5 Steps to Problem Based Professional Development

“We’d like to try something different,” John began, “since we’ve already done this type of training before. It would be repetitious to do it the same way, as they don’t seem that interested.” I knew exactly what he meant. We’ve all given this type of staff development in the past. Here’s what the day looks like:

1) Instruct participants: “As a large group, let’s discuss what policy and leadership is.” 2) Then have them divide into groups and discuss one of the following topics using suggested Web-based resources as sources of information. 3) Then have them choose topics and use some technology tool to develop their responses and share them with others. 4) And so it goes, on and on, around and around ...

Problem-based learning, however, provides a different approach. It focuses you on a problem in which the premise and the characters in the story all come from the experiences of your students and real life. Follow these steps to enhancing professional development through the use of PBL. Even if you don’t adhere to the strict process or flow of problem-based learning, you will have transformed the experience for your adult learners. These days, that can be the difference. between just another boring presentation in which people gulp coffee to stay awake and a really transforming experience.

1) Crafting a Transforming Experience

I was working with John, and the first step was to map out what it was we wanted the students — all adult learners — to learn. We could have used Inspiration, but John was a bit skeptical about the use of this approach, so we grabbed the nearest whiteboard. We began to write on the board, asking ourselves questions such as,

— What did we really want them to learn?— Why was it important that they learn this? — What problems or issues would they be able to resolve with the information? — What process, if any, did we want them to follow? Was that process governed by policy? Which ones in particular?

As we organized our thoughts on the whiteboard, our next concern was to ensure that the stakeholders were considered. Stakeholders, as you know, are those with a stake in getting a problem resolved. We asked ourselves, “Who is affected by the information we’re sharing and by the solutions that will be developed?” Of course, it’s also important to discuss who will develop the solution. As soon as we finished the mapping, we were ready for the next step of the process.

2) Engaging the Learners

Mapping the problem had been easy. We were now ready to move into the phase of the process that is problematic for professional development facilitators — writing the engaging narrative, or, the problem. It is challenging since some do not consider themselves good writers, or able to write a fictional problem that integrates the elements addressed by Step One.

“What you have to remember, John,” I shared, “is that you are not writing a fiction story exactly. You are writing a story that encapsulates the issues and stakeholders in a way that grabs your learners.” From my perspective, the writing of the story problem is the most exciting of all the steps. But, it doesn’t have to be a written problem. You only write it if you lack another medium to use and want to remain consistent. You could use radio, television, video-record yourself or create a skit to introduce the problem elements.

Another important point about the problem engagement, or story, is ensuring that you have a “real life” person affected. That does not mean put someone alive in the story, but to make sure your main character is the one who has to solve the real life problem. Whether it is a principal, a teacher, a parent or student, it should be someone who will best come alive for your adult learners. Thus, for a group of principals, the protagonist should be a principal. For a group of parents, it should be a parent or a child. You can always shift the focus of the story so long as the key elements that you want them to learn are present.

3) Facilitating the Process of Problem-Solving

After we had finished mapping the experience through which we would be working, and crafting the narrative, I realized that John was still skeptical. He couldn’t see how we were going to move from the map to real-life professional development session. “What do I do at the beginning?” he asked.

In traditional professional development, we are so caught up in what happens after the introductions, in setting the stage and sharing what people are going to learn today from us, that we miss the point. Adult learners arrive with one set of expectations, you have another, and sometimes, we are frightened into “getting down to business” that we miss the opportunity. We miss the excitement.

To help him understand what his adult learners would be going through, I decided to ease the process of facilitation by modeling the first few moments for him. Modeling the first engagement of the problem was important. It enabled him to see the potential energy in the PBL Approach.

First, I asked him to read the problem. Then, I asked him the question, “What hunches do you have about this problem?” Hunches are intuitive guesses we have about an issue. They are what we think may occur or be the motivations for some of the stakeholders in the problem story. After we jotted these down on another whiteboard (although you can easily use a word processor, a flip chart, etc.), we were ready for the next piece. Before moving on, I stepped back out of facilitative role and pointed out that their guesses had hit on the main issues in the problem. This is an important piece because it tells us that our story involved us in the hoped-for manner.

The next thing was to write down everything we knew for certain in the problem. For example, you might phrase it this way, “Hunches aside, what do we know for certain about the problem?” This is a wonderful approach because, now that we’ve gotten the hunches out of the way, we’re ready to focus in on the problem. No guesses or hunches are allowed. We are strictly “in the text.” These are the facts of the matter and are critical to solving the problem.

After we’ve nailed down the facts, we ask, “What questions can we ask that will get us the information we need to help the protagonist solve the problem?” Of course, one never says protagonist. By this time, everyone is using the protagonist’s first name. A list of questions is produced. An exciting activity, the question generation shows how engaged your audience is. It is often the “proof” that those reluctant to use Problem-based Learning as a staff development technique need to experience it to see its efficacy. Before you move on to the final activity, be sure to prioritize — with the group — the most important questions.

The final activity in facilitating the problem-solving is to have them identify all the potential stakeholders. This last piece allows them to see the big picture, not just try to solve problems from a narrow point of view. It fosters empathy, and being able to view a problem from multiple perspectives. At the end of this activity, you have a list of potential stakeholders. Using the stakeholders as a guide, divide the class into stakeholder groups. It is from these perspectives that the class will explore the issues.

4) Organizing the Research

We accomplished a tremendous amount of work in the first few hours of professional development. Depending on the length of your problem, the third step of enhancing professional development could have taken one to four hours. Now, you will notice the benefits of PBL Approach among your adult learners. Not one of them — honest — is falling asleep. All are self-engaged, almost driven, to solve the difficult, ‘no easy solutions’ problem that “sprang” from the mapping activity in Step One.

Yet, as you move forward, this is the step when you can take advantage of technological tools. You can use treasure hunt or subject sampler type activities such as those found at Ozline.com to organize the resources for your learners. You can take advantage of online resources such as Digital Knowledge Central, which is the replacement for the Texas Library Connection, with access to research, or a digital video distribution system. Whatever resources — books, newspapers, online — the point is that they have to find the most effective way of doing their research.

At this time, you can introduce new techie tools, graphic organizers, and information problem-solving strategies like The Big 6. Whatever the process is, make sure that your adult learners keep track of what process they are going through. You’ll want to evaluate its effectiveness later.

5) Sharing Possible Solutions

Now that your adult learners have spent some time doing research and working through the information they needed to develop a possible solution, ask them to share what they have come up with. More importantly, ask them to first develop criteria for what would be an effective solution as a group. Use these criteria to assess the solutions that are brought forth, as well as what process they followed in information problem-solving.

This feedback is important for adult learners and allows them to fine-tune the solutions they develop. The wonder of the PBL approach, as employed with adult learners, is that they will not perceive your workshop as a long, boring exploration of a topic at the periphery of consciousness. They will not sit in your class mentally ‘elsewhere’ – problem-solving the real life challenges they face, or will encounter, back at their campus. Instead, you will have tapped into their creative energies, engaging them, making them feel as if they, not you, had planned out the experience.

Having done both types of professional development, I now find that anything less than PBL is just a transfer of information that may or may not actually become a part of my problem-solving tools. Like my friend John, you may be skeptical of the approach. Go ahead and try it. If you sense a lot more energy in the group, you will know you have tapped into the process.

Email:Miguel Guhlin