When first shifting to PBL, you will quickly discover that coaching students how to function in groups becomes one of the primary teacher roles in the classroom. Students, and let’s be honest adults, don’t just naturally get along all of the time. Reflect on your last family gathering as proof. Everyone is unique with strengths and weaknesses that play out in interpersonal relationships. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) skills of relationships and teamwork must be taught, practiced, and assessed constantly.
Another huge shift in PBL is turning more responsibility over to the students.
So if the teacher is the only one planning and organizing, then they are actually stealing an opportunity away from their students to practice those skill sets. What better way for students to learn Self-Management than to project manage their own projects!
Everyone who has ever been a part of a group project knows how rare it can be have an equal amount of participation and equal distribution of work among the members. You have probably had the experience of being the workhorse who gets things done. Worse yet, you may have been on the receiving end of a phone call from an angry parent who thinks that their student is doing everything while the rest of the group slacks off. So how do we create a safe environment where equal work is the norm, and all students develop the skills to do their part?
In PBL, we use group contracts to facilitate students working together. Students should set goals as a team and learn to hold each other accountable for completion. Each team is given a template (free download below) to fill out. Students list their strengths, SEL goals, and contact information. They draft agreements for how they will work together, expectations, and restrictions for the group.
When I introduce group contracts for the first time, I explain their purpose in great detail. I ask students to reflect on previous experiences of working in groups and what makes a group effective or ineffective in achieving its goals. Those reflections become the agreement section of the contract.
I always tell the story about the student who volunteered to write the contract for his group. It ended up being thirty pages long, and everyone signed it. When the project was over, the teacher told this group that they had done such a good job that they were awarded twenty points extra credit. The contract writer immediately interrupted, “I get all of the extra credit. It’s on page 23 of the contract.” The teacher honored the contract.The truth is, that story is fabricated, but I tell the story to make the point that students need to take the process seriously.
At the secondary level, students who don’t pull their weight with the group can be fired. The contract has a minimum, three-step process before firing someone:
- Verbal warning (documented)
- 2nd warning and teacher conference
When a student is fired, they are removed from the group and must start the project over by themselves. They are not allowed to take any resources from the group, but must start from scratch. Students do not get fired more than once, and what normally happens is that once students receive their first warning, they start contributing to the group.
By the time we launch our second project, I spend very little time on creating new contracts. I always have students reflect on the last project for what worked and didn’t in their groups. Then we talk about how lawyers do not write contracts from scratch. They copy and paste. So I have them pull out the previous contract, make a copy, and modify it based on their reflection.
The rest of the year is spent on coaching students how to use these tools effectively to complete their work and get along. This is the challenging, but rewarding work of the PBL teacher. This is the pulse of PBL.