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!

Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.

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.”

References

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.