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!

Be a Model Digital Citizen

This summer I attended a great session in San Antonio with Julie Paddock (@jpaddock-tech) and Nancy Watson (@nancywtech), co-chairs of ISTE’s Digital Citizenship PLN (@DigCitPLN). They were great presenters and models, both for engaging presentation skills and promoting digital citizenship. I learned some new great ideas from Julie, Nancy, and the other participants, but one message resonated clearly: “Digital Citizenship is…the way you need to teach, ALL the time.”

I hadn’t previously considered the implications of their message, but it makes a lot of sense. Too many of the districts I work with take the approach of tackling digital citizenship through a one-day workshop or a citizenship lesson or two at the beginning of the year. Despite the best of intentions, this can cause digital citizenship to become an add-on, or worse, forgettable as the school year goes on. My goal was to take up the banner and try to encourage educators in some of my districts to model digital citizenship every lesson, every day.

ModelING Digital Citizenship: It’s Your Choice

Later in the summer I was presenting at one of those summer kick-off workshops that is typical of the approach Julie and Nancy were encouraging us to move beyond. It is what it is, however, and districts have to work within constraints, so I decided to try to move towards a more encompassing approach to digital citizenship within the limits of a three-hour workshop. What to do? Give them choice!

Taking a nod from many of my elementary colleagues, I created this choice board to help my teachers Be a Model Digital Citizen. The focus is providing educators the opportunity to explore the various facets of digital citizenship so they can “model positive digital citizenship every class, every day.” The categories are my interpretation of key components of the Digital Citizen standard from the new ISTE Standards for Students. Because we are ALL digital citizens, whether we want to be or not, the first level of the board is Citizen, and I encourage you to at least progress to the level of Model. You can challenge yourself to earn points to move up levels, if you prefer, because you may already have higher goals.

Full directions for options for using the choice board are at the beginning of the document. The idea is that educators—and it truly was educators as I had many counselors attend my sessions—can enter the digital citizenship discussion at their own level of comfort and expertise. Some may need further information about a key area of digital citizenship, while others are ready to move towards a more collaborative approach both within and beyond one’s school. The skills build in intensity from short individual tasks to collaborative ones that can take a significant amount of time to complete. You decide your goal and the actions you plan to take. Each activity links to a range of resources to get you started on modeling new citizenship skills every day.

Please feel free to use and share the choice board, and please let me know how you used it and how it worked out. I’m open to suggestion for improving it. I need to send out thanks to my colleague Dr. Kendall Latham, who reviewed and improved the board as it was being developed. I also want to thank Alice Keeler for her Digital Citizenship Badge Collector that several of my teachers really enjoyed using to track their progress.

Digital Citizenship Choice Board

Personalizing Professional Development

Many of the schools I work with are riding the personalized learning wave. In fact, in response to a recent question in one of my districts, “Yes, this is probably the most common education trend I’m asked to work on in my districts.” In addition to working in schools and districts, some of my work includes collaborating with state education agencies that are also championing personalized learning and are trying to determine a state’s role in supporting districts and schools as they take efforts to personalize learning.

Personalized learning receives significant emphasis in the new National Educational Technology Plan. It’s the focus of the very first goal of the plan which encourages that “learners will have engaging and empowering learning experiences in both formal and informal settings…” (p. 7) and specifically calls out personalized learning as a means for supporting this goal. The release of the new plan was eclipsed by the signing of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—on the very same day(!)—but proponents of personalized learning suggest it also plays a role in this new reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Recently, personalized learning got a boost from the report Continued Progress from the Gates Foundation. Researchers found that students in the schools included in the study showed significant growth in math and reading when involved in personalized learning programs. This growth appears to be substantially larger than a national sample of students that do not participate in personalized learning, and—most promising—students that started out at lower achievement levels showed the greatest gain.

With all this positive momentum, and a growing body of research encouraging personalized learning, what’s the next step? To again quote some of the educators I work with, “If we want teachers to personalize learning for students, we also need to personalize professional development for teachers.” Great idea! How do we do that?

Personalized Learning Framework

I like to start the personalized learning conversation by trying to figure out exactly what people mean when the use the term personalized learning. Like many terms in education, it means different things to different people. And it’s not a clear dichotomy. It’s not like you do or don’t personalize learning. Many teachers personalize aspects of learning, to varying degrees. I often use these three scenarios, which are based on a review of literature and practice and perhaps a few actual teachers I know. Every time I use them, the scenarios help educators realize the variety of components that can be personalized as well as the range of ways these components can be personalized.

I don’t have similar scenarios for professional development. I guess that’s something for my New Year’s resolutions. But you can think about the components of personalized learning that undergird these scenarios for personalizing learning for students and tackle one or more as you personalize professional development for teachers. Below are just some suggestions based on my work. (By the way, the report from the Gates Foundation describes 5 components that support personalized learning if you’re interested in a different framework.)

