Justin Baeder, Author at The Principal Center - Page 5 of 13

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Classroom Conversations for Leading Learning

Our profession has had no shortage of efforts to help leaders improve their schools.

In recent years, these efforts have focused heavily on teacher evaluation, though many other promising models have incorporated coaching, feedback, and data-driven planning cycles.

But what if we’ve been overlooking the most impactful approach, precisely because it seems too simple? And what if the best way to improving teaching is also the best way to improve school leadership?

From thousands of conversations with school leaders, I’ve seen a wide range of approaches to instructional leadership, ranging from the casual to the highly formalized. I’ve also heard brutally honest reflections—from both administrators and teachers—on the impact of these efforts. My conclusion is that most are a waste of time and effort. We’d do far better to return to the most basic form of human interaction: conversation.

Conversation As Professional Learning

Making a daily practice of visiting classrooms, observing briefly, and talking with teachers has the greatest potential to improve student learning, help professionals grow, and help schools become more effective learning organizations.

I’ve come to this conclusion by studying an unlikely role model: Toyota. At Toyota, continuous improvement and employee development happen primarily through interactions between mentors and mentees—employees and their supervisors—on the factory floor, or wherever the work is being done. We might assume that leadership in a manufacturing company would be rigidly top-down, numbers-driven, and directive toward front-line staff. But Toyota’s focus on conversation is precisely what sets it apart from its competitors.

Adopting a “go and see” philosophy, Toyota supervisors are prohibited from making decisions from afar based on reports and data. Instead, they’re expected to go and talk about the work with the people doing the work. Because these conversations take place on the factory floor rather than in the manager’s office, they’re based on firsthand, real-time observations of the work being done.

As Mike Rother explains in his book Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, everyone throughout the company is taught to improve quality by engaging in rapid cycles of inquiry—an interactive process between supervisors and employees at all levels of the organization.

Contrast this approach to our typical system for accountability and professional growth in schools:

  • Teachers set annual goals based on student performance, which are vetted by administrators
  • Administrators conduct formal observations, meeting in their offices with teachers for pre- and post-observation discussions
  • Conversations about teaching tend to focus on ratings and directive feedback, with the administrator doing most of the talking
  • Decisions about student intervention and teacher professional development are made based on data and reports, but with hardly any firsthand observation

Under this approach, instructional leaders obtain very little real-time information on which to base improvement decisions. Administrators may conduct occasional walk-throughs to collect data, provide feedback, make an appearance, and generally keep teachers on their toes, but without conversation, these visits fail to generate learning—for the individuals or the organization.

If a much simpler approach—face-to-face conversation—has so much potential to improve leadership and organizational performance, why hasn’t it caught on in schools?

In short, because we’re too focused on directive feedback.

The Danger of Directive Feedback

In the education profession, we hold feedback in high regard—though what constitutes feedback can vary widely. In most cases, it includes suggestions made by instructional leaders, which teachers are expected to implement or at least consider. For example, in his 2013 book Leverage Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoyo describes how a principal, Julie, provides feedback to teachers in weekly 15-minute meetings, based on 15-minute observations: “At each feedback meeting, Julie offers direct, readily applicable feedback. The next week, she checks that her feedback has been put in place and looks for further areas for improvement, building a veritable cycle of improvement” (p. 64).

At Toyota, in contrast, mentors are discouraged from providing this type of feedback, which is seen as a hindrance to the mentee’s growth—as well as a hindrance to discovering the true nature of the improvement that needs to occur. Suggestions—or what Toyota calls countermeasures—are inappropriate before the issue has been pinpointed by the mentee. The mentor is present and fully engaged, but only to guide the mentee—not provide a solution.

What if we instead approached school improvement and professional growth like Toyota, by treating inquiry-driven conversation as the best way to improve performance? What if we trained school leaders not to treat observations as opportunities for directive feedback, but as a chance to “go and see,” and engage in conversation with teachers?

It might seem impossible that a manufacturing company could have a more effective approach to professional and organizational learning than schools, which are ostensibly learning organizations. But Toyota’s culture and results speak for themselves. By engaging in continuous improvement for more than 60 years, Toyota has established itself as the world’s quality leader—not just in manufacturing, but across all sectors. How might a “go and see” approach to instructional leadership work in our schools?

From Firsthand Evidence to Better Decisions

Classroom conversations facilitate professional and organizational learning for a straightforward and obvious reason: they allow us to make sense of what’s taking place, and to make rapid decisions to improve the conditions for teaching and learning.

