by Rabbi Yoni Gold
Every so often we come across an idea that, after learning about it, seems so obvious that we’re driven to bring it to the attention of others. After our eyes are opened, we can’t close them again and we’re excited to help open the eyes of others. We know that if we just showed it to them then they’d incorporate it into their lives the way that we want.
The problem is that it usually doesn’t work out that way.
School leaders find strategies, skills, and all sorts of other resources that would benefit their teaching staff. Then, they introduce it to the teachers, maybe even run a training course, and wait for the magic to happen. When teachers fail to adopt these new tools there can be confusion over what went wrong. The topic might seem so important (and the training so expensive) that it arouses frustration, which might even make administrators think twice before investing in future training.
Project-based learning (PBL) has the potential to revolutionize the classroom experience, but it’s not the purpose of this article to convince you of that. Instead, we must recognize that executing authentic PBL is a paradigm shift for teachers. The question that we have to deal with is: If we’re so convinced that PBL would be beneficial to students and to teachers, then what can school leaders do to ensure that it is actually implemented with fidelity?
We will look at training teachers for PBL through the lens of the ability-motivation-opportunity framework (e.g. Jiang et al, 2012). This model helps identify three specific areas to consider when improving employee performance. We’ll explain each topic in light of implementing a new educational strategy like PBL.
The first consideration for training is to ask: If my teachers wanted to implement this change, do they have the internal capacity to do it? Ensuring that teachers are properly equipped begins with identifying the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that are necessary to succeed in running a PBL-based classroom. Next, one has to decide which KSAs need to be taught to teaching staff.
With that list in hand, learning opportunities can be planned that will best reach those goals. Finally, administrators can assess the level of learning and its use in the classroom.
Identify KSAs: When breaking down project-based teaching into its component KSAs, we need to take a broad view. This requires that we look at teacher behavior inside the classroom (like student-teacher interactions) and outside of the classroom (like lesson planning). If school leaders focus myopically on only one area, they run the risk of sending unprepared teachers out on an impossible mission. For example, the traditional structure of a lesson plan might not lend itself to student-led learning. Also, the materials that are prepared by teachers might need to be fluid enough to account for student choice. Do teachers have a sense of what is “too much” structure and what is “not enough”?
On the other hand, teachers might know how to plan for inquiry in their class but be unprepared to face the dynamic changes when the students enter the room. When students challenge accepted authority, what language can a teacher use to acknowledge their viewpoint and also keep them on the path to finding a solution? Alternatively, when students who have been trained by school to find the “right answer” fish for a teacher’s help, how can teachers redirect their search without giving them an answer?
Furthermore, there might be other traits to investigate that are not traditionally viewed as important in the classroom. This might include teachers’ adaptability and their comfort with ambiguity. These traits can also be incorporated into teacher training, if we recognize their importance. Administrators will need to decide on which KSAs are currently lacking in staff members in order to make the best use of training resources.
Planning training: With those KSAs in mind, schools must plan training that is most likely to result in behavior change. Most training relies heavily on lectures and readings, but Eduardo Salas and colleagues (2012) note that “this is a problem” because “[w]e know from the body of research that learning occurs through the practice and feedback components.” Learning occurs through engagement with the material and active participation, along with feedback. That’s why they suggest including four major components: “information, demonstration, practice, and feedback.” These are ideas which we encourage in our classroom, but sorely lack in our professional development. Training people to change their behavior requires real learning opportunities. This means that we must put as much thought into the teachers’ learning environment as the students’.
The second consideration for training is to ask: If my teachers had all of the necessary knowledge and skills, would they choose to use them? Just because they could do something, doesn’t mean that they will want to. An administrator might be very excited about a new initiative, but it probably means a lot of work for a teacher. Teachers need to be motivated in order to learn new skills and to make changes to their classroom. Here are a few areas to think about regarding motivation:
Give them a reason to care: If administrators are genuinely excited for something then that can help get teachers on board, but it’s not enough. Teachers need a reason to participate, a reason beyond “It’s the school’s new pet project for the year.”
