P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThis two-part post provided in collaboration with the P21Blogazine from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. 

(Yesterday, Kate shared thoughts on the episodic, unconnected, mandate-directed professional development commonly provided today’s educators. Kate introduced a response: the Proactive Professional Learning Experience. In this post, Kate describes the elements of the PPLE cycle of professional learning.)

Driving Question:  What does the proactive cycle for professional learning look like in practice?

Around and around she goes. Where she stops nobody knows”.

The roulette barker’s words speak to the chance of the wheel. Where will the ball fall when the spinning stops? No body knows. It’s all a bet on chance.

Ironically, those same words take the chance out of professional learning and describe how the Proactive Professional Learning Experience provides teachers with the highest possibility of success when implementing improvements for their classrooms. That success is more assured because the learning cycle that guides the PPLE model goes around and around. The teacher has the opportunity to improve the quality of the new implementation in the classroom with each revolution of the five phase cycle. How many chances to refine depend on many factors. What is important is that the teacher, like any skilled craftsman, has the opportunity first to make an improvement, observe how it works and continue refinement until it is doing what was intended.

The Professional Learning Experience Cycle








Let’s examine what happens in the five elements of the PPLE cycle.

  1. Consult and Evaluate. Todd, a fifth grade teacher, analyzes his students’ annual mathematics test scores. With his principal, Mrs. Jackson, he notes that five students are at the bottom of the scale in mathematical problem solving. The two review what he tried. (He had said: “I have tried everything.”) What they noted is that he had tried everything that was recommended in the text book and added some tricks he had heard at a professional math conference. These five students had not responded. Now, it was time to dig deeper into the students’ past performance as well as get some added data. They decided Todd would interview each of the five and their parents and prior grade teacher. Todd would try and discover more clues about why these five were struggling so hard.
  2. Plan.  Having discovered that these five had been doing  poorly with math problem solving for several prior years but had been passed on to the next grade because their “real math” the computation skills were above average. Clearly, none had grasped what it meant to solve a problem. They just followed the steps blindly, hoping to get “the right answer.” Said one parent: “it didn’t seem like there was time to get them to learn how to problem solve. They just had to do it and hope for the best.”

Todd took his analysis and decided that he had to find a different answer  which would enable the students to stop and think about problem solving and understand what types of thinking they had to do. Memorizing a procedure had already failed, so why repeat that approach?

At this point, Todd was stuck. He had no idea what to do. Mrs. Jackson, however, knew what she could do. She called a colleague in another district school. Her friend was a mathematician whose students excelled at problem solving. Could she help? The result was a plan for Todd to set up a proactive learning experience that would not only enable these students to discover how to solve math problems, but also enable him to do a better job in the future teaching other students the key “how to.”

Mrs. Jackson’s friend helped Todd structure his plan as a problem-based learning experience.

    • A definition. The plan started with a definition of his challenge which he defined as “some of my students are poor mathematical problem solvers. They don’t seem to understand how to solve math problems without a memorized procedure. Thus, my problem is to learn how to teach them what problem solving means and how to problem solve with a variety of math problems.
    • The Steps: Todd’s plan called for him to spend three one-hour sessions with his coach’s guiding questions in hands. He was to answer the questions and then start with his own questions to guide their discussion.  Prior to the discussion,  the coach prepared herself with responses that would begin to build Todd’s  understanding of the problem solving process and what Todd would need to teach the students.

Each time the met over the next several weeks, she would end with a “homework” assignment for him to implement with his class. In the first assignment, he would do more data collection about what the students did and did not understand about problem solving and report the results to his mediator. From there he would construct problem solving tasks with hands on material, ask hem to construct and solve real world problems they faced every day that included math and then begin to practice problem solving solely in math by transferring their understanding of the problem solving process into mathematics. His goal was to have his students think like mathematicians who had real world problems to solve. His responsibility was to take ideas learned with the coach, plan, do and assess the results.

  1. Implement. The plan called for Todd to do what he discussed with his coach transferring theory about problem solving into classroom action. With his principal’s encouragement, Todd set aside the prescribed lesson plan which combined direct instruction with textbook exercises.  Each day, his plan called for teaching the children directly about problem solving by asking them to create and solve their own hands-on problems such as finding a shorter walk to school, saving money for new computer games, calculating their fitness regimen and then drawing conclusions about the problem solving methods they used. He added his own formative assessments to tell him how well each student was “getting it.”
  2. On-going support. Todd’s professional improvement plan called for an overtime implementation, one step at a time. His coach would hold him accountable to take the information he gathered in their work sessions and do what they planned for the students. He was also accountable for assessing and reporting on what was happening.  At scheduled intervals, she observed for herself what he was doing and provided feedback, encouragement, and sometimes redirection. Most important was the support she provided when each step did not work out perfectly. Once a month, the principal also met with the pair, offering encouragement for this new direction.
  3. Results.“The proof is in the pudding” was an often repeated mantra of the coach. She emphasized that formative results could often be discouraging. However, she also stressed that the frustration that came when students struggled was also the clue for taking a different tact with a student other than have the student repeat again what had not worked. In the end, it was the results that mattered. The students’ ability to show what they were understanding of problem solving and where Todd needed to start the next cycle in his own learning as well as the students’.

Learning Foremost

These five elements make it easy of an observer to see and hear a PPLE in action. Over time, anywhere from a school calendar quarter to a year, a teacher is engaged in taking these five elements as steps in solving an instructional problem. That problem starts in the classroom with what and how the students are or are not learning. At times the PPLE may also help the teacher match to a mandate such as Common Core or RTI. For the teacher to benefit most from the PPLE, it is essential that mandates be secondary and that it be connected to the PPLE as appropriate, but never driving it. Professional Learning then is more than a bag of chips.

About the Author

KballancaKate Bellanca has dedicated her career to working directly with districts, schools, families, and other helping professionals to assist them in affecting change in students learning. Today, Kate is Chief Executive Officer at the International Renewal Institute.  Email: kjb@iriinc.us. Website: www.iriinc.us; Facebook: International Renewal Institute; Twitter: @iriinc; LinkedIn: International Renewal Institute.


You can read added posts from the P21Blogazine on this site or by subscribing to its RSS Feed at www.p21.org for three times per week posts. Monthly themes connect  21st Century Deeper Learning  and the 4Cs theory and practice.

About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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