Edgeucation Blog

How to Coach PBL Teachers to Succeed

March 29, 2017

Thom Markham

As PBL continues its trajectory toward becoming the majority method of instruction, another job not yet invented will come to the fore: The PBL Coach.

In some form, this job exists now.  But the position is filled primarily by teachers who succeeded at PBL in their classroom or instructional coaches recruited from traditional classrooms who lack experience with PBL itself. Both approaches are largely ineffective. Grafting traditional lesson planning onto the PBL design process is impossible, and creating successful projects as a teacher requires skills of analysis quite different from coaching novice teachers to do the same.

In effect, schools generally lack a team of middle managers with an identified skill set to provide solid coaching to PBL teachers. As PBL moves forward, this gap will become more noticeable. Rather than fill the gap by offering more workshops for teachers, a more efficient and affordable route is to develop a trained cadre of coaches.

What basic requirements enable a coach to do the job well? Most fundamental for any PBL coach is to ‘think like a designer.’ A project is an extended learning experience planned through a process of vision, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Rather than a linear exercise, PBL relies on a holistic design process in which many variables mesh to create the authentic, unique flavor of a project. Unlike lesson plans, finding exact exemplars to copy is near impossible. Plus, the metrics and outcomes are different, and knowing if the project will ‘succeed’ is difficult. With that mindset established, coaches can maximize their impact by using a nine-step coaching protocol to help co-create powerful, high quality projects:

Start with empathy. Effective coaching always begins with empathy, but it’s critical for the mind meld necessary for collegial project design. First, every project is new and different—and it simply takes time to get traction on the planning process. The early stages of planning can drag, stall, and take wrong turns, making principals and coaches often feel impatient about wasted time. Second, it is empathy that fuels the design process itself. Unless coaches approach teachers with the respect, humility, and open mind that establishes the trustful relationship and deep conversation necessary for the project to unfold through ‘uncovering’ and thoughtful probing, teachers end up rushing the design process and planning mediocre projects.

Be a great listener. Again, a trained coach follows proven protocols: Good eye contact, sincere listening, and a willingness to engage in appreciative inquiry into a challenging task. In the beginning stages, true listening rather than ‘waiting to respond’ is key. It is amazing how many teachers harbor deep ideas than can be turned into terrific projects. But it’s not easy to articulate these ideas; it takes a sharp listener to recognize and surface good ideas. One key is to trust that this vision exists somewhere in the planner’s mind—and the coach’s job is to help discover it.

Seek the True North. As the conversation proceeds, eventually teachers will reveal not only the clues to their deeper intentions, but the core idea that is driving them in the project. A good coach probes for this. I call this the true north, the one or two sentence descriptor that captures what a teacher wants students to appreciate and learn by the end of the project. Surfacing the true north comes through asking reflective questions as the vision emerges. How will your students act at the end of the project? What will they realize? How will it change them? What do you really want them to know and do?

Crystallize the idea. Once the true north comes clear, it’s time to shape the project by honing in on the exact goal. I’ll offer a recent example: A teacher wanted to design a science project around waves of energy, and her true north was clear: She wanted students to appreciate the fact that energy waves drive modern technology, and she expected them to learn the basic science of waves. But beyond that point the project was unclear. For a coach, that’s the perfect time to jump to the end of the project and discuss potential student products. A museum exhibit? A future product that uses wave technology? A marketing and information piece that educates the public about the science of waves?

Refine the DQ. Unfortunately, many projects hang on a mediocre Driving Question that does not drive deeper learning or capture the authentic challenge. For example, in the above project on energy waves, the teacher suggested this question: “How can we learn about the importance of energy waves?” The answer is simple: Read books, listen to a lecture, or watch a You Tube video. Why so simple? Because it’s not the real question to be answered, which in the end was: “How do we, as fourth graders, educate an adult audience about the science that makes our modern devices work?” That’s the authentic, demanding challenge, not the least because few adults know how their devices work. A tip for coaches: To test the Driving Question, ask What is the problem to be solved?

Require PBL best practices. High quality PBL distinguishes projects from project based learning, meaning the design always includes a Driving Question, public sharing of products, teamwork and collaboration (whether teams or cohorts), iterative design and draft opportunities, and performance rubrics for 21st century skills. These are not optional; they are proven pieces of the process that work together to bring coherence and clarity to a project. A good coach does not let a PBL project backslide into an ordinary project by omitting key best practices.

Add power to the project. Once the framework is established, a coach should focus on the middle of a project. Many PBL teachers default to traditional teaching practices (which may be fine – see the comments below). But coaches should insist on student-focused processes here. When and how will student teams share drafts and prototypes? How will they learn feedback protocols? How will they improve their products so the teachers see the best work at the end? A key guideline here: Think engineering process, even if it’s a social studies project.

Be flexible about PBL. A team of coaches asked me recently: How do we help K -3 teachers design projects so that students learn basic math and reading skills? A good coaching response: Teach math and reading. Knowing when to include direct instruction and traditional teaching methods is a necessary part of the designer’s role. Teachers know how to teach certain skills and knowledge necessary for students—and PBL is not the answer to every learning need. Also, if teachers are besieged by testing and need to include content-based instruction as part of PBL, give them permission. We do not yet have the luxury of purity.

Use a Solid Planning Form or Design Guide. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the plan must be committed to paper or captured digitally. The advantage of a comprehensive design form is that it forces a teacher-designer to examine all aspects of the design, including remembering to address key standards. So, the main tip for coaches: Don’t settle for a simple project ‘capture’ form to provide a thumbnail of a project. That’s a recipe for a project with a lot of holes.

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