Administrators should also realize that ideas which seem like obvious advantages to PBL might not be perceived the same way by all teachers. Keep in mind that one of the reasons that it is difficult to change organizational culture is “because there are typically those who stand to benefit if the culture remains static” and “[t]here are often some who stand to lose (or perceive this to be the case) if the culture is changed.” (Jex & Britt, 2014). For example, teachers who have kept their lesson plans the same year after year might have been at an advantage in the past, when their tried and true lessons have been recognized positively by administrators. With a change in the expectations, they are at risk of losing that prized position.
Some questions to ask: How will this help the teachers? Why do you think this will improve student outcomes? Will this make teachers’ lives easier in any way? Which of the teachers’ problems does this initiative solve? Does this instructional change align with the teachers’ own values? How is the school demonstrating its commitment to helping them succeed?
Rewards: One of the fundamentals of behavior change is the system of rewards and punishments. These rewards don’t have to be monetary, of course; they can include positive recognition, compliments, and a host of other informal strategies. It’s important, though, that when expectations change, the behaviors that are rewarded change as well. If we want teachers to run a PBL classroom, then we have to recognize and reward the specific behaviors which contribute to that environment, even though it will not be the behaviors which have traditionally been recognized. Administrators and supervisors must know that the learning process in a PBL classroom will look different than a traditional classroom and their supervision must change with the changes in teacher expectations. It brings to mind Steven Kerr’s 1975 management classic “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B.” We can’t keep recognizing the same things yet hope that teachers will change what they do. Why would they change if they don’t get anything for it? Why would they change if those teachers who don’t change are still getting all of the accolades? Think about the fallout this will have for those who benefited from the previous model and may feel that they are losing out now. Can you bring them on board, too?
Self-efficacy and goal orientation: Motivation extends far beyond rewards, into areas which can also be influenced during professional development. A recent meta-analysis found a moderate relationship between both self-efficacy and a learning goal orientation on transferring training to the job (Blume et al., 2010). Self-efficacy is the extent to which people believe that they can succeed at a task. If teachers don’t feel confident in their abilities to implement a change then it is unlikely to happen, or for it to work if they actually try. Teachers might have years of experience teaching with a certain model. Or, they might have recently finished graduate school with training in a particular style. If you are asking them to make major changes to their classroom, do they feel that they are capable of meeting those expectations?
Goal orientation is the mental approach that learners use. This is generally broken down into a mastery/learning orientation, in which trainees focus on gaining skills and learning new information, and a performance orientation, in which they try merely to avoid failure and to show that they can accomplish the goal. Learning orientation can be boosted by the training itself, including the way that objectives are framed, the ways that goals are set, and through autonomy to explore and experiment. However, administrators may want to keep in mind that “trainees with a strong performance orientation may actually respond negatively to these same training features. Such individuals seem to learn best in a highly structured environment in which they complete successively difficult tasks” (Salas et al., 2012). School leaders should take an active approach to understanding their teachers so that they can plan new initiatives and training that will match their needs and be more likely to succeed.
The third consideration for training is to ask: If teachers have the KSAs that they need and the desire to use them, do they have the necessary opportunities to make it happen? The question of opportunity might be the hardest one for people to pin down. Teachers are in the classroom for hours each day, so why wouldn’t they have the time to use the skills that they have learned? Here are just three areas to think about as they pertain to opportunity:
Curriculum: Teachers might want to implement PBL in their classroom but feel the opposing pressure of classroom curriculum. If there are expectations about what topics and skills will be covered by each class, then pushing teachers to use PBL must account for that. PBL can be a “messy” experience, especially in the beginning, and schools must be clear on what content and skills will be taught to students. If teachers feel that the projects take too long and don’t teach the skills that they need, then they will also feel that they don’t have the time to dip into PBL.
