Professional Learning

Using Project-Based Learning in Professional Development for Preschool Teachers

Professional growth experiences should be designed to amplify collaboration and active exploration.

June 13, 2022
SDI Productions / iStock

Teachers who are taught to critically think together learn how to use collaboration to support children’s individual abilities and needs. Promoting this type of thinking can be embedded into teacher preparation programs and then continue into the workplace as professional development. More often, however, skill-building experiences for preschool teachers are designed as one-time learning experiences, such as individual assignments or workshops, that can feel isolating.

Select the Design for Professional Learning

Project-based learning (PBL) is a collaborative learning strategy that can help preschool teachers bridge theory and practice. The approach brings teachers together in a questioning culture to solve complex problems. Posed questions and challenges can promote active exploration, critical thinking, and problem-solving around real-world dilemmas, when dedicated time with others is provided.

Alone, however, PBL doesn’t explicitly facilitate perspective taking. Design thinking is an analytic and creative process that relies on the active and ongoing consideration of human needs. Blending PBL and design thinking is an effective way for preschool teachers to collaboratively modify and adapt curriculum for their students’ specific needs.

Build a Structure to Encourage Collaborative Thinking

Teachers are likely to engage in professional learning experiences that are supported by leadership, focused, inquiry-driven, collaborative, and founded in trust. Experiences that build teachers’ connection around a shared aim can also empower continued learning and practice. Including a spotlight challenge—where preschool teachers can conduct research, formulate plans of action, and share them with their colleagues can be an impactful way to structure PBL for professional learning.

Parameters that guide and encourage critical collaborative thinking include:

  • Focus: Review a real-world problem.
  • Human-centered: Consider the perspectives of those involved.
  • Strengths: Reflect on personal experiences, abilities, and knowledge.
  • Research: Draw on prior knowledge and learning from others (e.g., evidence-based practice).
  • Collaborate: Assume agency and share responsibilities to co-design a solution.
  • Problem-solve: Consider the solution from your position. For example, “I haven’t worked with a family of a child with a disability,” or “I’m a parent of a child with a disability.” Ask questions to understand.

Rather than assume that teachers know how to connect, question, and collaborate, build progression into the professional learning session to help them practice a human-centered approach:

  • Guide teams to review provided perspectives. Show contrast by sharing a family perspective and a teacher perspective on the same problem.
  • Prompt individual teachers to consider their own perspectives. Consider team members’ individual positions. What are the priorities, questions, and concerns in this scenario?
  • Encourage teams to recognize others’ perspectives. Share individual perspectives and desired outcomes among team members.
  • Direct the whole group to co-construct perspectives. Teams can co-create likely perspectives and desired outcomes for each of the individuals involved in the problem.

Review ground rules at the start of each session to help teachers practice and develop norms around group expectations:

  • Lead with facts. Use facts to back up your ideas, and hold others accountable for doing the same.
  • Disagree with compassion. When disagreeing with someone, take time to consider their point of view before responding. Use facts to explain why you disagree, and never attack anyone personally.
  • Take your time. It’s always OK to pause and think about what you want to say. Don’t be uncomfortable in the silence—embrace it as an opportunity to formulate your thoughts.
  • Strive for growth. After creating, asking, and answering questions, take time to reflect on what new ideas you heard, whether anything changed your mind, what you’re curious about, etc.

Facilitate Transformative Learning

Designate a leader who can skillfully facilitate critical thinking and dialogue within and across teams. The conversation can be focused on using Jack Mezirow’s transformative lens: “Learners need practice in recognizing frames of reference and using their imaginations to redefine problems from a different perspective.”

Leaders can begin each challenge by posing a focus question and then move teachers into teams to co-design a solution. To accommodate learning needs, each team will need a shared workspace. In-person workspaces might include individual or team notebooks, poster board and markers, or a wall and Post-its. Google slides, Jamboard, or structured tables in a Google document are useful online workspaces.

Teams will need ample time to talk, ask questions, review concepts, and search for information. It’s important for facilitators to resist the urge to contribute to brainstorming unless a team requests clarification around a concept. They can, however, remind team members to assume responsibility across challenges by rotating through recorder and reporter roles. If teams appear to be struggling to identify a solution, facilitators can prompt them to identify commonalities that could bridge the gap.

When the whole group reconvene, reporters from each team can share solutions and the perspectives the team considered. Team members can be encouraged to elaborate during this discussion via video, chat (for online workspaces), or through writing in their shared group space. This latter action is an intentional way to encourage participation among those who may not feel comfortable assuming the reporter role.

It’s vital that leaders encourage participants to demonstrate explicit active listening strategies throughout the conversation and positively reinforce teachers’ use of ground rules. Leaders can also invite questioning from specific lenses that teachers would encounter in their work designing individualized programming for young children, such as as a parent of a child with a disability or a specialist who hasn’t interacted with the child and family yet.

Professional Learning Has Real-World Applications

PBL and design thinking can promote preschool teachers’ critical thinking around real-world issues they will likely encounter. Questions posed during the professional learning sessions can simulate real-world collaborative thinking, while ground rules promote discourse and perspective-taking. Invitations to consider different scenarios encourage teachers to recall their experiences and apply knowledge, while whole group discussions—through skilled facilitation—can improve their reflexive thinking on proposed solutions:

  • Who was involved?
  • What assumptions were made?
  • Were all perspectives considered?
  • Were design solutions grounded in the evidence?
  • What additional information would be helpful or necessary for successful co-design?

Facilitators can check in with teachers following each spotlight challenge or at routine points during the year to get feedback about the professional learning experience. Some will appreciate the space to connect, question, and collaborate. Some will be surprised by being prompted to consider themselves as parents in the design process; which encourages reflection on implicit and explicit biases and their positive or negative influence on teaching practice. Ultimately, all will have had an opportunity to connect and co-design in ways they can carry forward in their practice.

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Filed Under

  • Professional Learning
  • Design Thinking
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Pre-K

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