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Student engagement is key to high-quality teaching and learning. Yet many teachers are struggling to find ways to keep their students engaged in the classroom. When students are presented with a challenge that speaks to their interests and stimulates their curiosity, engagement comes naturally. In order to design and deliver an interesting and meaningful learning experience, educators must keep in mind the end user: students.

Harmony Public Schools of Texas takes pride in being the largest network of STEM schools in the nation and has created a model for powerful learner-centered instruction. Harmony has a proven track record of preparing its students for college and career readiness. Arming students with a solid foundation in reading and math guarantees them admission to a selective college. However, research is clear that teaching content knowledge alone is not enough to get students through college. Being successful in college or in the workplace requires a specific set of skills and dispositions that are, unfortunately, not being taught consistently in traditional schooling. That is why Harmony turned to Project Based Learning (PBL) like many innovative schools around the country. Designing new learning models that not only teach significant content but also help learners develop success skills (also known commonly as 21st century skills) are crucial to help our country maintain its position as a leader in this globally competitive economy.

Harmony’s “STEM Students on the Stage (STEM SOS)” model, created with the strong involvement of its lead teachers and curriculum leaders, is inspired by BIE’s Gold Standard PBL model. Harmony redesigned its core curriculum with the help of federal Race to the Top (RTT-D) funding to bring high-quality projects aligned with the Essential Project Design Elements. The new redesign connects Harmony’s STEM curriculum with humanities through rich interdisciplinary PBL that drives student engagement and promotes student agency across all classrooms in its 48 schools.

A New Approach to Professional Development
This new learning model begs for a new approach to teacher preparation and professional development. With the teacher’s role shifting significantly in a PBL classroom, teachers need ongoing support not only in the design stage of the projects but also in implementation. Managing and executing a project in a classroom is an ongoing learning experience for the teachers as much as for the students. For this very reason, Harmony’s approach to the professional learning of PBL teachers mirrors that of student learning. This helps teachers build a stronger understanding of their students’ needs and become better project managers as they scaffold instruction through PBL lessons. Since students go through a repetitive cycle of feedback, refinement, and communication of their process and findings, teachers must do the same during professional development until they demonstrate mastery of their learning. This is just like what we expect from students in today’s emerging era of competency based education, which is a natural enabler of PBL.

The above figure outlines the professional development model for PBL teachers at Harmony Public Schools. In an effort to provide ongoing support for PBL, Harmony invested in instructional coaches to model high quality PBL instruction and deliver additional assistance to novice teachers. To ensure all teachers have access to the right content at the right time, Harmony moved to job-embedded professional development, where lead teachers and instructional leaders who have a successful track record as a champion of project based learning co-developed PD modules to introduce teachers and principals to PBL environments, instructional strategies, and assessment techniques through content-specific sessions with course-specific breakouts. This professional learning model provides teachers with hands-on practice with new technologies and included time to practice or rehearse new strategies and skills to apply in the classroom.

Strategies to Scale PBL
Harmony is a prime example of scaling PBL across a large state-wide network of schools. During the large-scale rollout of PBL more than three years ago, bringing deeper learning to life in hundreds of classrooms all at the same time seemed like a lofty goal. While there were so many moving pieces to this success story – harnessing technology, infusing rigor into PBL, developing performance assessments – the hardest piece was to set the right infrastructure for teacher PD and ongoing support. Many teachers were not engaged in learning through PBL when they were in schools. So naturally, they tend to follow the traditional instructional delivery methods and it is really hard for many educators to step out of their comfort zone. We knew that this would be an ongoing challenge with large numbers of teachers joining Harmony each year due to rapid growth and expansion. As a recruitment strategy to tackle this issue in the long term, Harmony encourages its graduates to come back and teach after they finish college. Through this strategy over the years, Harmony had the pleasure of hiring many of its former students who have been taught through PBL. Needless to say, those young educators become lead practitioners of PBL and even mentor some of their more experienced colleagues in PBL implementation.

At Harmony Public Schools, Project Based Learning is a powerful lever for personalized learning. Instructional leaders and coaches consistently look for student learning artifacts in PBL classroom visits and ask teachers to make student work public. In fact our motto is, “If it’s not public, it doesn’t exist!” This trend led many PBL teachers at Harmony to make their own professional learning public as well through Google ePortfolios. This is a game changer in PD!

For more innovative and powerful professional learning experiences, Harmony’s lead teachers co-lead PD sessions with their students especially when they train new teachers. This powerful practice helps first-year teachers build a strong understanding of student needs and interests, how to gauge student voice and choice into their projects, and tailor their instructional plans accordingly to drive student engagement. Through the augmented reality of powerful Project Based Learning, students are equipped with content knowledge and success skills better than ever, and teachers feel more rewarded and energized in their profession. This has been the Harmony way for teaching in a learner-centered environment.

Burak is a director at Harmony Public Schools. Follow them @HarmonyEdu.


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