Creating Adult Connections in PBL

Originally posted Sept. 5, 2017 at rmjohnson45.wordpress.


One of the worst things about school is that it is school. For many students, it becomes a place they have to go as a buffer between childhood and the real world. As educators though, one of the most rewarding (and challenging) aspects is to create meaningful connections to adults outside of the school environment. Below is a helpful continuum (and some tips to get started), but not exhaustive, to think about the depth of the adult connections you are creating for your students.

No Adult Connections
This one is pretty straightforward. An entire project cycle takes place with zero interaction with adults outside of the teacher. No bueno.

Scenario-based Connections
Scenario-based connections can be powerful if done correctly. In this level of adult connections, community partners are used in a “mock” or “scenario” setting. For example, a teacher might have TV producers come show students how a TV show is made, to help students create their own fake segment. Or students might explore a real issue, but the community partner is used in a false reality—for example, local real estate agents or contractors could play the role of “investors” in students’ tiny house design proposals. In both of these situations, the adult connection is still valuable, but not rooted in solving a real problem.

Guest Speakers
This is the most traditional way we see adults brought into the classroom. Students might be learning about the legal process, so the teacher has a lawyer come in and present about the work that they do. Many times these guest speakers provide very valuable insights, but there is little or no applicable connection to the project work besides the topic covered. A better use of a guest speaker in PBL is to have them provide content or skill expertise that directly helps answer students’ “need to know” questions.

Panelist or Evaluator
Another common way that we see community partners used in PBL is as a panelist or evaluator. In this level, the students work on the scope and sequence of the project and then the adult comes in on the final day(s) of the project. For example, students might be drafting solutions for sustainability in the local watershed, and local ecologists come in to hear presentations and give feedback on their ideas.

Project Designer
This can be the most time consuming, but a very rewarding level of the adult connection spectrum. Here, community partners are co-creators of the project experience. They work hand-in-hand to design the driving question, problem, and scaffolds to drive the learning. An example of this could be that a local non-profit is looking for a documentary to be created covering a topic of interest. The teacher works with their executive director to design the project experience for students. (Another example is the “Wing Project” in which a Boeing engineer helps a physics and math teacher plan an airplane wing design project.)

Scaffolding Support
In this level, adult connections are made continuously or periodically throughout the development of solutions. Adult connections serve as mentors, resources, and critical friends for project groups. For example, in an economics course project students design start-ups, and each group has a mentor who comes every week to give them feedback on their design.

Solution Seekers
This is the pinnacle of the adult connection continuum. These are businesses, organizations, non-profits, etc. that have an authentic problem that needs a solution. The project is guided by developing potential solutions and the adult connection actually implements a solution or mixture of solutions when complete. A solid example of this would be an engineering course working with the local downtown development organization to design the layout and function of a new public space. The organization then takes the student ideas and works with a design firm to finalize the plans to go to the city for approval. Or perhaps a local non-profit is looking for a documentary to be created covering a topic of importance to them, or a local business wants its website redesigned to appeal more to young customers.

As you can see, there are a variety of ways to get started with building adult connections in a project-based environment. Obviously level one of the continuum is the only unacceptable one. Where do you fall in your current practices?  Do you find yourself falling back to one level as a constant safety net? What does it take to build in more authentic adult connections to your projects?

Tips for Getting Started:

• How to Reach Out
Reaching out to potential community partners is much like searching for project ideas. Places like the local newspaper, community non-profits, or your Chamber of Commerce are great starting points. My rules of thumb are:

  1. Make sure the ask is very clear and precise, especially about the time commitment.
  2. Create outreach templates, but don’t send mass emails. Personalize each outreach.
  3. Reach out to 5x the number of adults you are looking for (if you need 4, reach out to 20). You can always bank those additional connections for later.
  4. Be thoughtful to your community connections and their lives. There is no perfect formula, but consider how far out is too soon to reach out and how close to the start is too late.

• It Takes a Village
Does your school have a database of community partners and staff that are most closely associated with those partners? Start now. If I know that Mrs. Right has a connection at the Environmental Agency, I can connect with her before I reach out. Keep track of successful outreach efforts and unsuccessful. This will also help organize communication efforts and reduce the number of staff having multiple similar asks of the same partners.

• Digital World
Think about how you can leverage digital connections. It’s not the same as in person, but just as valuable. Tools like Nepris can help with this. Also, Twitter has proved to be an invaluable tool in reaching out to the digital world. As a teacher, I was able to create a weekly Skype session with five staffers at the United Nations all because of one tweet.

• Combination of Levels
There is no rule that you cannot have multiple adult connections or multiple levels of the continuum in the same project. For example, you might have local mental health workers come in and work with teams during the scaffolding phase, but then have professional psychologists evaluate the project. As well, you might design a project with a local company and then they come back in to evaluate the final products.

There are a variety of creative ways to mix and match the adult connections you create for students. It takes time, but it’s worth it in terms of student engagement and learning—so dip your toes in the water sooner than later!