New Teachers

From Groups to Teams: The Key to Powering up PBL

Guest Blogger Thom Markham provides a seven-step process for enhancing student performance in a project-based learning environment.

April 13, 2011

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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Filed Under

  • New Teachers
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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