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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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PBL Course Development: Collaboration Among Colleagues

Jayesh Rao

High School Biology teacher from Bellevue, Washington
Author Jayesh Rao collaborates with his AP Biology design team.

At Sammamish High School, we're developing and implementing a comprehensive problem-based learning program for all of our students. Working closely with my peers during this process has become one of the highlights of my career as an educator. These last two years I've been granted (literally and figuratively) the space and time to exchange ideas, learn from others and feel the satisfaction of knowing that I grow as a professional with each exchange. I have two very different teacher collaboration experiences to relate.

Stamina and Momentum

Last year, my first experience with a PBL collaborative group was working with six teachers on an integrated biology/chemistry course. I had come to know and work with each of these teachers to varying degrees in my time at Sammamish High. We met during the final period of the day. The upside was that it allowed me to fully focus on the task at hand and put aside any immediate stress I had over an upcoming class (because, even after 17 years, I always obsess about each little thing that needs to happen before my next group of kids come in). The last period meeting time allowed me the luxury of suspending that worry, and it was wonderful being able to begin each work meeting worry-free.

This came at a price, however. I was very tired and a little worn down by end of day. PBL work has many facets, and creativity and stamina are really important. After teaching my classes, it was difficult to be creative, and on many occasions I had very little stamina left. Because it was easy to lose focus on the task at hand, I really had to be mindful of how I spent the time. It wasn't just me; my partners faced the same issues -- but we never all crashed at the same time. There were always two or three team members who maintained the momentum needed to get through what we needed to do.

Attachment and Agreement

Another interesting thing about last year's collaboration was the fact that the design group had been formed the previous year (2010-11). Again, for me this was both an advantage and a challenge. Because much of the groundwork for the course was in place, we could move at a good pace in creating the nuts and bolts of the major projects/problems. But on some occasions, I felt that questioning an aspect of the work could lead the group in a different direction, unraveling the original work. Because the original work was extensive, changing course after the fact was problematic. Also, not having taught chemistry since 1998 (yikes!!!) and never having taught the biology/chemistry course, I really didn't feel comfortable questioning the vision behind it. It was much more expedient to move forward and work with the existing plan without feeling like I would be setting things back.

But that's the thing about collaboration -- you are never in a place where your ideas are the only ones, so you must be able to contribute without being too attached to the outcome. That was tough to do, and sometimes I felt trapped by the existing work. On those few occasions, however, my consolation was that refining the course would continue during implementation. And it has. We are in discussions around rearranging topics for the first year course that allow more biology content at the start of the year (one of my worries last year). I still worry if we've truly integrated the course or just split up the content into sections . . . but the work continues

Little and Big Pictures

This year I am a part of a new design team for AP biology. We meet just after lunch, can usually suspend the angst of upcoming classes, and most often have all the energy it takes to do the work at hand. The group has only three members (including me), and the work feels completely different this year. One major factor is that I’ve taught AP biology for five years now and have lots of background and experience with the essential learning statements prescribed by the College Board's new curriculum framework. That makes it so much easier to question assumptions as we lay down the bones the new course. I'm not saying it's been easy. There were definitely times when all of us got caught up in the semantics of those essential learnings, trying to decipher every word almost like an obsessive/compulsive exercise. Happily, we arrived at a more productive outlook and are more focused than ever before on creating a truly engaging course.

Collaboration with my peers has certainly pushed my thinking and my attachments to cherished methods. It has stretched me, allowed me to realize what I should hold onto and what I should let go. It's been tough, challenging -- but most of all, extremely satisfying.

Editor's Note: Visit "Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning" to stay updated on Edutopia's coverage of Sammamish High School.

A Project-Based Case Study: Sammamish High School

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Billie's picture

So thrilled for you! PBL does have many, many advantages, but the initial work can be overwhelming. I, too, have two different experiences, but they have occurred at the two different schools where I teach. They are in the same district, but have vastly different populations. One school has embraced PBL with open arms and the other views it as "noisy" and "confusing". (These are comments repeated to me by students that have heard them from the Admin.) Sadly, this comes from the top down and is a very frustrating experience for me.
I see the students at the 1st school blossoming and growing and the other school has devolved into unmotivated students who have absolutely no buy-in.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator 2014

I often see teachers who are overwhelmed when trying to change classroom practice, be it PBL, Differentiation, or something else. I encourage teachers to remember that, which they're students are learning new content and a new way of learning, they themselves are learning a new way of teaching- so the same learning cycle applies. We talk about there being a student learning cycle (in which students engage with new content, exhibit their learning, and then debrief), and a teacher cycle (in which teachers design learning experiences, coach, gather data, provide feedback). Both groups, however, need time to reflect and to transfer their learning to the next design/ engagement cycle.

We encourage teachers to start small and be mindful of their own comfort zones and teaching preferences and to realize that, over time and with experience, the complexity of the problems they ask students to solve will increase (as will their skill at figuring out new challenges). We also ask them to be clear with themselves and their team at the outset around what "successful implementation" will look like. Is it 2 big PBL units a year? 1 small project a week? (Point of reference- we say that if you are working towards 3 Challenges a year in your first year of implementation, with the goal of adding another 3 year the following year, you're on pace. But that's just us- you know your kids and your colleagues and you can be a better judge of what's appropriate.

A word of advice, though? Whatever you decide is appropriate? Divide it in half. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Good luck!

Anna's picture

I enjoyed reading this article! Project based Learning is an important tool to use as teachers. I really like Laura's comment about dividing in half whatever we decide. It is important that we give our students time to learn and not give them assignments that would be overwhelming.

It is an excellent idea to collaborate with colleagues about PBL to develop a system together. Each person has different ideas. Sharing the ideas with one another can be helpful to come up with the best choice. It also ensures that everyone is on the same page.

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