For example, if Sam, an administrator, spends a few minutes observing in Carol’s math class, he might observe that students seem confused during Carol’s explanation of how to solve a new type of problem. In a typical walkthrough, Sam might leave Carol a note with a few reflective questions, such as “What are some ways you could ensure that students are following along with your explanations, so you can identify their misconceptions?”

Or if it’s a formal observation, Sam might meet with Carol afterward and ask her to justify her approach to the lesson. He might then provide directive feedback on reducing students’ confusion.

But what if Sam adopts a simpler approach, and simply asks Carol how the lesson went relative to her plans? He might discover that she intended for students to struggle a bit with the new problem type in small groups, as a formative assessment before teaching a new algorithm. Or he might discover that Carol didn’t think students were confused at all. Without knowing Carol’s intentions for the lesson, and inquiring about her perceptions of its success, Sam is likely to provide unhelpful or even insulting feedback.

Teacher evaluation expert Charlotte Danielson, in her book Talk About Teaching! Leading Professional Conversations, explains that conversation is powerful because—unlike directive feedback—it hinges on teachers’ understanding as much as their actions:

When educators recognize that for teachers to advance in their understanding, they must be the ones to engage in the work of self-assessment and reflection on practice, then external feedback is even seen as a possible hindrance to that process. (p. 10)

In a complex environment, determining the facts on the ground is a critical first step. Before we can make improvement decisions, we must ascertain what’s currently taking place, then decide what it means. As outside observers, instructional leaders often lack the context they need to make meaning of what they see. Teachers have deep knowledge about what and how their students have been learning, but may miss many of the nuances of student interaction that an outside observer may notice. Conversation can bridge these gaps in knowledge, and lead to deeper understanding—and ultimately, better decisions that result in improvement.

For teachers, these decisions are squarely focused on teaching and learning. For instructional leaders, the insights gained from a single conversation may inform a wide range of operational and improvement decisions. It’s these interactions, repeated hundreds of times each school year, that lead to sustained improvement and outstanding results for students.

Why can’t directive feedback produce the same level of improvement? I believe it can help teachers move from bad to good, but not from good to great. Achieving excellence in teaching requires that teachers themselves take professional responsibility for their teaching decisions and their growth. Too many instructional leaders go to great lengths to provide high-quality directive feedback, yet fail to recognize this fundamental fact. It’s not enough for teachers to improve only in response to directive feedback; continuous improvement, as the same implies, should happen all the time.

As leaders engage in “go and see” conversations with teachers, they learn about the challenges teachers are grappling with individually, as well as school-wide challenges that must be addressed at the administrative level.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of the quality movement in Japan and the US, believed that quality is the results of systems more than exceptional individuals, noting that “in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system” (Out of the Crisis, p. 315).

While student learning may depend to a greater degree on the quality of individual teachers, only by engaging in organizational learning can schools build the capacity to meet the needs of their students. Treating individual teachers as problems to be fixed with corrective feedback robs our schools of the improvement potential of conversation-based learning.

How “Go and See” Conversations Look In Practice

Powerful classroom conversations begin with noticing. Instructional leaders can be more than a sounding board; they can be key sources of insight if they’re willing to “go and see” the work being done firsthand.

For example, Sam might begin a conversation with Carol by saying “It seemed to me, from the looks on their faces, that students were pretty confused while you were demonstrating how to solve the new type of problem. What was your take, and how did that compare with your expectations when you planned the lesson?”

Sam not only shares his perception of what took place, but also asks for Carol’s perspective on the situation. Then, he asks how that compares with her intent for the lesson—a consideration that’s often missing from directive feedback. After clarifying the situation, Carol and Sam can discuss ideas for improvement.

What learning will result from this conversation? First, Sam will learn how Carol thinks about the issues they discuss. Second, he may gain insight into effective teaching strategies that Carol shares with him, which he may be able to share with other teachers. Third, he may identify issues that need to be addressed at the school level—for example, if Carol identifies school activities that are causing students to miss class. Fourth, he may identify areas in which Carol could benefit from additional professional development or training.

What might Carol learn from this conversation? She may gain greater insight into how students experienced the lesson, and may gain valuable ideas about how to improve her practice. She’ll also learn to adopt Sam’s approach to inquiry, so she can use it independently.

But it’s also possible that she’ll learn very little from her conversation with Sam—especially if she’s a highly skilled, experienced teacher. Is this a positive outcome? Yes, because what Carol shares with Sam can result in organizational learning—Sam can help transfer Carol’s expertise to other teachers, and he’ll be able to make better-informed school leadership decisions. In the worst-case scenario, Carol makes a good impression on Sam, and goes on with her day.

