George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Building Partnerships to Expand the PBL Classroom

May 29, 2013
Photo credit: Karissa Stay
Ninth Grade AP Human Geography teacher Karissa Stay's students outside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors' Center.

As we reimagine curriculum at Sammamish High School around a comprehensive problem-based learning approach, we find ourselves reimagining the bounds of the classroom and the singular nature of The Teacher. One way that we have been expanding the classroom and the role of the teacher is through expertise. In ninth grade AP Human Geography, a full-inclusion class, the use of experts has increased students' motivation within challenge cycles, as well as given students a view into various careers in or related to geography.

Envisioning Expertise

Before delving into the value of expertise and providing some advice for incorporating it, I think it is first necessary to unpack how Sammamish envisions expertise. Expertise can be something as informal and small as using the students themselves as experts. For example, within our cultural geography unit, students create a culture box wherein they represent their language, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, folk and popular culture. The full range of student experience represents expertise that can be shared with peers. Expertise also includes more formal partnerships outside of school. Within AP Human Geography, we have partnered with the City of Bellevue Urban Planning Department and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitors' Center.

The incorporation of this formal outside expertise has dramatically impacted student engagement. Within our agriculture unit, students had the opportunity to work with the Gates Foundation Visitors' Center. Focusing on South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, they researched agricultural and developmental challenges, brainstormed solutions to these challenges, selected a plausible solution, conducted more research, and then presented their solutions to a small group of Foundation staff that came to our school. After this, student groups from each AP Human Geography class were selected to present work at the Visitors' Center in Seattle to a large group of agricultural and development experts.

Increasing Student Engagement

During this challenge, student engagement increased on account of several factors:

  1. Students saw the work as authentic. The agricultural challenges they chose to work on were challenges that Foundation staff members were working on as well. The problem-solving process we utilized in this unit was also derived from the model used by the Foundation.
  2. Students felt accountable to the Foundation. Knowing that their work would be viewed by people who were interested purely in its merit and content -- and not simply as an entity to be graded -- brought about a level of professionalism I didn't think lived in ninth graders.
  3. Students felt valued. We were lucky enough to have a very dedicated partner, Patrick McMahon, at the Visitors' Center. In addition to meeting several times with the AP Human Geography teachers, Patrick came to Sammamish four times over a four-week period. Moreover, he hosted students on a field trip to the Foundation in Seattle. During the agriculture unit, students felt that the work was authentic and that their contributions to the solutions mattered.

To read more about students' work on the agricultural challenge with the Visitors' Center and to get the perspective from our outside expertise partner, view the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's blog, Impatient Optimists.

How to Incorporate Formal Outside Expertise:
A Dating Analogy

After creating several partnerships between outside experts and AP Human Geography, I have found that the best way to describe the process is through the analogy of dating. From flirting to courtship, from honeymoon to married life, partnership development mirrors the same stages.

1. Determining What You Want

The first step to incorporating outside expertise is figuring out what your unit's possible challenge problem might be. Within AP Human Geography, it has helped to keep the challenge problem somewhat broad and to draft some possible challenge questions. I'll call this the pre-flirting phase. In this phase it's useful to have an idea of what you want; however, an overly scripted list of wants or ideas will inhibit you from finding the right partner. In the case of PBL, having a narrow challenge idea can also start off the potential partnership on a one-sided note. It's important to remain flexible with the challenge problem to fit the needs and questions of the potential partner.

2. Flirting

The second step is to identify and contact potential partners. In this phase -- the flirting phase -- the goal is to showcase your challenge ideas along with possible ideas for collaboration with outside partners. I've had the most success with individually emailing several people from the same company or organization. Surprisingly, most people have emailed back or passed me along to someone who has emailed back.

It is worth noting that some teachers are lucky enough to bypass the pre-flirting and flirting stage. There are instances when outside expertise finds you. During these moments of unexpected flirting, I encourage you to go see what the splendor of courtship could bring.

3. Courtship

After receiving interest from a partner, the courtship phase begins. This is a fun and exciting time, filled with butterflies and the promise of possibility. This is also the most intense phase of the partnership progression. You need to figure out what you want from one another and how you want to communicate. At the end of your first PBL challenge with the partner, I highly recommend taking some time to reflect together on how both partners benefited. Providing the partner is interested in engaging further, you can also discuss what you would like to change next time around.

4. Marriage

After the first year or two of the PBL challenge, the partnership becomes institutionalized, as in a marriage. You no longer worry whether the partner likes working with you. You don't need to go out of your way to impress the partner. (However, it's always nice to let them know that you're thinking about them.) You know one another's strengths and weaknesses and are able to supportively incorporate these qualities within the partnership. Best of all, you've built the trust that can allow your partnership to deepen and grow.

I hope you've found this post helpful in thinking about how you might reimagine the use of expertise in the classroom. Please share your comments or questions about incorporating expertise through partnerships that bridge beyond the classroom. What kinds of partnerships have you created? Let's start a discussion below.

Editor's Note: Visit "Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning" to stay updated on Edutopia's coverage of Sammamish High School.

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Community Partnerships
  • Social Studies/History
  • 9-12 High School

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