I love my current role as an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School. It is a complex role that requires constant reflection. I’m always thinking about how a coaching conversation went, how I can improve, and how I fit into larger systemic goals and structures. I’m coaching a lot of things, one of which is effective Project Based Learning. Regardless of where teachers may fall in terms of their PBL Teaching, we can create effective structures to facilitate amazing PBL experiences. Here are some of my “lessons learned” so far in that role and what we might consider as we coach effective PBL for all teachers and students.

Build the Culture for Coaching

students in class reviewing a project

This is of course goes without saying, but it is important to remember that while coaching may seem normal and useful to some, it might be new and uncomfortable for others. A culture for coaching requires that teachers:

  • See coaching as non-evaluative, and that we all have a growth mindset when it comes to improving our teaching practice.
  • See collaboration and communication as “who we are” and not another meeting or “thing.”
  • Be open to feedback and comfortable giving feedback to others.

It is also important to clarify what coaching is and is not. I enjoy this blog by Peter DeWitt that uncovers some of the misunderstandings of coaching like “Coaches are compliance officers,” or “Only struggling teachers need coaches.” I had my colleagues read it as well as another blog, “5 Reasons We Need Instructional Coaches.”

I start to build this culture by modeling feedback or dilemma protocols in staff meetings in a fishbowl method so that teachers became more comfortable talking about practice and student work. I also did more “light” team building activities. The consultancy protocol used in BIE’s PBL 101 workshop is an excellent protocol to continue using in staff meetings and other professional development days.

Set Goals and Devise A Plan

Before jumping first into very specific goals, hold a coaching conversation about PBL to seek further clarity. Coaches should practice pausing and paraphrasing to make sure they get clarity around what is going well and what is challenging in facilitating PBL. After that it might be appropriate to sit down with a more specific tool to focus the goal setting process such as the Project Based Teaching Rubric. Just as we might have students reflect and set goals with a rubric, teachers can do the same. The rubric helps us get more concrete, moving from a big topic like “Assessing Student Learning” to something more specific like “Using formative assessment often to inform instruction.” Similarly, instead of working on “Managing Activities,” a teacher might focus on “creating realistic schedules, checkpoints and deadlines.” As long as the rubric is seen as non-evaluative, teachers and coaches can sit down and set goals together and then figure out a plan.

Provide Voice and Choice

Just as we model voice and choice with students, we should do the same with our teachers. They deserve voice and choice in how they learn to better implement PBL. After all, all teachers are in different places in their professional growth. Perhaps teachers need a planning session for a project. Or they might need to unpack standards to ensure alignment. Teachers also value observing each other implement specific milestones of a PBL project. I experimented with a PBL Coaching Menu and found that teachers enjoyed not only the choice itself, but that the choices had differing levels of commitment. By offering voice and choice, you can create a variety of entry points into coaching.

Create Cohorts Connected to Project Based Teaching

As teachers settle on goals and their choices, it might be appropriate to form a small cohort of teachers. It allows for more focused work as a coach, and builds the culture of smaller team collaboration. These cohorts might be formed based on goals or simply because a certain number of teachers chose to venture into a more long-term coaching cycle. One benefit we have found is that having cohorts allows for meaningful peer observation and learning walks, as there is trust in the team and they value each other’s feedback.

Model PLC Collaborative Norms

Although you might not be a Professional Learning Community school, there are many great practices to borrow and use to support collaborative PBL growth. Agendas create a structure and purpose for meetings, and working agreements help teams determine guidelines for how they will operate, such as “silence cell phones” or “send agenda out before meeting.”  Working agreements are not to be confused with norms. We operate in our teams using the 7 Norms of Collaboration which include “Pausing, Paraphrasing, and Presuming Positive Intent.” We spent time learning about and practicing them specifically.

Provide Strategy Sessions/ Workshops on Project Based Teaching

BIE’s PBL 201 workshops focus on topics related to the Project Based Teaching Rubric. Similarly, coaches might offer more formal professional development on specific aspects of the rubric such as “Scaffold Student Learning” and “Build the Culture.” I recently offered a short strategy session on “Assessing Student Learning” which focused on the first indicator about project products and sources of evidence where we explored task design and unpacking standards.

Curate and Celebrate

One of the key pieces of our current PD project is to curate and celebrate the work teachers are doing, many of which are amazing PBL experiences. We have decided to curate and celebrate the work through Discovery Cards (an image from one is shown above), gallery walks, an anthology, ongoing reflection protocols, and a culminating celebration as we close the project for the year. It is important to share the work publicly but do so in a way that celebrates the work of PBL and more importantly the thinking and reflection that teachers engage in. Celebration isn’t just about the final product, it is about the process.

This list is by no means a comprehensive PBL coaching framework or program, but it can inform the creation of one within the context of specific schools and districts. Teachers need constant support in their implementation of PBL, and it should be planned with intention and clarity.