PBL for the Teachers?

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When it comes to classroom management and instruction, actively engaging learners in the learning process is important.  Now, what do you envision when you think about the students in this case?  Are they adults?  If not then maybe they should be because teacher professional development and learning opportunities need to continue moving away from “do as I say” direct instruction to actively doing while learning.  This is because Active Learning engages teachers in their own learning process so that they can better apply concepts from their own training to their own teaching. 

“Active Learning engages  

  • teachers directly in the practices they are learning 
  • educators using authentic artifacts, interactive activities, and other strategies to provide contextualized professional learning. 
  • teachers by incorporating the elements of collaboration, coaching, feedback, and reflection.”  (Trotter, 2006) 

By applying research-based approaches in combination with standards-based practices like the ISTE Coaching Standards, we, as an educational community, can greatly increase the value and effectiveness of year-round professional learning experiences and opportunities. There are many ways to approach this, but why not start with something that most adult learners have at least heard of like PBL?

ISTE Coaching Standard 5  

Professional Learning Facilitator: Performance Indicator 5b: Build the capacity of educators, leaders and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback. 

PBL Engages Students in Active Learning, Why Not Teachers Too? 

A great example of active learning in the classroom is PBL (project/problem based learning). In PBL, students engage directly in the learning by working through a series of involved and individualized steps as part of a group project focused on solving a problem.  Adria Steinberg’s “Six A’s of Designing Projects”, as adapted to the The Six “A’s” of PBL Project Design in an article by Andrew Larson, provide a good basic outline of what active learning via PBL looks like.  The Six “A’s” identifies the following PBL characteristics: authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, adult relationships, assessment.  Students engage with peers in project-based learning that utilizes authentic artifacts and interactive activities at rigorous levels to explore possible solutions and then apply lessons learned—all while interacting with adults as mentors or authentic audience members and being assessed in an authentic manner.  This very active learning provides students opportunities to collaborate, be coached, receive relevant feedback, and reflect on their learning both during and immediately after the process.  So if all of this active learning happens for student participants in PBL then the obvious question is why not for adult participants?  The answer is that it can and should. 

Translating Student PBL Practices for Active Professional Learning 

As adult educators, there is a lot of value exploring and learning like a student.  This, in and of itself, can be beneficial for the educator looking to empathize with student’s perspective and identify areas for improvement by meeting students where they are at.  Beyond, this, experiencing PBL is an effective means to learning concepts at all levels.  So teachers immersing themselves in an authentic learning process can explore concepts relevant to their training which increases engagement.  In Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do, Andrew Miller speaks to the benefits of utilizing PBL for adult learning, “We know the value of PBL for professional development. Teachers work together on an authentic challenge to become true learners, exploring a driving question and participating in a launch, receiving instruction and feedback to support learning, and sharing their work and learning publicly. This helps teachers reflect on the experience of PBL, see challenges students will face, and create engagement and excitement for doing PBL in the classroom.” (Miller, 2017).  

As part of a teacher-focused PBL in a professional development/learning experience, authentic artifacts can be provided (such as student work samples) and make for authentic teacher learning, which can increase the relevance as well as the ease of application back to the teachers’ respective classrooms.  PBL is also interactive due to the group work and research and so provides teachers with active learning opportunities as they explore the provided activity, often learning  through and about protocols for discussing and interacting as well as experiencing opportunities to work in teams and take on roles/jobs within their groups.  Both PBL and Active learning involve collaboration, coaching, feedback, and reflection, so they blend well and provide good opportunities for teachers to actively learn in an adult professional learning.  Teachers learn valuable lessons when they engage as active learners in their own professional learning, “Through the experience, teachers learn that a project-based-learning classroom feels a little like chaos — managed chaos. It is definitely clear PBL is active learning. They also learn that the power of performance can motivate even the most reluctant learners.” (Lenz, 2007) 

Where to Begin When There’s So Much to Do? 

There’s a lot to PL so it’s probably still challenging to envision what PBL for adults look like, especially when time is at an extreme premium.  Where to start and how to do it all?  Well, maybe one doesn’t have to do everything all at once, how about a slice of professional learning PL PBL pizza? “Project slices—condensed project-based learning for teachers—give educators a student’s perspective on what it’s like to do a project.” (Miller, 2017).  The idea is very much worth exploring.  The key is starting somewhere so that the benefits can begin to be realized through the transformation of professional learning experiences for educators.  In this way, active learning can be realized outside of the classroom as part of the teacher’s professional learning experience and then back in the classroom where the teacher can bring active learning to the students.  When teachers are authentically engaged in their own learning then they can more effectively transfer that learning to their own teaching context,”Teachers quickly move from making generalizations about the experience and its implications to applying what they’ve learned to the teachers’ future classrooms, their integrated project-based teams, and their schools as a whole.” (Lenz, 2007). So, just maybe, the question should be less about where do we begin and more about when? 


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches 
  2. Miller, A. (2017, September 7). Get a Taste of PBL Before Your Students Do. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/get-taste-pbl-your-students-do  
  3. Lenz, B. (2007, August 29).Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools. Edutopia.  Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/envision-schools-PBL-professional-development 
  4. Larson, A. (2019, June 12). The Six “A’s” of PBL Project Design. Magnify Learning. Retrieved from https://www.magnifylearningin.org/project-based-learning-blog/the-six-as-of-pbl-project-design
  5. Rivera, A. (2016, August 1). Why Do So Many Schools Want to Implement Project-Based Learning, But So Few Actually Do? EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-08-01-why-do-so-many-schools-want-to-implement-project-based-learning-but-so-few-actually-do

Puzzling Over Protocols

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Who, When, Where, Why, What, How? 

