The “Coffee Chat”

During my first year of working in the construct of a PBL classroom my colleague and I developed what we call ‘Coffee Chats.’ We decided early on that we would need supplemental, ‘old school’ almost-lecture style tutorials for our students. The goal was to generate initial knowledge or ideas in a twenty to thirty minute span; basically, keep it short and sweet. We also didn’t want to call these twenty minute standard teaching practices lectures. No, instead we came up with the term ‘Coffee Chat.’ A much more endearing term don’t you think?

The result of our chats revealed some interesting truths.

First, it is important to note that these were not a complete success but not due to their function; rather, the only problem we ran into is that we didn’t do these often enough or on a regular

Lecturing for more than thirty minutes? This is what you can expect.

enough schedule. We hope to improve this going into next year. Second, we learned that the term ‘coffee chat’ is a winner. Students really latched onto the term and we found that many of our students would attend willfully for many subjects. (Here it is important to understand that we did not make our coffee chats mandatory; I’ll explain later.) Third, we held the attention of our students to a much higher degree when we kept our chats to twenty minutes or less. A few chats would reach into the thirty or forty minute range; they just didn’t seem to be as affective. Finally, we discovered our students often times took coffee chat knowledge and used it as a spring board for furthering a project or even completely revising one.

We did our best to authenticate our coffee chats by allowing beverages during the chat time. (Our school had recently opened a coffee shop as a marketing lab, so students really could bring in coffee in the morning.) We also decided this first year to allow our chats to be voluntary. There were drawbacks in the sense that a few coffee chats were really necessary for all to hear, while others could be missed based on what a child already knew. Our solution? Next year we plan to have a calendar in place that shows which chats are mandatory and which are voluntary for each semester. How well will this work? I suppose we have next year to find out for ourselves.

I wanted to share the coffee chat idea with you in case you find the concept of value. I feel this is a good compromise for a teacher who really wants to dive into PBL but has reservations about giving up so much control. You would be amazed how much more willing a student is to attend and listen to a ‘lecture’ when it is termed as a coffee chat or a workshop. (I’ll talk about workshops in a future post as well.) If I learned anything from my first PBL year, it is that students are capable of much more understanding, devotion, and creativity if you just give them the opportunity to choose.

Besides, aren’t we all motivated when we know we have choice in how we tackle a problem? We need critical thinkers and people who can think outside of the proverbial box. Coffee chats are merely a way of sparking initial interest or to clarify a standard. What happens after the chat is what separates PBL from everything else in education.

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