why do teachers get up every day and go to work? Why do we send a nation of young people to school every year? Why is schooling a core expectation for the citizens of our country? Ask these questions and most people will say, “it’s for the kids.” Which, for me, is the best answer. We have schools so our kids can reach their potential, academically and otherwise. It’s not about the technology.

It’s not that the continuum idea is a bad one, and I’m sure the intentions were well meant. But you can oversimplify complex concepts and lose sight of the real purpose of promoting student learning. Any one technology is likely to have very little impact on changing practice and impacting student learning without some work on building teacher capacity. This can often mean tackling deep-seated philosophies of a teacher’s role and even the role of students in the learning process. No technology alone is going to do that.

Consider the level of Substitution. Many of my tech compatriots suggest that teachers replacing paper-based worksheets or multiple-choice tests with word processing or quizzing software represents Substitution. But not for a veteran user of PBL, or expeditionary learning, or inquiry-based learning who never used worksheets or multiple-choice tests. I never did. What does Substitution look like at that level of student-centered teaching? Interpreting that Augmentation is better in some way because the teacher used a different tool misses the point.

I highly support the use of a continuum of proficiency—or tech proficiency development. Let’s just be careful of what they really mean and keep our sights set on what’s important: improved student learning. Tech is cool. Tech is fun. But tech is not what it’s all about. In the words of one of my favorite quotes by organizational theorist and professor Russell Ackoff…

“You can’t simplify a complex problem or complex situation into a simple situation with a simple solution. Solutions must address the complex parameters of the situation.”


Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45–52.


Scaffolding Coaching Conversations

I thought I was through with the coaching thread, but I’ve been doing a lot of coaching this month, so I’m going to continue for a while. Plus I’ve joined ISTE’s ETcoaches in a slow Twitter Chat (#ETCoaches) and book study about coaching. There’s still time to join in.

I take an eclectic approach to coaching. I use the best from what I’ve read, workshops I’ve attended, and from working with some great colleagues. All of this morphs into my own approach to coaching, but even that’s not final. I keep learning new things, especially from the coaches I work with, and so I keep tweaking and hopefully improve the approach I take. One piece I’ve been working on recently is providing a visual scaffold to support a coaching conversation. This winter I developed a Coaching Conversation Placemat that some of my coaches have been experimenting with. They and some colleagues are also giving me feedback on the tool, and I’d be glad for any additional ideas.

Coaching Conversation Placemat

Coaching Conversation Placemat

A Road Map for Conversation

A roadmap is a guide. It provides options. It doesn’t suggest you have to take the same route every time to get where you want to go. You might hang out along the way and see some new things, or zoom right through parts to save time, but in the end you want to reach your destination. I give my coaches different handouts and guidelines for supporting their conversations, but I wanted one that matches my approach.

Currently, I suggest coaching conversations be fairly focused in scope and explicit in terms of outcomes. But those outcomes are determined at the onset of each conversation. For me, coaches begin by determining a goal for the conversation with their colleague and take explicit steps to move towards some tangible action steps each can take following the conversation. This conversation is influenced by the different types of conversations common to cognitive coaching, but throws in a few other ideas, as well. One of the greatest benefits of having a structure is that it helps to address one of the major challenges teachers face, and that’s a lack of time. Keeping focus saves you time.

The focus of this type of coaching conversation is reflection–allowing educators to reflect on their practice in a safe environment with a non-judgmental peer. Holding back judgment and not jumping to a “quick fix” is a critical part of the conversation. In fact, this type of conversation may be one of the only times that master teachers have an opportunity to truly reflect on their practice rather than struggling to find time to learn some new strategy or resource. Many teachers tell me reflection is valuable, but they don’t often have time to do it. This held true this past week.

Putting the Placemat into Practice

It can be difficult to coach a strong, veteran teacher. In fact, one of the teachers this week commented at the beginning, “I’m not really sure why I need to be coached.” But through the conversation with her friend and newly appointed coach, she reported the conversation was extremely helpful. All of our volunteer teachers commented on how helpful it was to take time to reflect on what was going well and working on their own goals rather than having an evaluative conversation that often takes a deficit approach.

Having a goal for the conversation helped teachers to focus their reflection and comments. When asked to describe their goals, these veteran teachers often had a lot of ideas. They had ideas of how they’d like their lessons to unfold and shared several different strategies and resources they’d like to try to get there–sometimes many different resources. Having a coach keep the conversation focused helped these teachers cut through some of the noise in their thinking and have a deeper conversation about the most important aspects of their goal, again, making the most of their brief time together. It also allowed the pair to determine if there were any underlying factors that might influence the teacher’s motivation or thinking (see last week’s entry on first- and second-order barriers for more on this topic).

This conversation is not about learning a new resource or strategy. That’s a different type of conversation and any skill-building training, exploration, or collaborating on a lesson can occur later as an action step after this conversation. The coach goes into the coaching conversation without any preconceived ideas of potential outcomes, because the first idea may not be the best idea. The coaching conversation helps to determine the educator’s specific goals prior to seeking out any particular strategy, approach, or technology to use. Too often, we present resources first–especially technology resources–and then teachers have to figure out how to use them. And since being back in the classroom can be so hectic with little time to practice, new resources often just don’t get used. Having coaching conversations first saves teachers time and effort as resource selection is more goal-oriented and practical.

Feel free to download the Coaching Conversation Placemat (PowerPoint or Google Doc) and use it or modify it for your coaching needs. I’m especially open to suggestions on how to improve it. (I’m working on a more linear representation for some of my coaches thanks to their feedback.) I created this at the end of December, but it has been tweaked after being reviewed by some of my coaching colleagues and my new coaches. Please let me know if you use it, if it’s helpful, and how you’ve changed it to make it better.

MVUSD Dell Mentors round 2

Congratulations to the second round of Dell-Certified Mentors from Moreno Valley USD, CA!