Collaborating on Project-Based Learning
A school-based professional learning community (PLC) is well structured to enhance all aspects of project-based learning.
Many schools have structures to support the work of a professional learning community (PLC). Teams have dedicated time to plan together, analyze data, and plan interventions and enrichments. They collaborate to support student achievement and foster a sense of shared responsibility for all students.
This culture and work can enhance the implementation of project-based learning (PBL), but teachers may struggle to see how their PLC can support PBL, instead perceiving the PLC and PBL as separate aspects of their work. However, there are specific ways to make them work in harmony. A project cycle aligned to elements of the PLC can ensure greater success of PBL in terms of both teacher and student learning.
Improving PBL Implementation With a PLC
Learning Together: One piece PLCs that is often set aside is the sacred time to learn together as team. The whole process of the PLC fosters each individual’s professional growth, but teams need to create time to learn together. This might include examining short readings, videos, or resources as a group.
This shared learning time can be used to focus on aspects of PBL. Perhaps a team learns more about designing effective projects, or reads an article about implementation and assessment. This might come out of team goals for the year, or from a reflection on a previous project. This learning can only enhance the teachers’ future PBL projects.
Collaborative Planning: PLC teams plan high-quality instruction and assessment. This is a natural fit for PBL as teams can plan the project together. Specific planning components of PLC work enhance the project planning: By unpacking standards, teams can ensure that the project is clear on the assessment targets and that they have a shared understanding of student achievement. PLC teams are also well suited to planning assessments in a project, both formative and summative, including major products and milestones.
In addition, teams can plan the general lessons they feel all teachers will need to teach. It’s important in this process to trust both the team and the individual teachers, in considering what does and does not need to be planned together—this will allow the individual teachers to have autonomy and to experiment within the context of the project implementation.
Critique and Project Tuning: Many schools require all projects to be tuned before implementation. Project tuning is a great way to depersonalize instruction, get feedback from colleagues, and promote collaboration across different teams.
Protocols are nothing new in PLC work, and are leveraged consistently. To tune a PBL project, a protocol is used for feedback before the project is implemented. Once initial planning has occurred, teachers should complete a tuning protocol. This can occur in planning periods, before or after school, or at faculty meetings—one round can take 20 to 30 minutes.
Looking at Student Data and Work: A critical component of the work of PLCs is examining student work. By looking at student work, we share collective responsibility for all students in a course, and identify students who are ready for enrichment as well as students who need intervention. There are many protocols for examining student work out there, so teams can select or develop an appropriate one for their own use.
While a team is implementing a PBL project, a major project milestone or formative checkpoint is a great opportunity to come together to examine student work. As teachers examine the data, they can also identify teaching strategies that are particularly effective. For example, it might become apparent that one class has been more successful than another at this point, which becomes an opportunity for teachers to learn from each other.
Differentiation and Intervention: While differentiation is occurring consistently during a PBL project, teachers can also plan more formal interventions and enrichment opportunities following their analysis of student work and data.
For example, teachers might use a “stacked classroom” approach if there is more than one teacher for a course or grade level—the different teachers can provide specific lessons for students depending on their need. Or the PLC can plan small group instruction or interventions with the help of specialists.
It’s important to remember that this about more than the students who aren’t doing well—students who need a challenge and enrichment in the project can also be identified by the PLC, and steps can be taken to meet their needs.
Reflection and Celebration: At the close of the PBL project, it’s important to carve out time to reflect on the effectiveness of the project as a whole. Teachers might dialogue on specific guiding questions, or journal about them and then share out. PLC teams can use this time to capture these reflections and celebrate their success.
This is also an opportunity to set new team goals or monitor progress on existing ones. We should take time to celebrate both student learning and teacher learning.
PBL and PLCs go together very well. The work of the PLC can improve the overall implementation of a project and drive future improvements as well. Teachers working together can do this work, and instructional coaches can support it as well.