Stepping back: Teachers learn how to learn - Mid-Pacific Institute

Elementary School Principal's Blog

Stepping back: Teachers learn how to learn

Posted on October 11, 2010

by Dr. Edna Hussey on October 11, 2010

In last week's letter, I explained the wise investment of time and resources into meaningful professional development for our faculty. The two professional development days on the school calendar intended for faculty schoolwide on October 8 and February 18 are so crucial to the growth of Mid-Pacific Institute's program (and ultimately, its students) that classes are suspended for these two days so that our teachers have time learning together. This past Friday, teachers worked side-by-side in mixed grade-level groups to experience project-based learning (PBL), an approach that requires several 21st-century skills such as collaboration, creativity, innovation, team work, and critical thinking. The end goal was to create a public-service announcement (PSA) to raise awareness about Mid-Pacific Institute. However, of utmost importance was the ability of each teacher to reflect on their dual roles during this experience -- as learners themselves and then stepping back as teachers who create these learning conditions in their own classrooms. In education lingo, we call this metacognition, which is the same level of engagement we ask of our students. So how did we do?

A team composed of consultant Barbara Bray, MPI's director of education technology Mark Hines, associate education technology director Bob McIntosh, the three principals, and middle school tech coordinator Brian Grantham collaborated several weeks prior to last Friday to thoughtfully plan the project experience. The PSA concept was developed as a project that could be completed by day's end and which would entail the use of technology already available to the faculty.

Through the magic of technology, 120+ teachers were asked to write reflections to several questions throughout the day. Every teacher brought a laptop and were able to log in to a website created specifically for this professional development exercise. Responses were immediately accessible to all readers so that it was fairly easy to assess group and individual learning. We asked teachers what they hoped to learn during the project:

I hope that this process will help me consider some of the challenges and rewards that come with building a project so that when I design this sort of thing for my students, I will understand what it's like to be them.

I hope to get a better sense of how students think about 'open-ended' projects. If I enter with a student's mindset of being 'spoon-fed' what's required of me, what will work to engage me in this project. Often students feel lost when they get to make too many decisions. I hope to get ideas/techniques for helping students to get engaged.

During the teachers' four-hour planning process in the morning, the principals and I observed each of the fifteen faculty groups. While all groups came to the discussion with some preliminary ideas about a theme, the most important level of engagement was deriving an inquiry or general question to develop the framework for the PSA. Based on the "driving" question and successive related questions, teachers either began to storyboard the 60-90 second PSA or discussed even further the implications of their inquiry. Some groups delayed discussion about the PSA and worked instead on developing ground rules for collaboration and understanding first how a group problem solves together. Establishing the basis of the inquiry is the most important aspect of project-based learning. As parents of preschoolers or elementary students, you already know that the inquiry learning process is the approach embraced by all of our faculty. We asked teachers again to reflect on their learning process during the morning --

Everyone feels comfortable to share ideas and is respectful and listens to the ideas of others. We have been able to discuss differing ideas and come to consensus. Everyone is open to hearing everyone's ideas and do what needs to be done to bring the project together. Everyone also seems to understand the importance of the process, not just completing the product.

The group is communicating very well. I'm proud that people are constructing their ideas based on the communication of a positively critical idea, from a teachers perspective, and for the teachers as an audience, keeping the assignment in mind. When there was a difference in opinion, they chose to go with the more persuasive/engaging idea that invites the audience to think. It is going well because we are focusing on the process, even though the worries of getting the PSA done came up, we acknowledged how this might be a crossroads for students, and how should we proceed.

This Wednesday, the entire teaching faculty, preschool through high school, will gather in Bakken auditorium to view all 15 PSA's. We will celebrate our collaboration and reflect on what we learned individually and as a school community. Improving student learning by improving instructional practice is our quintessential goal as a school. In talking with the preschool and elementary faculty, I learned that they not only appreciated working with their colleagues but also felt hopeful that their students will experience more and better as they matriculate through middle school and high school. It will continue to be an amazing learning process to witness and experience!

For our children,

Edna L. Hussey