True Collaboration = Incredible Professional Learning

I am so very grateful to work at a school that values collaboration. Currently, I am part of a collaborative team of five instructional coaches. Prior to this, I was incredibly fortunate to have been a teacher in the Innovation Institute program at Shanghai American School. (Check out this video of Innovation Institute.)

At present, I am still involved as the Innovation Institute Coordinator, but I do miss the challenge of collaborating to create meaningful, engaging interdisciplinary projects. I was thrilled recently that some of my Innovation Institute colleagues created a game to represent the program from the teacher’s perspective. It is an excellent portrayal of the highs and lows of working in a collaborative team in which your success is truly dependent on your colleagues. This kind of interdependence is quite often challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. The unique experience of helping to develop this program, as well as teaching and coordinating within the program, has been some of the best professional learning in my career. Without a doubt, it has made me a much better educator.

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Innovation Game Instructions

Innovation Game Board

For more information about the Innovation Institute program, check out the excerpt we wrote for The PBL Playbook by A.J. Juliani:

The Innovation Institute program originated from a series of conversations between high school faculty and administration. Several teachers were inspired by their previous educational and professional experiences. After numerous discussions (at least one of which was based upon Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel), James Linzel and Tom Musk spoke with their high school principal at the time, Sascha Heckmann. They were inspired to help develop a program driven by phenomena or issues-based perspectives. These conversations began to include more teachers as they gained momentum and became more structured as they focused on subject integration and overlap. Eventually, the program was approved, school administration secured financial support, and professional learning and time for teachers to collaboratively to develop the program was provided.

Conversations around meaningful outcomes and pedagogical philosophies, as well as developing deeper understandings of each other’s content areas, were important steps in creating the Innovation Institute program and specific interdisciplinary projects, recalls Patrice Parks.  She explains that it took about six months to address both philosophical and practical aspects of the program. Understanding collectively what project or problem-based learning was going to look like in our particular context—a private, college prep school in Asia—was essential to creating a program that honored our responsibility to our students, to parents’ expectations of an SAS education, and to our belief in what education can and should achieve.

Tom explains that teachers found it to be an incredibly challenging process to get the program started, and it felt high-stakes at the time because the school invested so much money into infrastructure. He feels that this program would not have survived, and ultimately thrived, without administrative support and teachers willing to support and inspire one another. In addition, Patrice says that pioneering students who were willing to take a leap of faith in a tradition-bound educational environment were also instrumental.

Another challenge, according to Patrice, is that [it] is deeply difficult to de-program/wean (for lack of a better term) students from the traditional classroom educational paradigm, but it can be done. The fact that this is a two-year program is essential to its success because it takes real time and effort to shift students’ horizons of expectations around their learning experiences.  The first year (grade 9) lays down the fundamentals in skills and content for the disciplines, as well as the 5 C’s (Collaboration, Creativity, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Compassion). The second year (grade 10) enables students to continue the journey and takes them to the next level of conceptual understanding and a better grasp of the 5 C’s.

Ultimately, all of the conversations, planning days and professional development led to the creation of a two-year, interdisciplinary, PBL program where students are expected to attempt to answer four to six ‘driving questions’ per year using their learning from Design, English, History, and Science. James explains that these questions are focused on contemporary challenges such as: ‘How to endure justly on a finite world?’, ‘What is the biggest catalyst for change in China?’ or ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ David Gran points out that in the Institute, content is not emphasized over skills. Instead, students start with real world applications and meaningful integrations and work backwards from there.

Amy [Foley] further explains that the driving questions (DQs) are always open-ended and can be answered in a variety of ways. In addition, student teams must draw upon their knowledge from all four disciplines to fully address the DQ. Depending on the project, students are involved in foundational learning prior to, or just after, the project launch. This foundational learning often involves students attending separate classes for each discipline as they would in a more traditional program. However, teachers co-plan in advance to ensure that what is being taught connects to the other classes and is also setting students up to be able to later further their understanding in order to answer the DQ.

After each project launch, the teachers’ role is to facilitate the process each team goes through to incubate their potential answers for the DQ. Team contracts are written, and teams are given time to ideate (brainstorm). Patrice says that while it can be difficult, teams must be given time to pursue less than stellar ideas far enough that they either realize on their own that their idea is going nowhere or is not deep enough to adequately answer the question. At times, student teams need to be redirected by a teacher facilitator. This can be tricky as there is usually only 6-7 weeks allocated for each project. When designs/products/research have to be cast aside, both students and teachers begin to feel the pressure. Timing for teacher intervention is important—and delicate.

