As teacher designers in our project-based world, we know that in order to create a meaningful and deep learning experience we need to begin with the end in mind. Well, if we backwards map from our ideal student doesn’t so much of that involve starting with the ideal teacher who will be the one in direct contact with that student?
The Story of Central Coast New Tech
Our journey of creating a public school with passionate and dedicated teachers and students that our community would be proud of started about five years ago and our team worked to clearly define the answer to this initial question: What do we want our students to know and be able to do by the time they graduate from Central Coast New Tech High School? From that driving question we created and have continued to refine why we do what we do, how we do it, and the culture that supports our shared vision. We have now achieved a major milestone by graduating our first class of students and have transitioned to a new director and welcomed many new, talented facilitators to be part of our New Tech family. Our mix of fostering a positive, trusting and respectful school culture with technology-rich and relevant project-based instructional strategies has been proven to produce happy, healthy, and engaged students and staff members which can be seen in the results of numerous formal and informal data points from NTN.
Inspiration for the PD Revolution
We are now beginning the next phase of our school development journey by asking ourselves a different driving question, how does my role as an individual impact the academic and cultural success of our school? The Learning Team at CCNTH, which is comprised of a small group of teacher leaders that work with our director to strategically align professional development and supports for the whole school, was deeply inspired by Tom Vander Ark's keynote speech this past summer at the New Tech Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. We took his message about the power of personalized and project-based learning experiences to heart and began a series of deep conversations about the future of our school and the implications of designing structures that would support deeper learning for not just our students, but our staff. Afterall, we are learners, too! We are the models of what it means to be lifelong learners so shouldn’t we apply the strategies we are using for our students with ourselves...maybe even first?
Implementing Revolutionary Adult Learning
The Learning Team then began to design a staff project around this driving question, called Showing Up: A self study of active engagement & personalized professional development at CCNTH thus embedding our project based learning structures within our own professional development. We rolled this project out in the beginning of the year and just completed our mid-project reflections. After hearing the staff’s feedback and thoughts, it has been so exciting to see teachers taking ownership over their own learning! Some CCNTH teachers are completing the NTN Certified Teacher Badge Pathway, while others are furthering their learning through educational book studies. Teachers are moving in the same direction but at differentiated levels and content areas. We believe we can personalize professional development by using the Showing Up project as a structure and guidelines to make sure we are achieving the results we desire; continuous positive growth and improvement of our practice.
Here are some things we know that is guiding our personalized PD project:
Some of the things we still need to know:
Central Coast New Tech High School is part of the national New Tech Network, a group of 200 project-based schools in 29 states.
Collaboration. We know this word as a 21st century skill and something that is essential for facilitating deep, authentic experiences within project based learning. Undoubtedly, the ability to work in a team to create and produce is one of the most important traits desired by today’s world. As we create generations of students that need to be prepared for the unknown and rapidly advancing technology, teachers must discover ways to manage the collaborative process.
One of the first things we learn as practitioners of project based learning is the idea of the team contract to help facilitate effective collaboration and prevent problems from arising between team members. While team contracts are a fabulous start, we need to remember that they are simply that, a start. The real collaboration happens, or doesn’t happen, during the middle phases of the project when students are working to answer driving questions and create final products and presentations. One way to reduce frustration and the breakdown of team dynamics is to take time to pause and reflect upon the project as a process for learning. Allowing ourselves as teacher designers to build in time to guide students towards the real world applications of the content will establish, through example, the importance of collaboration as a skill that with effort and practice can grow and develop.
As facilitators of deep learning on levels beyond just content, we must help our students learn to identify problems they are experiencing. Only after we do this can we begin to expect them to work through and create solutions to their own challenges. The same way we need to regularly revisit the classroom norms we set up to build the culture of our class in the beginning of the school year, we need to help students reflect on the norms they set up in their team contracts at the beginning of a project. Allowing students to have space to create team norms at the beginning of each project is saying to them that they each matter. It helps students think about their own abilities when joining a team and can be a powerful way to help them build self confidence. One of the best ways to mindfully revisit norms set in the team contract and to manage the project process is through the use of protocols.
The most effective protocol I have found for facilitating collaboration in a deep learning environment, is the Problem Solving Protocol by the recently launched CraftED Curriculum. After using project based learning for the past 5 years as my instructional strategy, I have personally discovered the importance of building in time for student teams to meet and reflect on the way they are collaborating and managing their tasks. Just providing this time is not enough, but teaching students a structured way to communicate about the problems and challenges they are experiencing in the project is a step toward fostering true teamwork. This protocol draws on the strengths of each individual by allowing them to express concerns and then work together to identify what potentially caused the issue in the first place. The teams are asked to discuss and brainstorm potential solutions to these self-identified challenges. These solutions then turn from ideas into actionable next steps for students to follow.
In well designed, authentic projects the process of learning how to learn begins to surface. To effectively teach collaboration, we must understand it and model it for our students. We as 21st century educators do not just teach content or skills in isolation but as ingredients for humans to connect and create. Effective communication and true teamwork are key ingredients to living a happy, healthy, engaged life. When we can truly accept and internalize that our actions as teachers and role models speak louder than our words, we can begin to tap into the power of protocols as tools for teaching the process of learning. Protocols help to empower students; they take the need for the teacher to control and manage and put it in the hands of our learners. Let’s practice what we preach in project based learning and model what it means to be an effective communicator and collaborator. We learn best when we do it! Let’s be amazing facilitators of collaboration by practicing it ourselves. Leave a comment with an idea you have for what it will look like for you to really model effective communication and collaboration on your school campus.