How to teach “soft skills” in project based learning

team-graphic

I have done quite a few teacher professional learning workshops on project based learning (PBL). Nearly all of them have involved telling teachers about elements of authentic PBL, how to design a ‘good’ driving question’ and the importance of formative assessment and feedback. I am currently working on another series of professional learning workshops on PBL,  but this time the team is also focusing on the “soft skills” of PBL. These soft skills include collaboration, student self-regulation, creativity, critical thinking, etc. These soft skills are included in the NSW syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum as Learning Across the Curriculum. In this blog post, I’m going to focus on collaboration.

PBL often require students to work in teams. If students are to work in teams successfully, they need to know how to collaborate. One thing I learnt very quickly in my PBL journey is that collaboration doesn’t come automatically for students. Simply putting students in groups and getting them to sit in a circle won’t teach them collaboration. If students don’t know how to collaborate, they will find the PBL experience frustrating and the teacher will find it frustrating. Like reading and writing, collaboration needs to be explicitly taught. But how?

In my PBL journey, I have found teaching students how to establish group norms, how to determine and assign roles to team members, how to backward map from timelines of due dates of tasks, and how to negotiate and compromise, to be crucial in PBL to be a successful learning experience. However, I have found the most important aspect of successful student collaboration is a safe learning environment; an environment where students trust each other, respect each other, support each other and feel comfortable enough with each other to take risks in their learning. What are the strategies to enable this? How can students be assessed and receive regular feedback on these aspects. Just like reading and writing, students need to know how they are going with their collaborative skills and what they need to do next to improve?

How do you teach collaboration in your classroom? How do you teach collaboration in PBL?

 

TeachMeet – professional learning by teachers for teachers

teachmeet-audience

This week I ran TeachMeet Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was the third TeachMeet I ran and I have lost count of the number of TeachMeets I’ve attended. I went to my first TeachMeet more than 4 years ago. I still find TeachMeets to be one of the most valuable professional learning.

TeachMeets are structured and informal gatherings of teachers and educators with the purpose of sharing good practices and professional journeys. TeachMeets are educator-driven, not organisation-driven. Presenters are not paid; they volunteer their time and expertise to share with others. They are free. They are open to everyone. They happen outside of school hours. They have a strong online community. It is these characteristics that make TeachMeets are valuable part of a teacher’s suite of professional learning.

Because TeachMeets are free and open to everyone, presenters and participants range from pre-service teachers, teachers, educators who work with schools and university academics. Teachers come from all school sectors. It is this mix of people, who are all passionate about student learning, but work in very different contexts, that enable cross-pollination of ideas. Presentations are short and sweet, 7 minutes or 2 minutes so you get lots of ideas to work on and implement with your students. I also find the strong online community valuable. Like many other TeachMeets, TeachMeet Futures had a strong Twitter backchannel. This allowed people to learn from the TeachMeet even if they were not physically there and it allowed connections to be formed amongst presenters and participants beyond the TeachMeet. It also allows the thoughts and opinions of the TeachMeet to be revisited and reflected on after the event if the tweets are curated and saved via Storify. See the TeachMeet Futures Storify as an example.

So if you haven’t been to a TeachMeet, go to one. And if have been to a TeachMeet, go to another one or host one. The power and impact of TeachMeets stems from passionate teachers and educators sharing and learning from each other.

Project NEST – professional learning with a difference


I had the privilege to be involved in ProjectNEST this week, a three-day unconference led by staff from Kurri Kurri High School with over 100 teachers from the Newcastle area participating.

The unconference was focused on project based learning, with many schools planning to implement a cross-curricular approach in open, flexible spaces with teachers team teaching. We all know there are heaps of professional learning for project based learning, but this unconference was different. I have previously blogged about the need to do teacher professional learning differently. This unconference was done differently, with impact on teacher practice and student learning. Here’s why it was different:

