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This school pays teachers to tackle real-world problems

By Nicole Krueger
September 5, 2018
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Teachers who champion project-based learning often stumble over obstacles such as restrictive district policies, resistance from leadership and rigid ideas about what school should look like.

Laguna Beach Unified School District in California had the opposite problem. As its schools transitioned to 1:1, district leaders wanted students to use their technology to tackle authentic, real-world problems. They just needed a way to entice teachers out of their comfort zones.

Their solution: Pay teachers to solve real-world problems with their kids.

They developed a unique, badge-based professional learning program to engage teachers in PBL through a series of micro-credentials. The Rocket Ready program not only teaches essential tech skills, but it also guides teachers in applying those skills via real-world classroom projects. Teachers get paid once they present a video showcasing their work with students.

The program has since sparked a wide range of school projects aimed at creating a better world. Students have researched ways to reduce waste in their school cafeteria, examined the possibility of using solar energy to power their laptops, raised awareness of sea pollution with an art exhibit made from recycled plastic and collaborated with students from Ghana to explore the importance of gratitude.


(Photo by GettyImages.)

“The outcome is what teachers get paid for — not going to class,” says chief technology officer Michael Morrison. “They get paid for actually doing the project with kids.”

Blueprints for saving the world

When Laguna Beach USD decided to provide tech training for teachers, it didn’t have a model that showed satisfactory evidence of success. Leaders wanted professional learning that focused on demonstrable outcomes rather than “sit and get”-style learning. When they couldn’t find one, they decided to create it themselves.

Teachers who join the yearlong Rocket Ready program get two or three days of face-to-face training, along with extensive coaching throughout the year as they work on their classroom project. They also engage in a professional learning network to help support their efforts. Each project must attempt to solve a real-world problem while aligning to state learning standards.

Focusing on a real-world outcome is essential, Morrison says, because teachers — just like students — engage more in their learning when they’re trying to achieve a goal rather than passively receiving information. 

With each year in the program, teachers earn a new credential and dive deeper into PBL, progressing from “tech essentials specialist” to “world changer.” The micro-credentials themselves align with California’s technology standards, which are similar to the ISTE Standards, as well as the Universal Design for Learning framework and the Buck Institute's project-based learning methodology. The program uses financial incentives to nudge teachers toward the types of best practices district leaders want to see more of. For example, teachers can earn extra money by choosing a cross-curricular project or by collaborating with a school in another district, state or country.

Morrison admits the program, which is voluntary, demands an intense time commitment from teachers, who often put in around 60 extra hours per year. But those who tackle the challenge — about 20 percent of the district’s teachers so far — get fired up by the fact that they’re helping their students change the world, he says.

A successful launch

Project-based learning can be intimidating for many teachers — particularly those who aren’t confident in their technology skills. By providing ongoing coaching throughout the year and encouraging participation in a professional learning network, the Rocket Ready program helps teachers cultivate the skills and practices necessary to create powerful PBL experiences for students.

When the district enlisted Hanover Research to help measure the program’s effectiveness, they found that:

  • Teachers in the program got better and solving problems with their students.
  • Their confidence with technology skyrocketed.
  • They engaged more with their PLNs.

“Most of the teachers will tell it’s you hardest thing they’ve done in staff development,” Morrison says. “Many will tell you it’s the best staff development they’ve ever had. The majority of teachers feel it’s changed the way they teach.”

The program makes a visible difference at the classroom level too, he adds.

“We had a guest presenter come in and do model lessons, and with 100 percent accuracy they could tell me which classrooms were Rocket Ready classrooms. The kids were more prepared, more resilient and more ready to adapt to new technology.”

Rocket Ready has been so successful, other districts have begun adapting the model, prompting Laguna Beach USD to create a nonprofit to help educators replicate the program, says education consultant Michael Lawrence.

With most technology training, it’s a tossup whether teachers will actually apply what they’ve learned. But “I can guarantee you that every single teacher who went through this program integrated technology,” Morrison said. “They all did the project. It’s a fact.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.

Top photo by Michael Morrison.

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