In contrast, if Sam had approached Carol with traditional top-down feedback, the potential for harm would have been much greater, and the potential for learning would have been much lower. Directive feedback is only effective if the instructional leader both correctly diagnoses the situation and prescribes the right remedy—both of which are unlikely in a brief visit to an experienced teacher’s classroom.

If Sam’s feedback is off-base in any way—if he has misunderstood the lesson, or if he lacks the necessary expertise in mathematics instruction—Carol can only avoid harming student learning by ignoring it, possibly at risk to her own career. And if Sam gives bad feedback, he will learn nothing—or worse, he’ll learn the wrong lessons from the interaction.

One of the greatest barriers to improving teaching is its inherent complexity. Teachers make thousands of decisions about how to best teach dozens or hundreds of unique students, and administrators often find it difficult to guide them in making better decisions.

This is, fundamentally, a problem of information. Teachers know what they’ve already taught and how their students have responded, and use this information to make decisions from moment to moment. Administrators have access to far less information about the classroom—especially in a brief visit—but have a valuable perspective as outside observers who come with a wealth of professional knowledge.

The best way to exchange this information quickly, with the least potential for misunderstanding, is through face-to-face conversation in the classroom, immediately following a brief observation.

What Doesn’t Work, and Why

Classroom conversations are the most powerful form of professional development for instructional leaders, but not all conversations are created equal.

If instructional leaders talk with teachers without observing in the classroom—as often happens before or after school—their conversations will be reduced to philosophizing, because they’ll lack the “go and see” dimension of Toyota’s approach that facilitates shared problem solving.

If instructional leaders provide directive feedback, telling teachers what to do rather than developing an understanding of the instructional situation through conversation, they’ll risk providing bad advice, and they’ll fail to learn from teachers who could aid their growth as instructional leaders.

If instructional leaders provide only written or checklist-based feedback, they’ll fail to develop the stronger collegial relationships and the deeper insights that naturally result from conversation.

In contrast, when instructional leaders adopt a “go and see” approach to classroom conversations, they maximize their opportunities for professional growth, teacher development, and organizational learning.

A Gameplan

If you’d like to spend more time in classrooms, consider the following approach:

  • Visit three classrooms a day, every day, observing for five to ten minutes in each classroom
  • While students are working, or when the teacher is free, have a brief, open-ended conversation with the teacher
  • Focus your inquiry on professional and organizational learning, not on feedback

You don’t need a complicated process or any special tools. Simply “go and see,” and talk with teachers. Over the course of the school year, you’ll make it around to each teacher a dozen or more times, depending on the number of teachers you supervise.

You’ll quickly find that these conversations build relationships, trust, and the knowledge you need to keep improving. And you may discover that classroom conversations are the best professional development you’ve ever experienced as an instructional leader.

 

References

Danielson, C. (2015). Talk about teaching!: leading professional conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Rother, M. (2009). Toyota Kata: managing people for improvement, adaptiveness and superior results. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional.

The Challenge of “Calibrating” Teacher Observations

When districts strive to provide great training for their administrators on doing high-quality observations and evaluations, I’m delighted.

But there’s one goal the process can never achieve, and it bothers people to no end.

The unreachable goal? Calibration.

“But without calibration, how can teachers be evaluated fairly?” the concern goes. “If one administrator’s assessment would be different from another’s, how is this a defensible system?”

Of course we don’t want teacher evaluations to be capricious or unreliable. And using multiple evaluators for high-stakes evaluations isn’t a bad idea at all.

But what most districts try to do doesn’t work.

 

Calibration Training

Here’s how calibration training typically works: One school (or a vendor) provides a video of a lesson, and all the administrators watch and do a practice write-up.

Then, the calibration begins.

“Why did you give her a 3 for ‘monitoring student engagement’?”

“I gave him a 2 for ‘having a clear objective for the lesson.'”

And the debate begins…but it never goes anywhere.

And it can’t, because the observers don’t have the information they need.

Missing Context

I don’t believe teaching is like auditioning for a musical, where you can do a scene or a number and give the casting director a good sense of whether you’d be right for the show.

When you teach, you’re not just showing up and doing a little song and dance. Some of the most important work happens behind the scenes, when you’re phoning parents, planning lessons, reviewing student work, collaborating with other educators, and doing the million other things that go into great teaching.