  • The unconference was participant driven. All the schools involved wanted to restructure learning differently to further improve student outcomes. They have chosen a cross-curricular project based learning approach. Schools and teachers identified this need and solution.
  • Participants’ needs were identified the unconference. Staff from Kurri Kurri High School designed and sent out a survey to all participants to identify their current understanding and practice in project based learning, and what they wanted to learn. More teacher professional learning needs to be like this. Instead of guessing what participants’ learning needs are, ask them before the professional learning.
  • Presenters were real teachers who have actually implemented and led project based learning. They shared their journeys in this, particularly the challenges and they overcame them. In a previous post, I spoke about how ideas are easy and implementation is hard. The presenters did not try to sell a shiny package of project based learning to teachers, telling them typical things like how we are now in the 21st century and how project based learning is going to solve everything etc etc etc. They shared authentic journeys. They shared failures. But most important of all, they shared what keeps them going in the strive to continuously improve the learning for their students. For my presentation, I made sure I was honest about my project based learning journey. When I first started,  I was doing more project orientated learning than project based learning. When I first started, I did not embed formative assessment as well as I wanted. When I first started, I did not explicitly teach students how to collaborate and set goals, which led to failures. I focused how I learnt about those failures and how they informed changes in the next projects. The other presenters did the same, emphasising the need to try new ways of teaching, take risks, evaluate and learn from failures.
  • Time was provided for participants to modify and implement the ideas they have learnt for their own contexts. The first two days of the unconference were focused on participants learning from presenters and each other. The third day was dedicated to participants working with each other to devise an action plan. The presenters were there to provide support and guidance. This kick starts the process of changing teacher practice.

And it helps when professional learning is held in a stunning location. Newcastle is beautiful.

I hope to see more professional learning like this, and I’m looking forward to following the project based journey of Kurri Kurri High School and its community of schools in the Newcastle area. The staff of Kurri Kurri High School was amazing at putting ProjectNest together.

 

How does teacher professional learning impact on student learning?


I have blogged previously about non-traditional ways of teacher professional learning from hackathons to personalised School Development Days. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about what makes successful teacher professional learning. By successful I mean professional learning that changes a teacher’s practice, that changed teaching practice is sustained so that it becomes a teaching habit and that it has impact on student learning. What elements make teacher professional learning successful in sustained changes in teaching practice?

The best professional learning I’ve attended was Grammar in Teaching. It was a course on how to teach reading and writing, focusing on how to move students’ writing from spoken-like to written-like. It was one of those professional learning courses where it did change my teaching practice, I was able to sustain that teaching practice till today and it did improve my students’ reading and writing. While the content was fantastic, that wasn’t the reason why it was successful for me. The course ran for 2 hours, once a week for 10 weeks. Each teacher was able to implement the strategies learnt in the course, reflect on it, report on it, gain feedback from other course participants and the course leaders then implement the strategies again. It was this repeated cycle of implementation, reflection and feedback that I found was the key to changing my teaching practice and sustaining it. Like Guy Kawasaki says, “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” It’s very easy to gain inspirational ideas from one-off conferences and workshops but how many teachers have the opportunity to be supported in implementing those ideas and then fine tuning the implementation so it has maximum impact on student learning? I’m not bagging out conferences. They have their place in the suite of professional learning opportunities for teachers. However, this suite should have a mixture of experiences that result in change in teaching practice, the changed practice becoming a sustained habit and an improvement in student learning.

What do you find are the best teacher professional learning? What elements of professional learning enables you to change your practice and sustain that change?

 

 

Why hackathons are the future of teacher professional learning


Yesterday I went to a OneNote Hackathon. A hackathon is basically a group of people, with similar passiona, getting together to solve problems. In the case of the OneNote Hackathon, it was a group of teachers who were passionate about using OneNote to enable improved student learning. We all had 2 minutes to pitch our problems. Problems ranged from using Staff OneNote notebooks to enhance teacher collaboration and increase productivity to creating out-of-the-box Student OneNote Class notebooks for various subjects that teachers can modify and personalise for their students. We then chose which problem we wanted to work on and spent the rest of the day working together on solutions that can be shared with everyone.


I really enjoyed the OneNote Hackathon. Not only did I learn a lot from the OneNote experts from the Microsoft Education team but also from other participant teachers. The Hackathon provided a time and space for a group of us who had similar goals to share our expertise and experience with others. We were from different school sectors, some of us taught high school or primary school or were in non-school based support roles. This enabled all of us to learn from diverse perspectives and contexts.

What I really liked about the Hackathon is the level of productivity. Unlike traditional teacher professional learning where teachers often listened passively to an ‘expert’, get some good ideas and then find they don’t have enough time or the processes to implement those ideas, hackathons let you collaborate with others to design and implement a solution. Hackathons also recognise that every teacher has something to contribute to other teachers’ learning. Just like TeachMeets, hackathons allow teachers to learn with and from each other.

It will be interesting to see how hackathons will be included in the suite of professional learning strategies available to teachers. Imagine a hackathon on the next School Development Day.