In fact, helping students to collaborate effectively is one of the main challenges throughout the program. Students need help learning what collaboration looks like and feels like. To go beyond cooperative work to true collaboration, honesty and vulnerability is required. Patrice further explains that PBL can go the way of polite divisions of labor that prevent inspiration, depth, or innovation – or can perhaps lead to one responsible and driven student doing most, if not all, of the work. One way to avoid this is for teachers to model true collaboration. Patrice and other Institute teachers often share some of their challenges in becoming a truly collaborative team. The teachers also often hold meetings in spaces where students can observe teachers’ processes and how they negotiate conflict and honor each other. Teachers ensure that students know how to reach out for help when [they] need a mediator to help the team get back on track. Institute teachers also model hypothetical situations and frequently conference with student teams.

An exciting element of collaboration for students is the big reveal of teams during a project launch. Teachers may solicit input from students when forming teams for a new project, but ultimately teachers finalize teams that they feel are balanced and best accommodate students’ needs. However, it is a puzzle trying to ensure all teams will be successful. One interdisciplinary project requires grade 10 students to design and build a board game to answer the question ‘How do we adapt to scarcity in a globalized world?’ Tom recalls that during this project, there was a team that teachers were concerned about. The students were solid individually, but there was uncertainty about how they would work together, as well as whether any would step up as a leader. As the ideation process unfolded, the team really struggled to find a unifying idea to answer the driving question. However, in the final few weeks of the project – when other teams were iterating their final product based upon the expert feedback from a game consultant – one student made a joke about creating a game about competitive sushi chefs who compete to destroy each other. After further discussion and brainstorming, the group decided it was actually a good idea that would allow them to answer the DQ. Ultimately, the team produced an exemplary game that truly impressed parents and visitors during the Family Game Night showcase. Tom points out that this is a great example that team strength is not simply assembling strong individuals – it is about groups collaborating effectively. As an end note to this story, for the final project of the two-year program (eight months later), student managers were given the freedom to assemble their own teams. Perhaps not surprisingly, these four students chose to be a team again because they knew they could persevere and work well together. They ended up producing another fantastic project.

Another key element of the program is incorporating experts or members of the community. Tiffany Kelley explains that Institute teachers want to empower students to see the world as their classroom, and the meaningful connections students make with experts, authentic audiences and even places visited outside of school during PBL, contributes deeply to their engagement in the learning process and ultimately to their final products. It can be challenging to secure experts, so at times teachers have asked parents, other faculty, or members of the communications department to act as experts or audiences. Tiffany has observed that sometimes these experts are giving the same message as the Institute teachers, but having another voice say something in a different way to the students can have a profound effect.

Authentic products or audiences are also a focus for the Innovation Institute. Grade 10 students complete a film project to answer the driving question ‘Do we live in a Brave New World?” Both years that students submitted films to the Shanghai Student Film Festival, teams won awards. David explains that the significance of this is that Institute students were competing against more experienced film students, while this was the first film the Institute students had produced. Innovation Institute students most likely created impressive films because they were exceptionally skilled at working together as a collaborative team in their undertaking of creative tasks.  The technical skill of film can be challenging, but effective collaboration is crucial for most fledgling film crews.

Finally, time must be made for reflection. Student teams need to be guided through a reflection of how well their team worked together, and students need to individually reflect on how they could better support their team in the future. Student feedback can also be useful to help teachers refine projects and PBL structures. Institute teachers often seek student feedback before launching a newly-designed project. Running a protocol with a small group of students gives them input into the project and helps teachers to improve the project prior to an official launch. Amy recommends that teacher teams set aside time – both during and after a project – to regularly reflect and document necessary improvements. Teacher reflection helps to improve the program. For example, David recognizes that Institute teachers have learned over time to more effectively incorporate individual accountability through specific roles, teacher check-ins and student peer reviews both during and at the end of projects.

It is really important for teachers to remember that taking risks or implementing something innovative is sometimes overwhelming, says Amy. There are many obstacles along the way. However, focus on positives such as students who are benefitting from the program. The following quote is from a student who spoke about their experience after they had completed the two-year Innovation Institute program.

In Inno, every major project we had was a ride of its own. No ride was the same as any others, because of different group mates, different objectives, and different end products. After finishing each project, there’s a feeling that “Hey, I did this!” that I can sort of get when I do well on something like a test, but not really. That’s because my group and I had made something tangible, like a coffee table book or a film or board game. I feel satisfied knowing all the work that goes into something like that. Sure, it feels good when you ace a test, but that’s just me feeling great about my grades. These projects make a person feel good about themselves.

This is the sort of feedback that shows teachers they are on the right track and, like our students, need to keep persevering. Despite the natural ups and downs of implementing an innovative program, Patrice articulates what other Institute teachers feel – that this has been the hardest yet most satisfying work of our teaching careers and we are forever grateful for this opportunity.

If you are interested in project-based learning, I encourage you to read The PBL Playbook for some inspiration!

pbl playbook


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