Professional Learning

New Chat Encourages Best Practices for PBL

Bringing PBL best practices to light

January 30, 2012

This was bound to happen. Advocates of project-based learning are strong believers in collaboration. Many are also adept at using technology tools to communicate and connect. So it was only a matter of time before PBL educators would start their own regularly scheduled chat on Twitter.

Launched in December, the weekly meet-up known as #PBLchat has quickly attracted a loyal following. The first chat saw more than 1,100 comments in just one hour, and the event continues to grow. It happens Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Pacific/9 p.m. Eastern.

Kickstarting Collaboration

Chat co-founder Theresa Shafer (@theresashafer) says the idea started within the New Tech Network, for which she is online community manager. New Tech Network includes 86 schools across the country, all using project-based learning with integrated technology as part of their 21st-century learning model.

New Tech teachers already connect online using a collaborative platform shared across the network. "But it can be like talking to the choir," Shafer admits. New Tech schools use the same instructional model and speak the same language about project design and implementation. Shafer, formerly the director of technology at Zebra New Tech High School in Indiana, adds, "Sometimes you need to be poked with questions."

Shafer noticed that another active social media user -- Matt Sears (@TeachInDurham) from North Carolina -- had started using the Twitter hashtag #PBLchat to call attention to tweets relating to project-based learning. Shafer and New Tech colleague Geoff Krall (@emergentmath) agreed that the timing was right to launch a dedicated chat to engage a broader audience interested in PBL. A few tweets later, the first chat was off and running.

A Community Comes Together

Along with a strong contingent of New Tech teachers and instructional coaches, PBLchat attracts educators from diverse contexts. Some are PBL newcomers and might be the only ones in their building using projects to teach important content. They get the chance to pose questions to more experienced teachers. But veterans also stand to gain. Says Shafer, who taught for 15 years, "I learn something new every week."

Teachers are the primary participants, but chats also attract experts such as my knowledgeable colleagues from the Buck Institute for Education (@biepbl) and BIE National Faculty. School leaders are apt to weigh in, as well. One principal, preparing his school to shift to the PBL approach next year, has encouraged his staff to join PBLchat to start thinking about the changes ahead.

A handful of students are joining the conversation, too, reminding adults of the importance of student voice for project-based learning to be effective. A recent chat even included a few parents who wanted to learn more about this instructional approach to help them make informed decisions about where to enroll their children.

"Where else are you going to find professional development that includes 15-year-olds, parents, school leaders, experts, and teachers?" says Shafer. "It's such a diverse community."

Whatever their background, participants use the one-hour timeslot to connect with new colleagues, exchange ideas, and ask the hard questions that inevitably arise in classrooms where students are engaging in real-world projects. For instance: What happens if an entry event falls flat? How do you encourage students to reflect on their learning? And what about homework?

Each PBLchat is focused on a specific topic, announced in advance, and has a facilitator who keeps the conversation moving at a brisk clip. Weekly tweets are archived, providing a record of the good thinking that emerges from this community (and a way to catch up if you aren't able to join the live events).

Topics for each week come from two sources. Shafer has posted a has posted a Google Doc where anyone can suggest a good discussion question. (The same Google Doc offers how-to information about Twitter for newcomers to this tool.) She also keeps an ear out for questions that emerge during each week's event.

Suggestions and Support

Not surprisingly, educators approach professional learning with the same spirit that they bring to the PBL classroom. If collaboration, critical thinking, inquiry, and relevant topics are best practices for facilitating student learning, then they're also essential for professional development.

Here are just a few of the good ideas that I've heard from this creative community:

Community connections: A focus on school-community partnerships in one chat prompted suggestions for making it easier to connect students with off-campus experts. For example: survey parents about their expertise and then invite them to participate as content experts; connect with local Chamber of Commerce; invite professionals to take part in project showcase events; involve "student ambassadors" in reaching out to experts; use online tools like Skype to connect students with experts from outside their community.

Social media: Suggestions for integrating social media into projects include using platforms like Edmodo to offer parents a window into the PBL classroom; having students use social bookmarking sites like Diigo to share, annotate, and organize resources; using Twitter or polling tools to have students vote on potential project topics.

Project scrap yard: What if we had an online repository of projects that could be taken apart, retooled, and improved upon through teacher collaboration? This suggestion reminds me that project work should be iterative, with students taking part in cycles of review, reflection, and improvement en route to a final product. Using the same approach for instructional design helps teachers improve project plans.

Celebrations: Celebrating student learning helps build a positive classroom climate and reminds students how much they are accomplishing through the hard work that projects demand. One participant (@archangel76) observed, "We always publically credit/celebrate students who give us great ideas. The more you share the more you care." A student on the chat quickly confirmed that celebrations of learning "help the student feel like they did something worth talking about."

Action: Chat participants often point out (and retweet) ideas that they're ready to put into action. Laura Byno (@laurabyno) commented after one chat, "Revised my social contract for next #pbl based on ideas from #PBLchat."

The next PBLchat takes place Tuesday, Jan. 31. Timed to coordinate with Digital Learning Day, the topic will be technology tools for project-based learning. See you there! (Follow me @suzieboss)

Please add a comment to tell us about your takeaways from PBLchat.

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