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Leading by Doing: Why I am Using PBL to Design Professional Development


When I was first introduced to Project Based Learning it was as an offshoot to a much larger training that was provided to teachers in my (previous) district. I was in a group of classroom teachers who sought out the challenge of being a 1-to-1 iPad classroom in a school system that had previously not had this level of technology integration. The training was offered in such a way that the primary mechanism for teacher behavior change was through sparking interest and curiosity among educators. The goal being that we would feel comfortable stepping out on a limb and taking risks if we saw that there were other ways of doing things. The introduction went like a lot of professional development in a lot of places:
As you can imagine there were a lot of people who were excited to try out Project Based Learning (PBL) and I was definitely one of them. Not long before leaving the classroom, I even launched my own nascent project that I fully regret not staying in the classroom a little longer to perfect for future learners. Looking back on that experience, I would say that I was engaging in PBL lite or PBL ideation (where you really think that you are doing amazing work, but upon reflection you see that your intent was great- your execution not so much). 

The fatal flaw of course was that the idea of PBL was just that, an idea; there was no formal training in how to set up a project and ensure its quality and success. As a result, what could have been a fairly rigorous and authentic PBL experience was more of a traditional project on an mild steroid. In defense of my previous district, they have sense learned that this approach of simply introducing an idea to spark interest was probably not the most successful route and they have reformulated, repackaged, and retrained. I can't imagine it was easy to admit that flaw, own it, and then correct it, but that is the purpose of transparent and reflective leadership. It is probably also one of the reasons that I was drawn to PBL and sought out a school that embraces PBL as a way of being.

Fast forward to my experiences this year as a first year principal at a New Tech Network school that embraces PBL as the primary mode of instruction. As I have come to learn, there are a couple of models of Project Based Learning out there in the world and they each have their nuances. What I find particularly powerful about the model of PBL that the New Tech Network has developed and refined is that it continues to be strengthened by the iterative process of reflection by classroom practitioners and by network coaches and directors that are invested in the process. That said, great facilitators and great network support can only get you a part of the way there. To lead a campus in truly implementing quality PBL, I have to embrace practices that are going to ensure the success of my educators and provide them with the tools they need to continually deepen their own understanding of the model.

Given these parameters the question then becomes: how do you develop a staff in a model that you (as the new campus principal) do not have previous experience in? For me, the answer is to embrace the PBL model by designing meaningful and relevant professional learning experiences for my staff. I began with the question: what would professional development look like if I followed the PBL design format that my teachers follow and that my network advocates? To give you an idea of what PBL looks like in the New Tech Network, they have developed this very helpful graphic:



While this graphic has been extremely helpful and the network has had a number of resources that I have been able to access as I have been on this journey as a campus principal, I have found that my understanding of implementing successful and rigorous PBL has been incomplete. Thus, in the true nature of Project Based Learning, I have assigned myself the project of implementing a successful project for my staff. 

Any teacher on my campus will tell you that the successful launch of a project is quickly followed by establishing with learners what they know about the topic/project and what they need to know. For me, I have a basic knowledge of the components of PBL. I even have many exemplars of individual components of PBL as I have engaged in walkthroughs, observations, and attended critical friends sessions with my facilitators. What I do not have is the experience of developing a successful project from start to finish. Is it important for a campus principal to have prior experience in every best practice that a campus implements? If the answer to that question were a yes, then there are very few principals who could continue to meet that demand as they get further out of the classroom based on their years in administration. That said, the campus principal is still the lead educator on the campus and of course, the lead learner. Because of this, I am using my campus instructional coaches to help shape that experience for me.

In terms of creating a successful project for my staff, I begin with the "standards": what is it that I want my staff to know and to be able to do? From there, how do I design meaningful learning experiences for my staff to accomplish those standards? As I embarked on the process of following a PBL design template, I found that I had a lot of questions about the nuances of implementing a successful PBL. As in the classroom, when a learner finds that they have information that they don't know or they have a skill that they need to develop, I sought out the experts to help me gain this information or experience. For me, the experts are my campus instructional coaches. I am fortunate to have five educators on my campus that are designated as our instructional coaches and that I can go to and essentially ask them for a "workshop" when I find that my understanding of PBL is incomplete. After completing my workshop experience, I am able to apply the new learning to the specific context of my larger, campus-wide PBL.

As we continue to progress through this journey, I hope to share more about the identified goals and challenges that we are tackling, as well as the solutions and experiences that we are designing for our staff. Have thoughts on the journey? Please share them in the comments. 

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