Personalized Learning Framework Component What this can look like for educators
Learning Targets Educators work with their administration, PLC, a mentor teacher or others to develop personal learning targets for their personal and professional growth plan.
Curriculum Educators access a range of relevant artifacts and resources with guidance from teachers, coaches, or experts in the field. They may complete some anchor or foundational activities but are given flexibility in terms of accessing content and developing skills and knowledge.
Pedagogies Educators rely on PD providers, PLC members, and colleagues as learning experts who use resources, technologies, and methods that are relevant to the content areas being studied but may vary by the need of each educator.
Resources Used Educators use a range of personal and school-provided devices, accessing a range of print and digital resources from school, home, and elsewhere. Schools and districts may provide a minimum of devices and resources but allow educators choice in terms of using external resources if their relevance is justified.
Assessment Educators engage in ongoing series of pre-, formative, and post-assessment opportunities to determine their current levels of proficiency and monitor and adjust their own learning goals. Pre-assessments help educators determine appropriate learning paths and summative assessments occur on-demand at the time educators feel they have completed requisite activities or feel confident about their skills and knowledge.
Pace Educators make decisions about what is learned when, advancing through content at their own pace and spending more time on topics of interest or those in which they feel they need more practice. Educators have a contract or individual learning plan (e.g., professional growth plan) that guides their overall progress and work in concert with PD providers to ensure they’re moving at an appropriate pace and utilizing the best resources.
Place Educators access content and complete activities from any place at any time. The school is still likely a center of support where educators can schedule or contract with PD providers to guide their learning, receive explicit instruction when needed, or seek consultation about what they have (or haven’t) mastered.
Grouping Educators self-select team members to participate in learning based on the skills, expertise, and experiences of others. Grouping may be similar to workforce grouping in which teams of individuals with diverse expertise work together to address problems. Group members use a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools embedded in or connected to a learning platform to organize, conduct, and share their work.
Learner Characteristics Individuals’ abilities, prior content knowledge, and content experiences are known, monitored and leveraged in PD activities, as are their interests, emotions, life experiences, cultural backgrounds, and other unique needs and characteristics.
Voice & Choice Educators are given a good deal of choice but have to justify their selections. A learning platform links to or provides access to a variety of technologies and resources in varied formats that educators use to monitor and regulate their own learning. Educators learn at their own pace to complete discrete units and receive credit based upon completion, not time spent.
Facilitator’s Role Student learning is activated by facilitators or experts and supported by the use of a learning platform. Educators work collaboratively within and across grade levels and departments, depending on the desired outcomes. Facilitators focus on helping educators develop skills for lifelong learning and developing self-directed learning skills. Facilitators interact with educators in person and through the learning platform to provide equitable access to high-quality resources and interactions.
Interaction with Learning Platform A learning platform plays a key role in providing access to high-quality resources and professional growth opportunities. Educators access the platform independently to identify activities and resources vetted by PD providers or master teachers to help them achieve their learning goals, perhaps rating resources based on how helpful they are. They use the platform to create their own learning journeys and share their learning, such as through a dynamic e-portfolio. They use the reporting tools to monitor their progress and share their status with administrators and PD providers.

Many of these components make sense and are indeed being employed by PD departments in districts across the country. For example, many teachers create their own learning goals for their personal professional development plan and there are many opportunities for educators to access professional learning from any place on their own time. There are a few key ideas, however, that I believe make this framework unique—especially compared to the type of professional learning I participated in as a teacher. I suggest the following should occur to move to the most mature levels of personalized professional development. Let me know what you think.

  1. Device neutrality. Educators should be able to access professional learning using whatever device they feel comfortable with and have access to. They shouldn’t be limited to accessing professional learning only at school within a restricted online environment; although, those educators who want to access PD at school (and many do) should be supported through the provision of resources and the opportunity to collaborate with others.
  2. Increased reliance on pre-assessments. Just as students are increasingly encountering pre-assessments that help place them within a relevant learning path and giving them credit for skills and knowledge they already possess, personalized PD incorporates pre-assessments that honor educators’ existing skills and puts them within a path that is appropriately relevant and challenging.
  3. Technology supports personalization. In our current place in time, there’s almost no way to manage personalization for a range of teachers, whether a school faculty of a dozen teachers or a district with thousands, without using technology. For the most part, this is done through a learning management system (LMS) that can automate many processes, like enrollment; pre-, post- and ongoing assessment; generating and managing portfolios and other artifacts; recording completion and certification; as well as the ongoing interactions between educators and PD providers. The LMS can also provide access to content resources and activities that educators can explore independently or in groups. There are a lot of LMS out there, the trick is finding the right one for you. That’s a topic for another post.

We know that the “one-size-fits-all” approach to professional learning doesn’t work, yet it’s still a common approach to professional development. There’s no reason to continue that ineffective process and leverage what we know about personalized learning with students to generate high-quality PD for teachers. Let me know how you’re doing this in your own schools and districts. I’d also be interested in any questions you may have or examples you can share.

Note: I’d like to thank one of my former principals, Dr. Barry Beers, for originally suggesting this topic, which has come up over and over recently in the schools in which I’m working. To learn more about Barry’s work check out his book Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals from ASCD.