George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Editor's note: Today's guest blogger is Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, youth development, and 21st-century school design.

I don't believe that we have yet tapped the true power of project based learning. Right now, PBL is still kind of a cool way to address standards and, too often these days, is simply coverage by another name. But its ultimate benefit is to help students think, learn, and operate in the new century by challenging them at deeper levels. That requires reversing the equation between skills and content: PBL is method for teaching students to find, process, understand, and share information, not a way to extend the industrial landscape of regurgitation and recall.

In turn, that means we must get much better at using PBL for its primary purpose: Helping students be more skillful. To illustrate, I'll focus on our favorite 21st century skill, collaboration, a staple of most projects, as well as a source of problems in many projects.

First, let's talk football. Notice that the Dallas Cowboys don't refer to themselves as a "group." There is a good reason: Groups are different than "teams." In groups, students sit together at a table and share, talk, plan, and do some work. Teams focus on performance, commitment, and outcomes. Groups might follow a vague list of classroom norms, but high performance teams operate by an explicit ethic of service to others, listening, attentiveness, and shared leadership?all required to turn out the highest quality product based on team effort.

So, a good first step is to stop thinking in terms of groups and start thinking in terms of teams. But beyond a vocabulary shift, PBL teachers need a set of tools that establish a team ethic. They also need to set aside time for this during a project and before a project. A group of high-functioning adults rapidly can form a team, but 14-year olds, not so much. Here are three steps that can help:

  1. Use a solid, detailed collaboration and teamwork rubric.
    Performance begins with establishing standards. A skills rubric is just as critical as a testing measure. Introduce the rubric at the start of the year, use it as a training tool, break it down into listening or attention or body language or any other scaffold. Put a grade to the rubric. Make it count.
  2. Distinguish working groups from teams.
    Not every element of every project requires a team. A working group might come together for a research task, with a leader, agenda, and individual products from each student. Mutual accountability is not required, nor is there a joint product. Working groups do not require a contract, but a team will likely require a written agreement about how they will operate.
  3. Help students focus on the core element that distinguishes a group from a team: the commitment to each other's success.
    Though a virtual unknown in our Wild West system of education, this is now how the world operates. You may need to use discussions, reflection, encouragement, or threats (whatever works), but today's young people need to get a better sense of how they can collaborate to provide innovative solutions to challenges and problems. Our system trains them to see cooperation as cheating; PBL can teach them to produce beautiful work through sharing their strengths.

Once your teams are formed, and they understand their task, I'll also suggest a seven-step process that may help them perform at the highest level:

  1. Ask them to discuss their respective strengths and weaknesses. What will each of them bring to the team?
  2. Ask them to explicitly identify their commitments to one another.
  3. Ask them to mine for conflict. What differences exist between them? Do they see the project differently? Do they agree on the product?
  4. Have them define the task and identify the first three steps they will take.
  5. Emphasize first meetings and a fast start.
  6. Challenge teams with fresh information on a regular basis.
  7. Encourage "hang out" time and celebration. All good teams like to see and celebrate success.

For rubrics, sample contracts, or more conversation about this, contact me at

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Thiago Fernandes's picture

I think that when you lay so much instruction down on kids, you are perpetuating the "Industrial landscape of regurgitation and recall." The whole point of having children learn through projects is to believe in their capacity to achieve real and relevant results. It should not be made artificial and simulated like most everything else in the classroom environment.

Lori Callister's picture

Diana Laboy-Rush,'s STEM solutions manager, encountered what you describe when creating teams for one of her LEGO groups. She found a very effective way to help students learn how to support each other's success was to enable them to change roles (worker, director, etc., designer, etc.) to experience and understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

For years, I have had as the first TEAM assignment, the development of what I call the Team Performance Agreement or TPA - in essence a contract among members as to how they are going to proceed. I don't tell them what is to be in it but rather provide a short handout that includes a few topics they might consider. As I tell them, I've received great half-page TPAs and multiple-page versions that say nothing. The grade for it is full credit for submission, zero credit for none submitted; I do keep a copy and return them with my comments. We return to them for consideration once or twice during the class for the consideration of revisions. In general, TPAs have had the desired positive effect.

Diana Laboy-Rush's picture
Diana Laboy-Rush

You have a fantastic memory, especially when it comes to discussions about breakthroughs with students. This was absolutely an eye-opener for me, when I was working with a brilliant "group" of students who could not, for the life of them, figure out how to work together towards a common goal. Every team meeting had at least one raised voice conflict, which was no fun to manage as a coach.

It was not until we separated out all of the roles and performed an exercise where students could only fill one role at a time and had a chance to try ALL roles, did they understand the importance of working together. When they were empowered to choose the role where they could contribute their strengths to the team, it seemed the conflicts just plain disappeared. And I began to hear the kids refer to each other's strengths and to actually defer to each other because they knew that their team-mate would do a better job for the team.

Thinking back to that breakthrough still gives me chills, because as teachers, we are still students of how to engage our kids in learning. I made a huge leap that day!

Jessica Piper's picture

I have been implementing PBL on my own in my reading and writing classes...I have an opportunity to teach just writing next year while looping with 7th and 8th graders. We use standard-based grading (good for objectives and rubrics, but bad because I am supposed to have a zillion grades for mastery).

I really need direction when I devise my projects for next year...any suggestions? It has to incorporate standards-based grading.


Diana Laboy-Rush's picture
Diana Laboy-Rush

After all, in order to demonstrate that you truly understand something you need to be able to communicate about it.


I recently gave a presentation (at NSTA) about the importance of using writing as a way to build math and science higher processing skills and how Web 2.0 tools provide an infinite number of ways to build writing and literacy skills across the board.

The project - as an instructional approach - is the basis that we at use as the way to integrate technology with core curriculum, including language arts, math, social studies, and science. We have many resources for teachers looking for support for doing exactly what you describe. Our platform serves as a professional learning community for teachers to share best practices for how to meet standards and improve student achievement.

An example is a resource that was created by one of our teacher innovators out of Texas that would show up in a search on

Here's a demo I created for the NSTA conference talk I gave, with steps for integrating writing into science instruction.


Let me know if you'd like to chat offline about how we can help.

Nicole Sumner's picture
Nicole Sumner
Integrated Arts Specialist, Rhizomatic Explorer, Music Teacher

In response to Markham's blog on groups versus teams, and Fernandes' call for "real and relevant results"...

"Affinity Groups" is a term used in non-violent direct action work, and it's a useful term for classroom work as well. The "affinity" can be for subject interest, agenda, or in the case of direct action, a desire to effect change on a particular issue. In the multi-issue affinity group of which I was a member, we used rotating roles, cooperative learning strategies, teach-ins, and many tools of classroom PBL. I'd say the main difference is that we were consistently responding to and affecting change on a current community issue (affordable housing), national issue (native sovereignty rights) or global issue (nuclear test ban treaty).

I believe in teaching children the tools of direct action at a young age. This is something that ties into project-based learning, service learning, inquiry-based learning, and participatory action research, but goes beyond it.

For instance, sometimes a project can only go as far as the imagination of the teacher in the room, whether there's a group or an experienced team working on it. When a child or group of students want to affect structural change in a school for example, or change that the teacher or teacher's generation has been unable thus far to affect in the world, how do we respond? Do we subtly or not so subtly shut them down, or do we allow our imaginations and resources to embrace their struggle? Do we help them when we know they will fail, and learn from it? Do we find people who will help them, if we cannot?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The Rights of the Child are good starting places for looking at fundamental levels of support for children's needs and ideas.

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