Who, when, and where we teach are often set by extenuating circumstances.  Whereas why we teach is both deeply personal and different for every educator.  What we teach can be set by state level standards, curriculum guides, and a number of other external factors.  Sometimes we have some level of control and sometimes not.  As instructors, we arguably have the most control over how we teach.  Deciding how to teach content can be both fun and overwhelming because so often we reinvent the wheel in education and therefore put a lot of extra work into designing the how.  Sometimes this is fine.  However, it’s nice to choose when we as instructors invest so much energy in teaching versus utilizing prepackaged options.  Sometimes curriculum provides a prepackaged option, but having a library of possible prepackaged choices to choose from can make a big difference by saving time, effort, and headache. Combine this with technology considerations, and there are some helpful connections to ISTE Coaching Standard 5 (adults in this case but also applies to kids).

ISTE Coaching Standard 5 

Professional Learning Facilitator: Performance Indicator 5a: Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs. 

What’s a Protocol? 

Perhaps the most well-known protocol is the Jigsaw activity.  Honestly, this is with good reason, though, as The Distance Learning Playbook cites Chris Hattie’s meta-analysis work listing an effect size of 1.2 for Jigsaw as an instructional strategy.  Here’s also where things become challenging as there does not appear to be standardized language across education.  Whether we call these approaches protocols, learning strategies, professional learning practices, or something else, the intent is not to play with semantics but focus on the effectiveness of the approach itself.  So, for our purposes, let’s consider a protocol a structured “how” for facilitating a given learning activity.  Protocols don’t usually address the content directly, but they do provide a vehicle for learning the content by providing a structured activity. 

Discussion, Instruction, or Learning Protocols? 

Okay, so we’ve narrowed down to protocol, although, that can still mean a discussion, instruction, or learning protocol, depending on the source.  These three different descriptions can all mean the same thing and, at the very least, there is a significant amount of overlap whether one is more focused on discussion versus instruction versus learning.  Ultimately, the intent is to structure interactions among the participants.  The protocol outlines how time will be managed, when different aspects of an activity will be done, and how individuals will interact.  The Jigsaw protocol, again, can serve as a good example since it is relatively well known (it’s worth noting that there are different variations).  In an example of one kind of Jigsaw, participants have a home group and an expert group.  After receiving overall instructions from the instructor, participants first go (physically or virtually) to their expert group. In the expert group, participants study a resource unique to their group and become the “experts” on that topic.  Experts then go back to their home groups and take turns sharing about newfound areas of expertise, both teaching the group about their area and learning from the group members about other related areas.  Thus, once finished, there has been a completed jigsaw of new information by combining all of the individual pieces of learning. 

How can these support an Andragogical Instructional Framework?  

In other words, what role can protocols play in adult professional learning taking place in an Ed. Tech environment?  Regardless of the adult learning framework being implemented for a given instructional context, protocols can play an important role in several ways. 

  • Equity of Voice: protocols make sure that everyone is heard by regulating airtime and encouraging reluctant participants to speak. 
  • Accountability: protocols hold learners accountable for their learning in a positive way by communicating to participants their expected level of engagement and contributions. 
  • Reducing Social Anxiety: protocols provide transparent expectations of participation in advance of the activity so that nervous participants know exact expectations which reduces anxiety-inducing unknowns. 
  • Equity of Expertise: protocols level the playing field within a learning environment by elevating new learners, empowering all learners with new knowledge, and limiting the ability of participants to “self-designate” as experts on the subject matter of the training activity. 
  • Engagement management: protocols can limit participants from dominating a group while also engaging more reticent participants by assigning jobs to participants so as to disperse responsibilities among the learners and lead to a more effective group dynamic. 
  • Time management: protocols provide a structured means for managing the length of a given activity as well as regulating the allotted discussion time in an equitable manner. 

These are just a few examples of the way protocols can function within an adult instructional framework, or any instructional context for that matter.  Protocols serve as an efficient and effective means for actively engaging participants in their learning.  If you’re looking for a list of possible protocols to explore then I recommend starting with this list from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In addition to the jigsaw protocol, the list contains 18 common suggestions (with more linked at the bottom of the list). Select one carefully with your instructional content and context in mind, then practice implementing several times to become comfortable before moving on to another.  In time, protocols can take care of the “how” of learning in an efficient way so that all involved can focus on investing energy in the aspects of instruction that drive the “why” behind their instruction and learning.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches 
  2. Schmoker, M. (October 20th, 2015). EducationWeek. It’s Time to Restructure Teacher Professional Development. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-its-time-to-restructure-teacher-professional-development/2015/10 
  3. Pitzele, K. (2013, November 27). From Brooklyn to Jakarta: Teaching Teachers Well. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/brooklyn-jakarta-teaching-teachers-well-karali-pitzele 
  4. Teaching & Learning Lab. Discussion Protocols. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/Protocols_Handout.pdf 
  5. Rothstein, S. and Rowell, L. (2021, January 25). Discover, Discuss, Demonstrate: Using Inquiry-Based Learning to Keep Students Engaged. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/discover-discuss-demonstrate-using-inquiry-based-learning-keep-students-engaged