It should be clear that this ties back into “ability” and into “motivation,” but is also unique. Teachers need to be taught how to accomplish teaching content and skills through projects, not using them only for assessment and for fun. Also, if teachers are only rewarded for teaching the full curriculum, whether they use PBL or not, then they’ll have less motivation to experiment with it. However, even if they have the skills and are rewarded for using them, they can perceive a lack of time if the administrators don’t maintain a dialogue about progress and expectations when beginning a new PBL initiative.
Planning time: Time is not only an issue inside the classroom, and opportunity includes time outside of class. If teachers are already struggling to keep up with lesson planning, then what will throwing in a wrench like PBL do to them? Do your teachers leave at midday and spend the second half of the day teaching completely different subjects at another school? Teachers might want to make the necessary changes but not feel that they have the time to make it happen.
Schools have to decide how much they are able to invest in any new program or policy. This investment doesn’t only take into account money paid to outside presenters, but also to time and money devoted within the school walls. Will teachers given a new set of PBL directives have a planning period to make these changes? Is the school willing to rearrange the schedule so that teachers have joint planning time, to strategize and resolve problems? These times to collaborate can be crucial to changing practice and the cultural expectations around teaching. Also, note that investment from the school demonstrates support for the teachers’ success and can also lead to greater motivation on the part of teachers to devote time and energy to these changes.
Safe space for experimenting: Opportunity does not have to be limited to the concept of time. Organizations can say that they want innovation, but they must also make it safe for teachers to experience the messiness of experimentation. Teachers might have the skills to change and might have the motivation to do so, but what if they try it and it doesn’t work right away? Will the school support them even in the face of parent feedback? If teachers fear the consequences of trying something new then, in essence, they may not have the choice at all. It is the job of school leaders to demonstrate their support for the changes and create the space for teachers to work, physically and mentally.
When beginning the road toward project-based learning, schools can be so enthralled by the end goal that they fail to properly plan for the obstacles along the way. We have presented a three-part framework for approaching any training and development plan in order to avoid those pitfalls. A growing body of research demonstrates that the organizational context, created through supervisor and peer support along with creating opportunities to use the training, is foundational for trainees to make use of their new skills (e.g. Blume et al., 2010; Peters et al., 2014; Franke & Felfe, 2012). Accounting for these three areas will help make school investments worthwhile, by giving teachers the knowledge and skills that they need and creating an environment where teachers grow to become the highly skilled professionals that they should be.
Blume, B. D., Ford, J. K., Baldwin, T. T., & Huang, J. L. (2010). Transfer of training: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Management, 36(4), 1065-1105.
Franke, F., & Felfe, J. (2012). Transfer of leadership skills: The influence of motivation to transfer and organizational support in managerial training. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 11(3), 138-147.
Jex, S. M., & Britt, T. W. (2014). Organizational psychology: A scientist-practitioner approach (3rd edition). Wiley.
Jiang, K., Lepak, D. P., Hu, J., & Baer, J. C. (2012). How does human resource management influence organizational outcomes? A meta-analytic investigation of mediating mechanisms. Academy of Management Journal, 55(6), 1264-1294.
Kerr, S. (1975). On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B. Academy of Management Journal, 18(4), 769-783.
Peters, S., Cossette, M., Bates, R., Holton, E., Hansez, I., & Faulx, D. (2014). The influence of transfer climate and job attitudes on the transfer process: Modeling the direct and indirect effects. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 13(4), 157-166.
Salas, E., Tannenbaum, S. I., Kraiger, K., & Smith-Jentsch, K. A. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(2), 74-101.
Rabbi Yoni Gold is an educator in Skokie IL. With degrees in Jewish Education and Industrial/Organizational Psychology, he brings the insights of psychology into the classroom and to working with school administrations. You can reach Yoni at firstname.lastname@example.org.