Good evaluation frameworks account for this behind-the-scenes work, but even when it comes to understanding what’s happening during a lesson, there’s essential context that a stranger won’t know.

As a supervisor and colleague, you know things about your teachers and their students that are essential for conducting a fair evaluation, and even for truly understanding what’s happening in a lesson.

Ten Things Administrators Know About Their Own Classrooms

Here’s what’s missing when we do practice observations from videos, or even when we observe other schools’ teachers during site visits. We don’t know:

 

  • What the teacher taught yesterday, and what’s happening tomorrow
  • What went well and what didn’t go as planned yesterday
  • Which students are having a hard time lately
  • Which students have IEPs, behavior plans, or other systems in place
  • What the teacher’s team decided jointly to do for this unit
  • When the teacher’s dog died (true story…)
  • What routines and procedures the teacher has in place
  • How today compares to the typical day in this classroom
  • What the teacher learned about students’ understanding yesterday
  • How today’s lesson connects to upcoming plans

You can’t know this context if you’re watching a video.

But you also can’t know it if you aren’t in classrooms regularly, and if you aren’t involved in planning and collaboration meetings.

(If you’re ready to develop the habit of visiting classrooms regularly, so you know what’s going on, check out the Instructional Leadership Challenge, which currently has been taken by more then 10,000 participants worldwide).

The bottom line? Evaluation can only be done well in the context of a teacher-supervisor relationship. It can’t be simulated, at least not very well. And it can’t be calibrated, except among administrators who actually work in the same school and have the same information.

How To Help Administrators Do Better Observations

If you want to do an exercise of this type, forget about calibration, and focus on the quality of the written evaluation.

Don’t worry if one principal thinks the lesson was great and another thinks it was terrible. Focus on the quality of evidence the principal provides in the written report.

Share good and bad examples, talk about the difference, and give feedback on how to make the final product stronger.

As a side benefit, principals will develop a clearer understanding of the evaluation criteria you’re using, and this will directly aid the calibration goal.

 

Ilana Horn—Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In

Follow Ilana on Twitter @ilana_horn

About Ilana Horn

Ilana Seidel Horn, PhD is Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, where her research and teaching center on ways to make authentic mathematics accessible to students, particularly those who have historically been disenfranchised by our educational system. She is the author of numerous scholarly publications and several books, including her new book Motivated: Designing Math Classrooms Where Students Want to Join In

Elena Aguilar—Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators

Visit the OnwardTheBook Website

Visit the Bright Morning Consulting Website

Follow Elena on Twitter @artofcoaching1

About Elena Aguilar

Elena Aguilar is the founder and president of Bright Morning Consulting, an educational consulting group that works around the world supporting educators to meet the needs of children. She is the author of The Art of Coaching and The Art of Coaching Teams and a longtime contributor to Edutopia and EdWeek.

Marlena Hebern—The EduProtocol Field Guide: 16 Student-Centered Lesson Frames for Infinite Learning Possibilities

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, The EduProtocol Field Guide: 16 Student-Centered Lesson Frames for Infinite Learning Possibilities

Visit Marlena's Website

Visit the EduProtocols Website

Follow Marlena on Twitter @mhebern

About Marlena Hebern

Marlena Hebern is a Google Certified Innovator, Google Trainer, and co-founder of EdCamp Yosemite. She is the author, with Jon Corippo, of The EduProtocol Field Guide: 16 Student-Centered Lesson Frames for Infinite Learning Possibilities

1 Jack Jose and Krista Taylor—Angels and Superheroes Compassionate Educators in an Era of School Accountability

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Angels and Superheroes Compassionate Educators in an Era of School Accountability

Visit the Angels and Superheroes website

About Jack Jose

Jack Jose is the Principal of Gamble Montessori High School in Cincinnati Public Schools. Before coming to Gamble he was an English teacher and Paideia Program facilitator at Hughes Center, a CPS school, for 13 years. He has presented at conferences for the Ohio Council of the International Reading Association, the Cincinnati Montessori Society, and the Ohio Montessori Alliance.

About Krista Taylor

Krista L. Taylor is an intervention specialist and CPS Lead Teacher with a passion for including students with a wide range of disabilities. In 2015, Krista was named the Western and Southern Lawrence C. Hawkins Educator of the Year in Cincinnati Public Schools.

