Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Focus on Collaboration to Kick Off New School Year

August 21, 2013
Photo credit: RJH School via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The following is an excerpt from PBL for 21st Century Success: Teaching Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity, published this summer by the Buck Institute for Education. Principal author Suzie Boss is a member of the BIE National Faculty and a regular blogger for Edutopia.

Students start building a foundation for collaboration as early as the primary grades when they learn to share, make friends, take turns, and treat one another fairly. As students mature socially and cognitively, they become better equipped to recognize and consider other viewpoints, negotiate differences with peers, make critical decisions, set shared goals, and work toward them. They're ready to make the shift from cooperation to genuine collaboration -- from groups to teams.

Don't assume that students arrive at middle school or high school knowing how to be effective team members, however. Their earlier school experiences may have emphasized cooperation, sharing, and fairness. That's different from the active collaboration called for in high-quality project-based learning.

The start of the new school year is an ideal time to build a strong foundation for collaboration-one of the "4 C's" of 21st century learning and a hallmark of PBL. Here are some guidelines to help.

Know the Territory

Make sure that students understand what collaboration means and why it matters. Ask them to describe real-life examples of effective teamwork. Get them to think about the many specialized roles that come together to make a feature film or digital game. (A quick scan of the credits can be a good conversation starter.)

Ask guest speakers and parents to talk about how they collaborate in their work or when they get involved in community issues. Have students brainstorm jobs that typically require teamwork. In fact, challenge students to think of any field-from athletics to public safety to aerospace exploration-that doesn't require a team effort.

Start with a Plan for Forming Teams

Have a deliberate strategy for forming teams. Aim for a mix of skills and strengths, and plan to address the needs of English learners, gifted students, and other special-needs students so that everyone can maximize contributions to the team.

The more you know about students' strengths, weaknesses, and interests, the better you can balance teams to ensure that each has a mix of skills. Early in the year, survey students about what they can contribute to teams. Or, as an icebreaker, have students interview each other to find out about hidden talents.

Encourage Shared Leadership

Have different students take responsibility for specific tasks within teams. A project that involves giving a local business a make-over might have one student assigned to oversee architectural designs for a remodel, another taking the lead on a marketing plan, and another researching sustainability practices to "green" the enterprise. Help students understand that taking the lead on a task doesn't mean doing it all by yourself, but rather bringing out the best in your fellow team members.

Conduct Team-Building Activities

Introduce students to teamwork with team-building games or mini-challenges. Activities should be low-stakes and even playful, such as relay races that require teamwork, puzzles that require everyone's contribution to solve, or team drawing or construction tasks such as the popular Marshmallow Challenge.

After leading a warm-up activity, guide students in a debrief discussion. What helped team members work well together and bring out everyone's contributions? What got in the way of teamwork? Help students arrive at their own definition of effective collaboration.

Develop Norms

Have students work together to spell out class norms for the conditions that support effective teamwork. Prompt their thinking by asking, "What does it look like and feel like when you are working well with each other?" Help them turn their observations into agreements. Encourage positives rather than negatives. For example, "We listen to each other without interrupting," or "We welcome and respect each other's ideas." (Those are more positive statements than, "No put-downs.") Have students capture these norms on posters or with slogans, and post them in a visible spot in the classroom or on your class website.

Introduce Rubrics Early

If you plan to assess students on collaboration, now's the time to introduce your rubric for collaboration and make sure students know how to use it as a learning tool throughout the project. You may want to write a collaboration rubric as a whole-class activity or rewrite an existing rubric in more student-friendly language. (Download a sample collaboration rubric from BIE.)

Schools that emphasize PBL across the curriculum often use the same collaboration rubric across grades and disciplines, encouraging a common language and schoolwide culture. As you continue to emphasize the language of effective teamwork, students should internalize the message that collaboration gets better with practice.

Walk the Talk

Reinforce a collaborative culture in your classroom by making sure all students have a voice in class discussions. Model what it means to engage everyone in the discussion, listen respectfully, and capture questions in students' own words.

Encourage Accountability

To help students understand what it means to be accountable to their fellow team members, guide them through a process for making team agreements or contracts. Contracts spell out expectations for team members in student language, along with a process that outlines what happens if someone lets down the team. If teams encounter turbulence during a project, encourage them to revisit their contracts instead of asking you to fix things for them.

Teach the Art of Negotiation

Differences of opinion will naturally arise during projects as students make investigations, evaluate research and different problem-solving strategies, and choose the best way to demonstrate or share what they know. Help students master the art of negotiation. Model what it means to advocate for your ideas, be open to others' suggestions, and build consensus so that everyone on the team is comfortable with team decisions. Remind students that consensus is not the same as majority rules or having the loudest voice in the room. Everyone on the team must be able to say, "I can live with this decision."

Teach How to Give and Receive Feedback

Effective collaborators are able to give and receive critical feedback that enables their team to improve its efforts. PBL emphasizes cycles of revision and reflection during projects, creating multiple opportunities for students to give and receive feedback. Be deliberate about teaching students how to give and receive feedback. Ron Berger, chief program officer for Expeditionary Learning, summarizes the three rules he uses to guide peer critique: "Be kind. Be specific. Be helpful." Model how to give and receive this kind of feedback, and share examples of how your own efforts have improved thanks to timely, helpful feedback from colleagues.

Use Formative Assessment Tools

Use informal observations, reflection prompts for journaling or discussion, exit slips, and other tools to check on how well teams are working together. Project logs track the status of specific tasks that teams need to accomplish by key deadlines, alerting you quickly if they are running into challenges. Reflection questions that focus specifically on team dynamics can elicit timely information about team challenges.

Reinforce Conflict Resolution Strategies

Differences of opinion are inevitable if students are engaging in genuine give-and-take during projects. If tensions escalate, be ready to help students resolve their differences peacefully and respectfully. If formative assessment tells you that teams are having trouble getting along, be ready to step in with support or coaching to help them air out conflicts and get back on track. Suggest holding a team meeting or offer a mini-lesson on how to build consensus if team members disagree about the direction to go with a project. If students signed a team contract at the start of the project, use this document to frame discussions about accountability. If a team member isn't living up to his or her agreement, refer the student to the contract and be ready to apply the consequences called for in the document.

Talk about Teamwork

Be prepared for students to challenge your team assignments. "Why can't I work with my friends?" is a common refrain. Parents, too, may question why their students are being graded on team efforts rather than solely on individual work.

This is an opportunity to remind students-and parents-that effective teams leverage the talents of individual members. For most parents, their workplace and community activities likely involve collaboration. Help them make the connection between what their students are learning now and the expectations they will face in the future. Share research that reinforces the value of collaborative learning. (Read "Research Supports Collaborative Learning".)

Throughout the project, have students reflect on how the team process is going and be transparent about conflicts or challenges. If you hear from parents that their student is pulling too much of the load, that's a signal to regroup and refocus on what collaboration means and why it's essential for project success. At the end of the project, students should be able to explain to their parents why they received the grade they did for collaboration-and describe their goals for effective teamwork in the next project.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Collaborative Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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