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!

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!


Lessons Learned from Coaching, the Finale

This final post in this three-part series is a celebration of the great educators I get to work with in the Dell Mentor Certification process. We’ve had some rewarding moments together, and my current cohorts are no exception. In Jim Knight’s book he notes, “Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.” It’s sad that many teachers don’t get that time to reflect with someone, because it’s really powerful when teachers do have that time.

“Coaches make it possible for teachers to take time to have real conversations about teaching.”

Jim Knight

First-Order Challenges Often Mask Second-Order Barriers

I’ve been a fan of Peg Ertmer’s work for a while, so you should know how great it is to be able to work with her on our technology integration textbook (under revision for the third edition, by the way). One of my favorite pieces of Peg’s is a think piece she published a while ago in ETR&D (1999) about how second-order barriers often underlie the more often mentioned first-order barriers, and are the true barriers to effective change. First-order barriers are extrinsic barriers that are often relatively easy to address. They can be perceived as things like a lack of time, limited access to devices or support, or lack of professional development. I agree with Karen Cator, the former EdTech Director for the U.S. Department of Education, when she said at an ISTE conference that there are lots of ways schools can and do address these types of barriers. First-order barriers can be and often are overcome through simple strategies of resource allocation, scheduling, and varied modes of services.

Time is one of the most often cited first-order barriers; however, it’s easy to observe and catalog where teachers spend their time and find ways to help them better organize their time to get a bigger payoff. They can even use technology to save time, as technology can easily perform routine teaching duties, like taking attendance, assessing knowledge comprehension, and recording evidence of student work. Even limited access to devices and PD can be overcome through strategic—and sometimes creative—use of resources (time, people, and money) and getting people across a school or district to work together rather than in silos. But once that happens, technology initiatives often have to deal with the underlying intrinsic barriers to change, or second-order barriers.

These barriers often relate to our very own philosophies and perceptions of who we are and how we think people should act, especially ourselves. Since I work in education, second-order barriers often relate to a teacher’s basic understanding of what a teacher should be, how they manage a classroom, and how students should behave in that classroom. In other words, second-order barriers can be challenges to our foundational understanding of what we think and know to be true about ourselves and our profession. Pretty heady stuff.

The Power of Coaching

During a visit this school year with one of my Dell Mentor cohorts, the candidates observed classrooms and then participated in a role play exercise to practice their coaching conversation skills. Some had the option to pretend to be one of the teachers we observed or they could choose a professional issue they were working on as the focus of their conversation with their peer. What resulted, literally every time, was magic.

In one, a young teacher worked with one of the other coaches on what to do with students who complete their work early in class. He noted that some of his students rushed through their work and would begin socializing at the end of class and it became disruptive. He wanted them to remain quiet and busy. When questioned, he noted that the students that finished their work early also often did well on their assignments, so he didn’t have the leverage of poor performance to get them working. After some conversation, and working through our summarizing and clarifying questioning techniques, I asked, “Does it upset you that they finish early, even though they’re doing well?”

His response was a vehement, “YES! They don’t act the way I did in school! They don’t push themselves to do more.” At this point, it may be obvious, but we went from discussing the first-order barrier of keeping student busy during class to the underlying, second-order barrier of a perception that his students have different motivations or possibly work ethics when it comes to a topic this teacher is passionate about. It was really quite a breakthrough facilitated primarily by his conversation with a colleague. What resulted afterward changed the direction of the conversation and the types of support he was offered.

That type of breakthrough seemed to happen each time one of my groups completed their role play. At another school, one of the coaches pretended to be a teacher we observed and started out asking for help on using a technology, but her colleague helped uncover that the teacher was really seeking approval from her students. In another, a veteran teacher had a conversation with her younger colleague that began with frustration with students and parents. She had been trained in and was trying more student-centered pedagogies and her students were pushing back. They “just wanted to know” what to do without having to take on so much responsibility for their own learning. The underlying challenge her colleague uncovered was that this new approach changed her role in the classroom so much that she was feeling a bit uncomfortable. It was very different from what she, and her students, had done in the past, but she felt the gains in learning were well worth it. In all of these conversations, having someone—a trained someone—to share concerns and open up became a great catharsis.

These teachers are lucky because they had someone to talk with. Upon completion, these newly certified Dell Mentors will be additional resources for the school district to support more collegial conversations. Having a trusted someone to talk with about your teaching–whether a coach, an administrator, or another teacher–is an important component for helping teachers feel and be successful. I appreciate the honor of working with so many coaches and teachers and look forward to learning more from them in the future.

Please note: Over the past year I helped develop the process for Teachers and Mentors to become Dell Certified and was happy to work in two school districts that had educators successfully complete the process. This work is coordinated by Advanced Learning Partnerships for Dell Education. 


Ertmer, P. A. (199). Addressing first- and second-order barriers to change: Strategies for technology integration. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 47(4), 47-61.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional coaching. A partnership approach to improving instruction. NSDC.