 

Sonny Magana—Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education

Visit Sonny's Website

Follow Sonny on Twitter @SonnyMagana

Learn more about the Project-Based Learning Network

About Dr. Sonny Magana

Dr. Sonny Magana is Milken Award-winning educator, author, and ed tech researcher. A sought-after speaker and consultant, he's the author, with Robert Marzano, of Enhancing the Art & Science of Teaching with Technology, as well as Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education.

 

Richard Gerver—Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today: Education – Our Children – Their Futures

Interview Notes, Resources, & Links

Get the book, Creating Tomorrow's Schools Today: Education. Our Children. Their Future

Visit Richard's Website

Follow Richard on Twitter @RichardGerver

About Richard Gerver

Richard Gerver is an internationally renowned educator, public speaker, and change expert. The author of three books, he is a former teacher and principal, and currently advises governments, corporations, and other large organizations on leadership, change, and innovation.

 

Jeff Bezos on Handstands and High Standards

What can the richest man in the world teach us about learning to do handstands?

And what does it have to do with making dramatic improvements to student learning, such as implementing high-performance PBL?

In a remarkable annual letter to Amazon shareholders (which is a normally-boring SEC requirement that I learned about from Dan Pink's excellent newsletter), Jeff Bezos shares his approach to high standards:

One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature.

People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’. I see that cycle of improvement happening at a faster rate than ever before.

You cannot rest on your laurels in this world. Customers won’t have it.

How do you stay ahead of ever-rising customer expectations? There’s no single way to do it – it’s a combination of many things. But high standards (widely deployed and at all levels of detail) are certainly a big part of it.

The same is true in schools. Our expectations for the learning experience should be going up.

And high standards—for ourselves as educators—are surely a big part of how to make it happen.

Regardless of your opinion about Amazon, I think we can agree that making “wow” learning experiences become normal and expected is worth the trouble.

In too many schools, kids are learning the way we learned decades ago. The textbooks are new (or maybe not), and the technology is new, but often the learning experience is the same.

I have enormous respect for educators, and certainly don't think teachers need to work any harder than they already are.

But the state of the art in our profession isn't advancing fast enough.

We aren't acting on what we know, and aren't implementing it with the speed our students deserve.

Yet there are encouraging bright spots. Anyone who has seen a Dave Burgess presentation or read his book Teach Like A Pirate! knows just how big a gap there is—and how big an opportunity to close that gap—between the way most students get to learn today, and what's happening in our best classrooms.

Dave asks the hard question: If students didn't have to show up to class, would they?

Students aren't exactly our customers, but they deserve our best. They deserve remarkable learning experiences, which we can only provide if we hold ourselves to high standards.

I believe one of the most promising—and most fundamental—changes we can make for students is to implement high-performance project-based learning in every school.

More on that in a moment, but first, let's look at what hasn't worked.

Misguided Attempts at High Standards

Let's talk about what has NOT brought about a revolution in engaging learning.

First, we've tried accountability.

I believe there's a role for accountability in ensuring quality learning outcomes for all students, but the net effect of the accountability movement—with its pressure to cover standards and prepare students for tests—has probably been to make learning LESS relevant, engaging, and enjoyable for students.

When we pressure educators to focus on getting kids to pass the test, the best parts of learning are often the first to go.

Second, we've tried a mind-numbing array of improvement initiatives. Teachers today have been through far more initiatives than ever before—many focused on instruction, and many others focused on other aspects of supporting student learning.

By and large, these are good improvements to make. As a profession, we're improving our schools faster than perhaps ever before.

But is the student learning experience improving? Are our customers' expectations being fulfilled?

If you visit a school today, you'll see largely the kinds of learning you saw 30 or 40 years ago.

Better, but not “Amazon Prime” better.

Remember ordering stuff by mail from catalogs and magazines? Remember “Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery”?

Last night, I noticed we needed more AAA rechargeable batteries for the kids' flashlights, so I ordered some, on my phone, from Amazon Prime. They'll be here tomorrow, with free shipping, and no need to go to the store. I could have put batteries on the shopping list for the week, but that would take just as long as actually buying them from Amazon.

Again, we can argue about whether this is good for society, the local economy, and so forth, but it's an undeniably better customer experience.

Are we giving students the same improvements in their learning experience?

Not yet. We need higher standards for our profession—not with more initiatives or more accountability or longer hours for teachers.

So how? Let's return to the Amazon CEO's annual letter.

How to Master the Perfect Handstand

Bezos writes:

A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good.

She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn’t getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists.

In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. “Most people,” he said, “think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you’re just going to end up quitting.”

Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards.

To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be – something this coach understood well.

