Refining the plan

Project plans and ideas can be enhanced through a process of critique, refinement and reflection.

Why should I spend time refining the project-based learning before I teach it?

This concept of refinement is underpinned to two key principles:

  1. Working together can produce better work than working in isolation.
  2. Every piece of work can be improved through more time, thought and effort.

In order to create high quality PBL units, it is important to understand the importance of sharing work and welcoming feedback. This process can be unnerving as both a personal process and a collaborative process, and requires courage and support. This process models and reflects the processes of refinement and feedback that we expect students to undertake when engaging in PBL. Through tuning protocols through the use of feedback, and by doing the project themselves, teachers and school leaders can produce higher quality PBL experiences for and with students.

Refine the project using tuning protocols

A tuning protocol is a structured process or set of guidelines for a conversation. In education, protocols typically involve a small group of teachers and aims to promote collegial, efficient communication and powerful, purposeful learning. Teachers participate either by presenting, facilitating, or consulting during the protocol and, ultimately, create a culture of trust and respect necessary for collaboration and innovation.

Protocols provide structures that build skills and culture, increase quality of work and enhance learning for students. Most protocols specify a time to listen carefully and a time to respond appreciatively without feeling vulnerable or defensivethey direct critique, feedbackdialogue, and reflection through practice. Protocols, make it safe for colleagues to ask challenging questions of each otherand build trust by supporting teachers to do meaningful work together.

The table below provides a summary of some protocols you may like to use.

Protocol name OriginSummary
Project Tuning (PDF 120KB) Originally developed by the National School Reform Faculty and refined by High Tech High

Once you have planned a project, you should have a project tuning session. The High Tech High 'Project Tuning protocol' leads teachers through a tight protocol that focuses on critique.

This protocol requires presentation of a project plan to a group who provide constructive feedback, identify any unanticipated potential problems, and possibly generate new ideas for the project.

Video Clip (PDF 85KB) – page 1 of document High Tech High Graduate School of Education As an alternative to face-to-face lesson observations, this adaptation of the High Tech High 'Video Clip protocol' will assist you in receiving meaningful feedback from colleagues, critical friends on your practice. It provides structure for dialogue and purposeful observation, via video, and is particularly useful for use across different schools and settings.
The Final Word (PDF 56KB) Originally developed by the National School Reform Faculty and refined by High Tech High

This discussion protocol guides the group through a process of exploring an article or text, clarifying their thinking, and having their beliefs questioned to deepen understanding. 'The Final Word protocol' gives each person in the group an opportunity to have their ideas, understandings and perspectives enhanced by briefly hearing from others.

This protocol would be useful within 'critical friend groups' (CFG) or could be adapted for use with students in the classroom.
Focus Point School Reform Initiative

This protocol serves to enhance a teacher's understanding of his or her teaching practice. 'The Focus Point protocol' has the observers noting events that relate to specific aspects of the observed teacher's practice and the observed teacher attempts to unpack and make sense of those events.

The 'Focus Point protocol' has very specific guidelines for focusing the observation on specific elements and events and restricts suggestions unless the observed teacher has asked for them. As such, the observed teacher should choose the person or people they will work with and the facilitator must establish very clear guidelines and practices.
Consultancy (PDF 75KB) National School Reform Faculty, Harmony Education Center This protocol is used to help an individual or a group solve a particular problem or issue. This problem is presented to a mixed group of participants, who should not be experiencing the same problem at that point in time, and the group works together to discuss the issue and attempt to answer a particular question about the problem.
Chalk Talk (PDF 55KB) Foxfire Fund This protocol provides a tool to use for a silent reflection activity, to generate ideas, check on learning and give feedback or solve problems. It can be used with different groups; students, teachers, community members and provides an opportunity for quiet contemplation, silent collaboration and reflection.
Connections (PDF 66KB) Gene Thompson-Grove The 'Connections protocol' is designed to scaffold a process of reflection with a group. This may happen at the start of a meeting or professional learning session in order to set goals or identify a starting point. It may also be used at the end of a session to allow time for shared reflection.
Collaborative Assessment Conference Harvard Project Zero This protocol is a strategy for teachers to use as a group in order to examine students' work, determine what it reveals about the students and identify what this means for teacher and school practices.

Refine the project using feedback from colleagues

Establishing systems and practices for giving and receiving feedback will help to make this process a normal part of planning within your school community. This should help the feedback process become embedded in everyday practice for both teachers and students. There are a number of resources available to support the development of these practices and a few common principles that are helpful to follow.

Once example by Ron Berger describes effective feedback as being 'kind', 'specific' and 'helpful'. Establishing these basic ground rules and expectations provides a simple framework for feedback. Setting up a Gallery Walk with colleagues to get feedback on a specific aspect of your PBL plan or the overview in its entirety provides an opportunity for anonymous feedback. Simply using sentence starters such as 'I like' or 'I wonder' provide a common language with which to give feedback and ask probing or clarifying questions.

What do I do now?

Any time you receive feedback it is important to allow time to take on board the feedback and respond to it. When receiving feedback from colleagues, there are opportunities to ask follow up questions, gather some feedforward about the ways in which it could be improved, and investigate other ideas they have. These ideas help to refine the PBL outline before it is put into action with students.

Refine the project by doing it yourself

Doing the project yourself, at least in scaled down version, may help you to prepare yourself to support students in identifying what equipment, learning activities or resources may be required in order for the PBL to run well.

As you work through the project or particular products within your project, you should identify possible checkpoints or milestones for assessment potential. Also, if you find that you need specific resources or technology to complete a task, you could create scaffolds or pre-organise the resources your students will need.

It should be noted that this process is not always necessary. As you become more comfortable with the PBL process and students take more ownership for the learning and the steps involved it may be impossible for you to predict what the PBL will entail and you will not be able to do the project yourself.

I always do the project myself first. That way, I can see if it is feasible and worthwhile, and if it looks good. If I can't do a good job on it, then I figure the students will be at a serious disadvantage. – Jeff Robin, High Tech High

Further reading and resources

Ron Berger on critique Ron Berger explains the key principles of critique in this video.

Seven Keys to Effective Feedback by Grant Wiggins – an article exploring the principles of effective feedback, aimed at teachers providing feedback to students but equally applicable for teachers providing feedback to colleagues.

Using Gallery Walks for revision and reflection Buck Institute for Education (BIE) blog about using Gallery Walks, includes a link to a webinar

UnBoxed Issue 1, Spring 2008 High Tech High

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