Education is changing. Teachers and leaders are figuratively and literally “face-planting” into how to smoothly deliver classroom learning in a 100% digital world. It’s a paradigm shift that is causing major changes in teacher PD across the country. In fact, a national survey completed this month by the Learning Counsel of 708 education leaders found that the number one issue preventing adoption of digital curriculum and content is classroom pedagogy professional development. Further, the leading intention of digital strategy is greater instructor effectiveness.

The shift in teaching and learning is changing the way instructors work in classrooms, particularly in the case of project-based learning, or PBL. Teachers are learning to become facilitators—to act more like coaches or mentors in the classroom, pushing students to practice 21st-century skills like problem-solving, collaboration, digital citizenship and critical thinking.

Today’s educators are constantly being asked to look beyond the traditional teaching approach to create lessons where students test their cross-curricular knowledge through application. How do we effectively teach our teachers a “new way” of thinking, lesson-building, and assessment?

Two districts have discovered new ways to help educators effectively become facilitators of PBL by using role-reversal and virtual models.

Role-Reversal PD

The Southeast Polk School District in Iowa uses a role-reversal professional development model to help STEM teachers better understand a student’s experience during project-based learning. During the session, teachers sit at desks or tables, answer questions, and complete projects just as the students in their classes would. It allows them to put themselves in their student’s shoes, and gain a greater understanding of what the class is experiencing.

Southeast Polk’s science curriculum coordinator James Pifer, along with the curriculum team, facilitates professional development for 11 buildings in the district. Pifer explained, “One of the challenges of STEM professional development is to provide tools that teachers can seamlessly put into practice and that blend with, not add to, existing practice. As a classroom teacher, it was amazing how much of our professional learning was simply ‘sit and get.’ Providing opportunities for teachers to engage in collaborative, authentic, action-oriented learning increases classroom implementation.”

Pifer starts the PD session in the same way any teacher would introduce a new topic in class: with a broad overview of the subject matter and of what all stakeholders hope to take away when the lesson is complete. Once they are familiar with the lesson, teachers are split into groups to work through all parts of the project including an end product, which typically takes 60–90 minutes. During that time, they work through any writing prompts, perform research on devices, and hold discussions just as the students would. At the end of the session, teachers present their project to the large group. Projects can be a magazine article, a poster, a multi-media presentation, or other options. As an exit ticket, teachers are asked to write a reflection or provide feedback on the session, describing how they plan to use the lesson in their classroom.

Using the role-reversal model, teachers gain a deeper understanding of what it means to engage in purposeful, cross-curricular learning. If you are thinking of trying a similar model in your school, Pifer says to start small and offer short sessions, allowing time for teachers to integrate newly learned content into their traditional lessons.

Virtual PD

With new state standards coming into effect, Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) is in the midst of aligning its social studies curriculum to better prepare today’s students for the future. Incorporating project-based learning through real-world examples and application is at the core of the new curriculum. It’s also an area in which many social studies teachers do not have experience, so providing quality professional development has been a high priority for the district during the overhaul.

As the former K–5 social studies coordinator at VBCPS and current community partnerships coordinator, Meghan Raftery worked in 56 elementary schools, implementing and adapting school curriculum to fit each school environment while supporting enrichment and remediation opportunities. This year, the social studies design team is taking a new divide, conquer, and perfect approach to not only create a new curriculum, but provide flexible PD options as well.

Over the summer, 25 teachers were invited to complete “Performance Task PD with Jay McTighe,” a four-part virtual course created by Defined Learning. The course is designed to help teachers incorporate PBL in a wide array of lessons by creating a performance task and a rubric aligned to new state and local social studies standards.

Flexible PD opportunities that allow teachers to complete trainings on their own time is a high priority at VBCPS. The district emphasizes differentiation in instruction for students, so following the same model for teachers only makes sense. To honor all learning preferences, teachers have a wide array of options to complete the course. They may choose to work with a colleague, spread it out over several weeks, or complete all four modules at once.

The course demonstrates what a performance task is, why teachers should use them in their curriculum, how to develop authentic tasks, how to reliably evaluate students’ performance on open-ended tasks, and how a teacher can successfully shift into the role of a facilitator who puts students in the driver’s seat of their own education.

“I liked the Jay McTighe series because it provides a ‘stretch’ for very competent teachers looking for a learning opportunity beyond the basic courses available in our catalog,” said Raftery. “I am hoping the teachers will enjoy immediately transferring what they learn into their practice, while also providing a valuable resource to other division teachers.”

When it comes to benefits of adopting virtual PD, Raftery says the list goes on. Through effective virtual PD, VPCBS has seen teachers’ confidence grow in planning lessons that go beyond the teachers’ manual while still maintaining alignment to the standards.

“It’s more affordable compared to paying for substitute teachers and can be completed on a tighter deadline than in-person PD,” Raftery said. “Having an asynchronous program creates an environment similar to a flipped classroom, where teachers can go back and reference specific sections of a lesson and learn the basics of the assignment, so I can devote my time to helping teachers better develop tasks as opposed to explaining the project.”

With well-trained teachers guiding them, Raftery said, students never cease to amaze her with the kind of innovative and creative thinking they show when working on STEM projects. Oftentimes, she added, students exceed the expectations for proficiency when their work is applicable to a fun-to-solve problem, uses technology they associate with outside of school, and that has meaning beyond the classroom.

Organizations such as the Learning Counsel are constantly adding context to the chaos that education is mid. Their most recent digital curriculum transition survey was shared with leaders at the 2016 National Gathering held at the Disney World campus.