Professional Learning

Deeper Learning—for Teachers

We can harness the engagement our students find in project-based learning in our own professional development.

February 23, 2017

Professional development. The phrase has a lot of connotations: Some may think of a trainer talking at them for a full day while others remember a fantastic and practical workshop or a meaningful conversation with a student or colleague. I see a clear parallel to the term project. Say “project” to someone, and they might recall a truly valuable experience or perhaps a complete waste of time. However, we know that when we adopt the mindset and essentials of project-based learning with students, we can improve upon existing projects or create new and better ones. Can we use PBL to improve professional development?

Our Project at Puxi Middle School in Shanghai

Our school has a real dilemma: As an international school, we have a lot of turnover among our teachers, and as a result we haven’t had a shared understanding of what our curriculum really is. New teachers come into our school and may not have access to a clear curriculum. That being said, we know that our teachers are doing amazing things with students. From full PBL projects to performance tasks, kids are engaging in a variety of valuable learning experiences. So we came up with this driving question for our PD: “What is the story of learning at Puxi Middle School?” My coaching team recently launched our project with this video:

The goal of our PD project is developing a shared curriculum. We’re working with teachers to better align content with standards, and we’ve created structures for teachers to share their work and participate in protocols to improve units, projects, and performance tasks in their classrooms. Teachers share their work through discovery cards that include descriptions, photos, and reflections from teachers and students. And we’re curating the work in an anthology and will finish it with a celebration.

Key Features

Keep the essential elements of PBL in mind to ensure that your project-based PD includes all it needs to create engagement:

  • Ensure that the project is focused on authentic work and problems.
  • Develop processes for critique and reflection, like looking at student work and tuning protocols.
  • Build in time for intentional reflection through discussion and journaling.
  • Design an overarching driving question for the PD to drive the learning.

A common mistake is to make project-based PD just another thing that teachers have to do. PBL needs to be how the PD is delivered, not an addition to it. It should include a mix of small-group instruction, collaboration, workshops, and more to ensure that teachers are supported and given the formal instruction they might need. We can use professional learning community (PLC) meetings, Edcamps, planning times, mini lessons, workshops, and more to scaffold the learning for professional development.

School and Individual Goals

Your PD project should align to the specific goals of your school—for example, literacy or curriculum alignment. The goals for our project were developing a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” and curating and celebrating the work that teachers are doing with students.

Teacher goals should also be embedded in the project: Teachers should set their own learning targets within the context of the larger district and school goals to ensure alignment and differentiation for each teacher. This allows for meaningful learning within a larger context, and also allows for personalized coaching.

Some of our teachers are focusing on unit planning or assessment, others on understanding their standards more deeply. The goals all align under the umbrella of the school-wide focus on curricular alignment.

Personalized PD goals are one way to provide voice and choice in project-based PD, but there are many others. Perhaps teachers can pick the team they work with, or choose the times when they meet as a team rather than having that mandated. Teachers can also choose the type of products they create to show their learning. In addition, teachers can choose how they want to learn—some enjoy and learn best through reading and book study, while a workshop might better serve others.

Our teachers have a common planning time every day and choose how to spend it to work toward curriculum alignment. We ask which projects, tasks, or units they want to curate and improve. And we provide workshops on topics they suggest—ranging from performance tasks to technology integration—on our official professional development days. These all support our larger goals, but more importantly meet teachers where they are.

Public Milestones and Assessments

Imagine a culminating event for project-based PD where all teachers get together and show presentations, curriculum samples, videos, reflections, websites, and more. We’re working toward that in our project, envisioning a gallery walk of the curriculum through posters, cards, and videos.

But before that, we have milestones and assessments along the way. The assessments are formative and are used in an evaluative way. They are assessments of and as learning. We’re using the discovery cards mentioned above for formative assessment, and basing coaching conversations on discovery cards chosen by the teachers.

When you design project-based PD, you should be sure to begin with the end as well as timely milestones and benchmarks in mind. Leverage self, peer, and team assessments to make the project more meaningful. These assessments are great opportunities to give and receive feedback and build a culture of collaboration.

We have an opportunity to reinvent PD using the PBL method to create not only engagement but also deeper professional learning.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)

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