Before the summer hits, Erin Murphy and I will be releasing our new book on project based learning, Project Based Learning. Real Questions. Real Answers. – Unpacking PBL and Inquiry. To say we’re excited about this release is an understatement. And, more information to come! #RealPBL
In the meantime…Over the next month or so, I’m releasing a five-post miniseries, PBL Problems, which addresses some of the problems I had when implementing project based learning, as well as some of the problems other educators have had and/or continue to have.
Here’s a look at the five posts/problems, all of which will contain excerpts from the new book.
- All of my students are creating the same exact product.
- My students aren’t getting along.
- I don’t know what to do while the kids are working.
- My students aren’t learning what I needed them to learn.
- Project based learning is so different from all my other teaching.
My Students Aren’t Getting Along
Student collaboration is a cornerstone of any thriving classroom culture, but collaboration can break down when students have differing ideas or opinions. At this point, students typically decide to “divide and conquer.” But collaboration is not defined by slicing up a workload and then smashing together independent pieces into a final product. Collaboration, not to be confused with group work, is an interdependent give and take, where the collective progress of the group improves the overall body of work.
The Job Outlook 2020 survey lists “ability to work in a team” as the second most sought-after attribute in prospective employees. Accordingly, this is a skill we should be teaching our students, both proactively (before projects, and before disagreements occur amongst students) and reactively (during projects, when issues arise).
However, as classroom teachers, here were two of our initial approaches to “teaching” collaboration during project based learning:
- All of our rubrics had a graded component for collaboration, which read, “I was the best teammate that I could be, and I continuously contributed to the project throughout its creation!”
- We put students in groups, told them to get along, and we got upset with them when there were issues.
In other words, we didn’t actually teach collaboration. And, “Simply putting kids around a table and telling them to work together does not teach them collaboration skills” (Quinn, 2012).
While we can debate whether or not collaboration should be graded, if we are going to grade or formally assess something, we need to make sure it has been taught. For a few years we never actually taught students how to collaborate, yet we graded them on this skill. And, we expected them to excel at it even though countless adults struggle with collaboration. Looking back on these years, we feel bad for our students with whom we were frustrated when they had problems coexisting with their partners. Telling students something is going to be graded doesn’t mean they’re going to automatically adapt to meet expectations.
Either way, collaboration should be taught even if it’s not being graded. And here’s how we can teach it.
One approach is to simply tell students the features of effective collaboration, and then make sure these features are followed. A better approach, to promote student ownership and deeper understanding, is to have students uncover these features. Here’s a process to consider:
- The teacher informs students that throughout the year they will be working in groups. She poses the question: What is collaboration?
- Students are exposed to various “collaboration exemplars” through classroom observations (in person and in video) and by reading articles on the topic, which don’t necessarily have to be school related.
- In groups, students are asked to consider these exemplars and their experiences in order to list the features of effective collaboration – while also taking into account what collaboration should look like, sound like, and feel like.
- Everyone comes together as a class to share their features. A definitive class list is created by eliminating duplicates, combining similar features, and by including those that are most relevant.
- The definitive class list is added to an anchor chart, which is hung up so it can be referenced and reinforced throughout the year.
- Throughout the year, the list is revised as necessary.
Additionally, each item on the definitive class list can serve as a teaching point and the basis for a lesson on collaboration, which is far less overwhelming (and confusing) than attempting to teach collaboration all at once, in its entirety. We break down our learning goal (collaboration) into more discrete skills, and then we teach into those skills.
As an alternative to the previous activity, here are what PBLWorks lists as the components of collaboration:
- Takes responsibility
- Helps the team
- Respects others
- Makes and follows agreements
- Organizes work
- Works as a whole team
We can give these components to our students and then work with them to define the success criteria for each one. This process would be equivalent to students contributing to the creation of their project’s rubric or assessment tool. In this case, our finished document, which can be used to assess collaboration, would have: collaboration components in the left column (instead of learning targets), success criteria in the middle column, feedback in the right column. Optionally, we can rewrite each component as a statement or question. For example: “I can take responsibility” or “Can I take responsibility?” Prior to the students using the document, we can facilitate lessons that involve the components and their respective success criteria. Then, during and after projects, we can use the document for teacher, peer, and self-feedback.
We can also scaffold collaboration for students by providing them with sentence stems. These stems can be compiled on a handout, which is given to all students, and/or we can add the stems to an anchor chart. Either way, these stems are scaffolds, and the eventual goal is for students to be able to collaborate without them.
Here are a few examples of what these stems could look like:
- What I hear you saying is…
- I agree with you because…
- Adding to what [insert name] said…
- I understand what you mean, and…
- Based on my experience…
- Please say more about…
- What makes you say that?
Lastly, for students to collaborate, we need to be modeling the way by seeking first to understand. While engaged with coworkers, colleagues, and friends, we can consciously work at having and showing interest in the thoughts, ideas, and experiences of others. However, this can be easier said than done. According to Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (2004), “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives” (p. 251). Nonetheless, if it’s what we’re asking of our students, we should be doing it as well.
In the End
Finally, a more unique approach…
Expose students to Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results. For students, knowledge of these dysfunctions promotes self-awareness that helps them to proactively avoid pitfalls while also being cognizant of problems that may potentially emerge. Much like the collaboration components, we can give students these dysfunctions and then work with them to determine what it looks like when each one exists. Only in this case, rather than using the term “success criteria,” we could more appropriately name it something like “dysfunction criteria.” Also, we can use Patrick Lencioni’s book (or book excerpts), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, as we facilitate lessons on the topic.
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- A Step-by-Step Guide to Project Based Learning in a Virtual World - March 23, 2020
- PBL Problems: I Don’t Know What to Do While the Kids Are Working #RealPBL - March 2, 2020
- PBL Problems: My Students Aren't Getting Along #RealPBL - February 24, 2020