If you’ve ever seen infants grab hold of a new object, you’ll know the first thing they do is squeeze it, twist it, bang it, smell it, and probably taste it. This inclination to explore - to get up close, to touch, to inspect, never leaves us, and is integral for learning. Similarly, when you want to learn something, you do a fair amount of exploration. Prior to purchasing a phone, let’s say, you’ve probably gone online, where there is a massive amount of information in a variety of forms: text, video, images, audio. After looking at product videos, reviews, illustrations, and pictures, the next stop would be into a phone store to take a look at phones in person. And not just one, probably lots of phones. That’s because we as learners need not just one model, but lots of models. And the more we can interact with those models to explore them, the more we’ll learn. As a matter of fact, this exploration is a well documented phase of the learning cycle: the more we explore, the more we understand.
Recently, elementary principals, teacher leaders, district leaders, instructional coaches, intervention specialists and elementary parent facilitators of SLUSD rode a PBL Fun Bus to take a tour of Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, California in order to deepen our own learning about PBL through exploration. We wanted to get up close in a model PBL school, look in the classrooms, check out instructional materials, talk to students, parents, teachers and leaders of that school, and ask questions so that we could develop a better understanding of PBL. Here are some of our takeaways from this visit:
Coherence and Visibility
Every part of Katherine Smith Elementary was in alignment with its core principles and habits of 21st century learners, and this alignment was visible everywhere you looked. Classrooms had posters aligning the habits to the academic standards students learned in their PBL projects; staff and parents practiced and used these habits as criteria for decision making in the classroom and across the school. Students, who had leadership roles as guest ambassadors or tech geniuses, reflected on their personal growth in these roles using the habits. Even the art on the walls embodied the habits that would prepare students for college and career.
Additionally, teachers and students made their learning process visible through artifacts hanging on all of the walls of a classroom. From project walls to student work, we could immediately determine the depth and breadth of learning that was taking place in the classroom.
Culture of Learning
Through conversations with staff of Katherine Smith, we learned of a critical philosophy that drives their culture: everyone is a learner. One of our San Leandro staff members noted “the commitment to PBL that all of the staff shares together. The amount of collaboration and coherence that is going on at K.S. is astounding. I was also impressed with their humility, and how honest they are about the fact that making mistakes is a part of the learning process. As educators, we often ask our students to show that level of comfort, but many adults themselves fail to acknowledge their own mistakes. Hearing from them that it is okay for your first PBL to be less-than-stellar was really freeing and encouraging.” Families, teachers, staff and students are all seen as important stakeholders, and are provided with multiple opportunities to participate, learn and lead.
We left the experience feeling satisfied and energized. For many of us, developing a picture of what PBL is and is not was helpful, but just hearing that “we’re on our way” was soothing. This visit was a chance for our SLUSD team to explore and calibrate, to check in on our own definitions and experiences, to see something that has possibly only existed on paper, right up close in person.
For some of our staff, next steps included sharing photos and new understandings with colleagues; for others, connecting to families or finding a time to complete their own PBL projects in the Spring. For all of us, new, deeper questions have emerged, and a sense of excitement to continue on this journey.
In a nutshell, Project Based Learning replicates how we learn as people: some event acts as a spark plug, causing us to ask a question, which sets us on a path to learn. Along the way we share our learning with our peers, and as we dialogue, read, watch videos, or study artifacts, our learning deepens. In professional settings, our learning culminates in a product we create, whether it be a presentation, a model, or a report. Usually, we can't do this without partners. After all, humans are social beings - and we do better when we share.
Here's a concrete example: in the moments following an important societal event - whether it be the newest episode of your favorite show, or a crazy political incident, what is the first you do? You turn to talk to someone about it. You process it. You share your view and hear the view of another person. You go to learn more, you think, and the cycle repeats. That's learning in a nutshell; so it's perfect that teachers -our learning professionals- are doing the same.
We're finding out that learning reflection; talking about what we’ve learned lets us continue processing, while the opportunity to have questions asked, and to hear other people talking about our own ideas allows us to continue processing it once again. It's like panning for gold: moving the collection of ideas through a sieve leaves only the good stuff that you want. When students come home from school and parents sift through their stories with questions and prompts like “tell me more about,” the golden nuggets of the day become visible. Here's one of our teachers, Steve Craig of Washington Elementary, talking about the power of the protocol in developing his idea for a project:
What stands out about his experience is how he was able to make sense out of his ideas just by sharing and listening. He was no longer alone in this work, and the protocol he was referring to took only 15 minutes. In that time he was able to move through multiple phases of learning to make sense of his project idea. No instructor stood in front of him telling him how to fix his project. No one gave him a formula he needed to follow. Yet he learned deeply, from and with his peers, in a way that's very normal for us to learn - through conversation. It was only through telling his story in this way that he was able to see what was missing.
So what does this mean for our teachers and our students as a whole? It means there's huge opportunity for students to learn like this as well: to be engaged in conversation with peers, to learn in phases, to develop and refine their ideas over time. Protocols, while not a silver bullet, help us identify pieces that might be currently missing from the story of our teaching practice. As a component of high quality projects, protocols allow for summary, reflection, synthesis of information, and application - all higher order thinking skills beneficial for retention and deeper learning.
This is exactly the type of deep learning we want in San Leandro Unified. Steve, along with 400 of his colleagues, are all engaged in this work. It's only a matter of time until our students come home with their own protocol stories. And when they do, you'll know what's not missing in San Leandro anymore.