Bringing the Outside In: 6 tips for inviting experts to your PBL classroom

2 09 2014

The students, grades 5-8,  gathered in the lunchroom as the teacher tested the Skype connection with Christopher Orwoll, the then-CEO of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum. Sure, The Cosmosphere was located only 2 hours away from us, but it might have well been 200 hours away. Our budget would never let us travel there.

Students were quietly gathering their food, choosing tables, and clutching their already-prepared questions in hand. This was the first-ever working lunch for many of the younger students and it was exciting! When the connection was made, there was Mr. Orwoll, big as life, standing in front of the actual Apollo 13 capsule! 

Soon, many students were lined up, asking questions that were carefully crafted to gain the most essential information in order to move their part of the project forward. While some students asked Mr. Orwoll about specific dimensions and functions of various items of the Apollo 13 space mission, others snapped photos of the video conferencing event, while others, listening intently, were quietly scribbling notes as they munched on sandwiches and carrot sticks. As he spoke, Mr. Orwoll moved the camera on his end so students could look at the capsule and other actual space artifacts from various angles. It was quieter than any middle school lunchroom you could imagine, while still being filled with the excitement and electricity of the moment.

After the almost hour-long video conference (and lunch), the younger students marveled that they had been looking at the actual Apollo 13, while older veteran students remembered back to other projects and other experts they had talked with during video conferences, some over lunch. While Mr. Orwoll’s information about the Apollo 13 was extremely helpful, it had become almost commonplace to be able to talk with experts in the field, and they were ready to run outside, stretching their legs for a few minutes before heading back to work on their model and artifacts with the new-found information.

 

While preparing for a PBL project, many teachers find it easier to call on other educators who would be a useful supplement to learning. However, in the course of preparing for a project or even during the project, you’ll likely find yourself, and your students, asking questions to which you don’t know the answers. Or you might find that your students are asking questions that are really smart; these are questions which deserve answers, but despite their best research and your assistance, you just don’t have the right answers for them. So should you drop those questions and concentrate on only the ones that you and your colleagues can address?

Of course not.

In addition to in-house educator experts, strongly consider who else in your local and online communities (Professional Learning Networks), such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ might be able to serve as a content or skill expert beyond the school-based context. As you need these experts, call on them to assist your students with the learning.

PBL "experts in the classroom" experts

5th grader talking with Dr. George Look, then with the US Department of State

Likewise, you might also decide to call upon outside expertise during the preparation of the project. Using experts during the prep phase helps to ensure that high-quality, rigorous learning is being embedded at each step of the expectations. These specialists may be available to come to your room to share their knowledge with you and your students, or you may need to connect with them via email, phone conference, or video conference, as these students did with Mr. Orwoll of the Kansas Cosmosphere. If a personal meeting is not available, consider using a video conferencing tool, such as Skype or Google Hangouts, when possible. The combination of visual and auditory connection allows for learners of all ages to have an experience that is very similar to the f2f relationship. In fact, with a little practice, it can become as natural as opening up a virtual “window” on your wall to talk with someone who is just on the other side.

Advice for working with non-education based experts

  1. Remind them to be cautious about how much info they provide.
    As you’re gathering names for your library of experts that your students are able to leverage for their projects, it is good to remember that many experts will often lead with brainiac or collegiate-level information, doling it out to students in very large and highly detailed portions. If you have upper level high school students, this is fine. Or they’ll talk to your students as if they were complete idiots. Misaligned expectations can drop a wet blanket on the momentum of the entire project. It is your job to help the expert understand the levels of learning and skill in your classroom before they connect and to become an onsite “translator” during the visit, if needed.
  2. Help them to do more than just provide information.
    This is the prime time to let the expert know that “empowerment through inquiry” is at the core of the work for your students. Some experts will have a tendency to lecture at students, and those will need your assistance with figuring out how to engage beyond simple one-way lecture. Consider asking them to drop questions for the kids too. It will help them keep from either talking down to or talking well above the readiness of your students if they have to engage with the students in conversation and thinking.
  3. Help them understand the unit driving question or challenge.
    It’s important that experts see the bigger picture of why they’re being consulted, especially if they’re not familiar with a PBL-type classroom. Experts should expect to be asked for information that might be beyond what typical kids ask. They are also welcome to volunteer some additional information beyond what students have directly asked.
  4. Ask them to challenge the kids to go deeper or farther in their thinking.
    The best way for experts to interact with the students is to ask questions which might cause the student to do deeper research and learning. This is something that an expert can truly excel at beyond what a typical classroom teacher can do.
  5. Ask for permission for follow up questions.
    Sometimes a student may go off to research after a visit with an expert, only to come back a while later needing to ask additional questions, now that they’ve dug in further. This follow up might be better via phone or email. Or it might need another video conference. Either way, an expert might want to know this is a possibility. Or perhaps a student might want to consult a different expert for another point of view, which is simply good research practice.
  6. Sometimes an expert consultation doesn’t go well.
    Despite our best plans, sometimes we get connected with someone who is not relating with our kids, for whatever reason. Recognize that. They’re probably noticing the same thing and if they’re not, it’s double-trouble. Pull that ripcord. Get out. Find a polite wrap-up to thank this person for their time, but don’t continue to subject everyone to something that’s not going well. Time is much too valuable for that. It happens. Reflect on what happened and why, help the kids learn to be appreciative of the effort another put forth, and move on.

Overall, a word of caution: not all experts will be comfortable with talking with students or using the inquiry technique. As the teacher, it’s your job to prepare the visiting experts for this type of learning format. Visit with them ahead of time about the project and your expectations. Provide sample questions, if possible, and in the case of student-contacted experts, let them know that while the students are going to take the lead in the conversation, you’ll be ready to intervene if needed for any reason.

Ultimately, it is your responsibility to ensure that students are gaining high-value information that leads to deeper engagement of learning. These connections continue to foster relations and deeper collaboration with the community and experts beyond the school walls. Whatever it takes, we want to make that connection a lasting and positive interaction for both your visitor and your students.

And don’t forget the thank you note afterward!

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