TeachMeet Kids – enabling teachers with young families to connect and share their practice

TeachMeet Kids

This week there was a TeachMeet with a difference. I organised the first TeachMeet Kids, a family-friendly TeachMeet. TeachMeets are a group of educators who come together to share their practice. Traditionally TeachMeets are held during after-school hours (between 5pm and 7pm) followed by TeachEat (dinner and drinks). I use to regularly go to TeachMeets but haven’t in the last year due to the birth of my daughter. I noticed that quite a few other educators have dropped out of the TeachMeet circles due to having children. Early evening is not a good time for teachers with young children. A few educators with young children indicated that they felt disconnected due to this.

And this thought came to me:

Why can’t we have a kid-friendly TeachMeet?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet where educators can bring their children (if they wish)?

Why can’t we have a TeachMeet that’s during the day as early evening is reserved for the dinner and bath routine for the little ones and not everyone is lucky enough to have family to look after the kids?

The result of these thoughts was TeachMeet Kids. While TeachMeet Kids was targeted at educators with young children, any educator can attend. It was held in the school holidays during the day. Educators can bring their little ones if they wanted to. The venue was kid-friendly. It was pram accessible, had pram parking, close to public transport, had car parking, had baby change rooms and baby feeding facilities. All attendees knew to expect some rowdiness because this TeachMeet will also be attended by kids.

Australian National Maritime Museum very kindly provided a free space for TeachMeet Kids. Not only that, their museum educators also took the kids around on a pirates tour.

For me, TeachMeet Kids gave me back the opportunity to connect with educators like I did pre-baby days. I think TeachMeet Kids also enables the education community to tap into the expertise of educators who have young families. I learnt so much from the presenters. From how to use Kahoot! to enhance formative assessment, enabling all students to be leaders, film-making using mobile devices and making crystal radios to what it’s like to be a museum educator and embedding selfies as a learning tool.

I am looking forward to seeing more TeachMeet Kids 🙂

What I would like from school development day

Like many of my colleagues working in NSW public schools, Term 3 is about to begin. For many of us this means school development day (SDD). SDD is a day where teachers, staff and parents engage in professional learning to further enhance student learning. SDD occurs at the start of Term 1, 2 and 3 and then on the last two days of Term 4. I value SDDs because it is a day where I can solely focus on my learning in order to better teach my students. Students do not come to school on SDDs so teachers can focus all of their efforts on learning. There are no relief work to set, no guilt over not being able to teach your classes due to attending professional learning and no classroom issues to follow-up from a day of being absent from your classes.

I greatly value the effort and commitment from the teachers who put together SDDs. It is a tough gig. I know so because I have coordinated SDDs in the past. It is extremely challenging to put together over 5 hours of professional learning that is relevant and engaging to ALL teachers. However, I have always felt something is missing from SDDs.

I guess I have always been an active learner in my professional learning. I don’t like to wait for someone to tell me what I should know. I am constantly reviewing what I need to learn and when a learning need arises, I seek out that learning almost immediately. This does mean a lot of hours spent searching and seeking help from my professional learning networks in my own time. This in turn also means I have explored a lot of things that are presented in SDD. For example, my school’s SDD last term was on literacy. I was presented with ideas and resources that I have known and used for several years. While many teachers at the school found the SDD useful, I was left feeling I wasted 5 hours of my time. I don’t want this to make me sound unappreciative. The SDD coordinators did and always do an awesome job.

What I would like from SDD is a more personalised experience. In NSW public schools, there are five SDDs in a year. It would be so awesome if just one of those SDDs allowed teachers to propose a professional learning experience that they would like to do. This could be visiting other schools, other educational institutions, collaborating with other teachers, reading educational literature, the list is endless. I visited the University of NSW during the school holidays to connect with university academics that I know can contribute to the learning of students at my school. I visited the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences and learnt so many new practical activities that I can do with my students. These site visits are perfect examples of personalised professional learning activities for SDD. I recently learnt about a book called “Independent science challenges: fascinating science projects to challenge and extend able students“. I would love to spend a SDD reading parts of the book and putting together a plan together to implement the strategies in the book.

Some people might say that all schools have professional learning funds to release teachers to do personalised professional learning like attending subject-specific conferences, etc. However, this is during teaching time and many teachers do not like to miss out on teaching time. SDD is different. It is a time where every teacher is learning. There are no students. Your learning is not distracted by a casual teacher calling you to help with your class. I might be the only teacher who feels this way, but it seems that if teachers can differentiate and create personalised learning experiences for students, why can’t teachers themselves have personalised professional learning experiences. Just one SDD.