Working Together for Your Best Year of PBL

August 12, 2016

By Alix Horton


I had a great time at our New Tech Annual Conference. I can honestly say it was the best year yet, but it took some reflecting to figure out why, exactly, it was so amazing. I was working with a great team of New Tech facilitators and school staff in the Elementary Principles and Practices sessions, modeling elementary PBL and helping teachers design a project. I love working with amazing New Tech facilitators and school staff, of course, but I also knew there was more to it than that. I puzzled and pondered and reflected for a bit, and then it hit me- there was really great synergy and professional collaboration in the room. It felt like a network of new teachers working and learning together.

I think that awesome feeling of working together with meaning came down to 3 key things: 3 things which I think could make your upcoming year collaborative and purposeful too.

  1. Dive into your work as if you were an enthusiastic group of second graders.

We simulated a 2nd grade project in which students designed a playground for participants, and one of the science activities was to observe the properties and draw conclusions about typical playground surfacing materials. I was busy handing out baggies of pea gravel, sand, slightly stinky mulch, and wood chips to groups of teachers, but even though I was running around the room, I could see teachers’ interest engage. Teachers dove into making observations and drawing conclusions, wrinkling their noses at the stinky mulch and noting that the pea gravel seemed awfully hard, just like curious 2nd graders would. They argued which material would be best and built on each others’ ideas. And then it felt like they carried that energy into their project design in the afternoon- making observations and learning, drawing conclusions and asking questions about this new, kind of strange thing- Project Based Learning.

I’d encourage you to approach your year of PBL with the same collaborative enthusiasm- What do you observe? What conclusions can you derive? And how can you jump in enthusiastically, like a group of inquisitive elementary school kids, while still taking time to ponder and reflect with your peers?

2. Make your learning visible to others so you can learn from each other.

One of my favorite moments in the session was when teachers wrote their Driving Questions on trifold sheets of cardstock and then displayed them. I saw folks taking pictures of other driving questions for their own later inspiration and I saw participants pausing, saying, “Hmm…” and returning to revise their DQs. As teachers revised their questions, they rewrote them on the same cardstock. It took a little bit to articulate why this felt so powerful, but once I thought about it, it made sense. There’s something really important about making learning and growth visible in a way that shows us what we’ve done but also helps us learn from each other.

We actually made a conscious effort to make learning and progress visible through the project simulation and project planning work time. In addition, we used a couple of project visuals so teachers could see where they were in the context of a larger process and mark their own progress.


I’d also encourage you to think about how you can share and learn from each other’s growth in a way that’s visible this year, and what visual ways you might articulate your progress within a process in order to enable learning from each other.

3. Have fun learning, together.

My absolute favorite moment from the session was playing NTN Vocabulary “Taboo”. It’s played in a similar way to the official Taboo game- your goal is to help your partner guess a particular vocabulary word without saying some related words.  You can see the playing cards here. As our participants played, there was a buzz of laughter and noise as partners helped each other guess vocabulary words like “agency” and “benchmark.” There were also some loud “Nooo!” sounds when I covered up our Word Wall halfway through, but participants quickly rallied and redoubled their efforts. It was fun, it was silly- and it helped show participants that they did know some of those crazy PBL terms. Doing Project Based Learning can get hard, and I hope you take some time this year to be silly, to enjoy, to celebrate what you know and have learned.

I hope this year you can take on the work of doing Project Based Learning and being a New Tech School with the curiosity of elementary students, that you’ll share your learning and growth in visible ways, and most of all, that you’ll take a little time out to enjoy this great year of learning, together, as a team.