I love that line: “you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.”

I love it because it rings a curriculum and instruction bell for me as a principal.

When my school adopted Lucy Calkins' Units of Study for Teaching Writing (AKA the Teachers College Writer's Workshop curriculum), we knew it was going to be hard.

We knew it would represent a dramatic and fundamental shift in how we taught writing.

We knew it would take years of professional development, coaching, practice, and relentless attention to detail.

And it paid off marvelously. I saw third-grade essays that would get kids into most colleges.

So again, how do we make learning experiences like this the norm?

PBL and the Truth about High Standards

I think we often get high standards wrong—as if being hard on teachers, making them fear for their jobs, and making them cram more and more into their already-packed days is what it takes.

Bezos identifies four elements of high standards:

  • They are teachable
  • They are domain-specific
  • We must recognize them
  • We must coach people on their scope

In other words, we can bring about dramatic improvements, as long as we're willing to teach people what to do, and not assume that excellence in one area will spill over into excellence in another. When we know what we're looking for, and have a realistic sense of what it takes to get good, we can get good.

Again, I saw this firsthand with Writer's Workshop.

And I'm seeing it right now with Project-Based Learning (PBL).

Recently, one of the teacher teams Dr. Amy Baeder has been working with for the past two years completely “PBL-ified” their curriculum.

The whole thing—the entire year, across two teachers, three grade levels, and nine interdisciplinary projects—it's entirely project-based, standards-based, and aligned to the unique goals and resources of their school.

The projects students do are motivating, engaging, rigorous, and a whole lot of fun. More to the point, student learn incredibly well under these conditions.

As kids, few of us experienced learning like this.

And still today, few kids experience learning like this.

Why? Because it's hard. And too often, we don't really understand what that means for us as educators.

Understanding the Scope of “Hard But Worth It” Improvements

As administrators, we often downplay the hard work that will be involved in an improvement like PBL.

We know teachers generally go with the flow and figure it out whenever we promote a new idea. (As administrators, we do the same thing with district initiatives.)

And teachers generally know that any given initiative will be quickly followed by another, so why bother putting up a fight?

Well, here's why it's worth putting up a fight: if we want to do something hard and do it well, so students can benefit, we must be brutally honest about scope:

  • How much time will this take to master?
  • What will we need to say no to in order to succeed with this?
  • What resources will we need to allocate?

Again, it's easy for leaders to gloss over these questions, in the hopes that people will figure it out and make it work.

I don't know much about how Amazon works, but I'm pretty sure Bezos didn't sit down with one team of engineers and tell them

“OK everybody, let's design an e-reader, and a tablet, and a voice assistant, and a video streaming service. Those are all really important, so we're going to have to work really hard to make it all work. You have two weeks.”

No. He was probably very realistic about how much work it would take to develop the Kindle and the Kindle Fire and Alexa and all the many other projects Amazon has brought to life.

He had different teams of people working on these projects, over periods of years and even decades.

And you may be thinking “Yeah, but he has tons of money. Schools don't have those kinds of resources to throw at their initiatives, and we can't go that slow!”

Of course schools don't have the resources Amazon has, and that's precisely the point.

Our unique goals and constraints force us to be even more deliberate about defining the scope of our work.

The school Amy has been working with has succeeded at PBL because they knew the scope of what they were getting into, they committed to the work, they developed the skills, and they saw it though.

A Realistic Scope for PBL This Summer

This summer, your school can make dramatic advances in project-based learning by focusing on the domain-specific, teachable skills that teachers must master.

We can show you how to recognize these skills, and how to be realistic about the scope of the hard work that PBL entails.

If your school is relatively new to PBL, we recommend having teachers develop one high-quality PBL unit, from start to finish, this summer.

And in a free webinar, Dr. Amy Baeder will guide you through it, sharing her PBL roadmaps for both teachers and school leaders. You'll walk away from this webinar with a clear understanding of the scope of this work—it's hard, but worth it.

How You Can Build A High-Performance PBL Unit This Summer

In this webinar, you'll learn why summer is the perfect time to build a high-performance PBL unit from start to finish. We'll explore:

  • How to build a PBL unit without distractions, so you can offer an engaging, rigorous learning experience for students this fall
  • A roadmap for designing PBL units—and a PBL implementation roadmap for leaders
  • The 6 fundamental assumptions of high-performance PBL
  • The top 10 PBL DOs and DON'Ts (so you can learn from the experience of others)
  • Tools and next steps for developing your first high-performance PBL unit
Register »
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