Thursday, March 12, 2015

The PBL Mindset for Leadership

J curve of implementation
In a recent blog post (How the Culture of Achievement is Hurting Our Schools) I noted the dangers of chasing achievement and scores in lieu of creating a culture focused on teaching and learning. If we're truly trying to create a school and culture where students and teachers are excited, engaged and empowered by their work and thinking it will take more than a workshop or conference trip or even a few touches throughout the year. In fact, that type of limited engagement can be more problematic in terms of student and teacher performance and trust. As a believer in quality Project Based Learning as a transformative model it's important to note the same dynamic and realize that PBL done poorly can leave you at the bottom of the J curve that research shows is a typical progression of implementation as teachers refine their practice.

Implementing quality PBL takes at least 3-5 years but it also takes consistent guidance, work and leadership over that time. Teachers cannot operate as rogues and cowboys with an occasional refresher. PBL is a major shift for most schools and it's processes have to be embedded in the school culture in ways that strengthen and support the work of teachers and students. Principals and other administrators are busy people who have stakeholders coming at them from all sides. These distractions can take the focus away from what Sir Ken Robinson notes as the most important anchors (14:24 mark), teaching and learning.

With this in mind it's essential for leadership to engage in the work in much the same way they expect from their teachers. The best examples of leaders I've seen have participated in the PBL workshop alongside their teachers and used PBL to engage with their staff throughout the year. Creating a PBL mindset includes democratizing the culture by encouraging questioning and inquiry around purpose, product and audience. Strong PBL leaders learn alongside their teachers and use the thinking behind Driving Questions (How might that...?) to flesh out what they need to know and do. They utilize the PBL process with staff development and to solve real problems in much the same way teachers would with their students.

I have too often worked with schools and teachers where the administrators are running in and out of the workshop or support visit tending to their always growing list of administrative duties. While understandable, it raises the question of how well they'll be able to support the work of their teachers going forward and if this is the approach they'll take over the school year. Without this support and the understanding that real change and shift takes time and steady, focused work the chances of the quality implementation are greatly reduced. Leaders with a PBL mindset understand that focusing on achievement and scores comes with a low ceiling. Instead they realize that the real growth potential is in refining teaching and learning by trusting teachers and equipping them with tools that allow collective critique and improvement of the craft. This might feel uncomfortable just as it does for teachers to relinquish "control" to their students but it's actually quite liberating and powerful.

Interested in implementing PBL at your school? Visit the PEC web site.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Inquiry in Education and PBL - A More Beautiful Question

Last week I had the pleasure of talking with Warren Berger, the author of A More Beautiful Question via Google Hangouts on Air. This discussion coincided with Twitter's #PBLChat for the first ever (that I know of at least) mashup between Google Hangouts and Twitter chat. If you missed it I've embedded the archived video here followed by a few reflections and takeaways.

I believe in the power of inquiry to foster deeper learning and often work with teachers, coaches and facilitators to improve their questioning practices. Great questioning is important because it can stimulate higher-order thinking and vital metacognition and as Warren points out early on in our conversation, questioning should not be limited to teachers. When we make the shift to students utilizing effective questioning we empower them to take control of their own learning and help create a more democratic growth-mindset culture. One simple approach Warren mentions in his book and we discuss around the 7:48 mark is the "Why?, What if? and How?" method. I like how this fits with project based learning as we strive to create an authentic and engaging purpose for student work and thinking. Starting with the Why? it's important to create some cognitive dissonance or reason for the project and an Entry Event is a great way to do this. One example I used as a government teacher when asking students to make budget policy recommendations to a Senator was to simply show this version of the National Debt Calculator. Instantly my 9th grade students starting asking questions begging me to click on certain numbers and I knew had a hook. We might see the What if? show up in PBL in the Driving Question as we outline the challenge for the students. While it's essential for teachers be clear about the product, purpose and audience sometimes a "What if?" DQ works great for engagement purposes. Finally, students need to engage in the How? as they dive into figuring out what they Need to Know (and Do!) to complete their challenge.

credit: A More Beautiful Question
One of the unfortunate realities we discussed around the 15:39 mark is the drop-off in questioning in children with age. As children become students it's clear that they pose less questions, but why? Are questions relegated to a background distraction while answers are pushed to the forefront of importance? Warren makes a couple of great suggestions for remedying this including intentional strategies for making questioning, not answers, the goal. He cites the work of the Right Question Institute (watch for a future Hangout with them!) and their Question Formulation Technique as a great resource and offers up the query, "what if we gave tests where the answers were actually questions?" I love this type of pursuit as a paradigm shift but also as an equalizer in the classroom. Many students fear giving the wrong answer but fewer fear asking a bad question, especially when they are valued. Examining questions the way Warren and the QFT suggests is a great way to get at the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy.

As we neared the end of our time I asked Warren (48:13 mark) to discuss the Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett's thinking that scaffolding around problems should be supported by questions. What he offered was a perfect fit for In-Depth Inquiry in PBL as he noted that complex problems have to be solved in stages. We start with a basic Inquiry List of what we Need to Know but as the components of the problem show themselves we're faced with new and often deeper questions. It's so important for teachers to leverage the use of the Inquiry/Need to Know List throughout a project to get at deeper learning of the content and skills necessary for the challenge. Many of those may not bubble to the surface initially but should after repeated dives into the issues and questions.

This just scratches the surface of our discussion, I encourage you to view the entire discussion yourself and order Warren's book, A More Beautiful Question. For more on Inquiry in Education visit the PEC web site.