Ten Keys to High Performance Teams

Not every student needs to prepare for a Google-like workplace. And, as popular as STEM is presently, most students don’t want to become software engineers or scientists. But every student, in any job, will collaborate as a member of a team. I once talked with a student who told me he wanted to be a Fed Ex driver. “Just drive around and deliver things,” he said, “No teamwork there.” I urged him to look at the handheld device carried by every driver—the one that communicates with a worldwide network and plugs the driver into a global team.

Every student needs to be prepared for that environment, partly for employment opportunity, but mainly because the deeply embedded mental model of learning and creating as an individual process is obsolete. No one, any longer, can isolate themselves from someone else’s knowledge base, and collaboration has shifted from its earlier incarnation as a social networking skill into the chief way in which we talk to one another in order to get things done. Powerful collaboration is driven by incisive communication—and out of that process come the very best expressions of innovation, creativity, and critical inquiry. In other words, collaboration is now the foundational 21st century skill.

Thinking that students are ‘naturals’ at this is a fallacy. High performance collaboration requires training and the development of key personal skills. For teachers, two initial steps will help launch this process. First, reframe the conversation by using the terminology of ‘teams,’ not group work. Think of your favorite sports team and now call them a ‘group.’ Feel the difference? Teams focus on accountability and commitment; they form for a purpose and operate through norms and shared expectations.

Second, import and adapt the high performance principles common in the work world to teams in the classroom. This requires time, good coaching skills, a relentless focus on the quality of interaction between students, and a set of team tools, including contracts, rubrics, and exercise. But the payoff is noticeable. Once students form teams over an extended period and begin to collaborate well, they learn more, get better at teaching others, produce more powerful products, and enjoy the process. Here are ten principles that can help you design high performance teams:

  • Examine individual strengths within collaborative context. Teams form through an intentional process. One starting point is to have members begin by sharing their individual strengths. Who will need help on certain aspects of the task ahead? Use simple tools, such as a basic Myers-Briggs test, to have students individually assess themselves. Have them share results using respectful communication. In this early phase, always debrief the process. Were we fair? Straightforward? Inclusive? Are we on the way to becoming a team? The goal is not to judge differences, but open up the discussion so students make room for everyone to participate.
  • Speak the language of commitment and character. Groups fail because members don’t pull their weight, aren’t accountable, and don’t really collaborate at all. Have a thorough discussion about the meaning of teamwork. What do students see in their sports experience that translates? Have them grapple with the question: How will we, as a team and individually, hold ourselves accountable for deadlines, shared products, and overall quality?
  • Set the rules. In the adult world, full participation in the team is the expectation (although not always the reality.) Students, however, need support for learning to be a good team member. After a thorough preview of who we are as a team, have members agree on norms or a contract, define their roles, and design specific remedies for situations in which members do not live up to agreements. For students who seem incapable of participating in a team, you might have to make special arrangements. But this should be the exception, not the norm.
  • Prepare teams to fall apart. The old formula for ‘forming, storming, norming, and performing’ is a great comfort to anyone working in a team or on a project—because it is a constant. Teams may start off feeling inspired and unified; by week two, personalities emerge, agreements get broken, and—suddenly—everything’s off. Prepare your teams for the process; help them notice when productivity is breaking down. Reserve time in the teaching schedule for teams to sort out differences, regroup, reassess, and renorm.
  • See conflict as opportunity. No one likes conflict, but this is the exact point when students in teams learn the ways of non-judgment and conflict resolution they will need in the future. Teach the language of constructive feedback and the golden rule of good listening: Are you listening—or just waiting to respond? Often, you can head off issues by having teams practice this at the beginning of a project.
  • Stress design and prototype thinking. After teams become cohesive, the focus turns to work quality. First, make sure teams understand why they are a team. Their goal is to mind-meld themselves into a high-functioning set of individuals focused on creating and crafting the best product they can. Allow time for brainstorming. Encourage failure as a step to eventual success. Give them time to mull, share, and redo. Make sure every idea goes through the filter of feedback.
  • Schedule critical thinking. A very powerful training tool is to use protocols, such as a critical friends protocol, visible thinking routines, or other tools for inquiry, to encourage and teach focused communication that uses the vocabulary and terms of the discipline. Early in the team process, teach them to respond to ideas with a “I like…I wonder…I suggest” approach. Once they have the basics, mix and match. Break the teams into pairs to come up with an idea, then pair-share. Have teams present ideas to each other, then debrief. Keep it in motion and, as they proceed, expect teams to get better at questioning and constructive feedback.
  • Reward innovation. Teams are designed to produce top quality work, but often they exceed that standard. The team process is inherently creative—and they very well might deliver a product that earns an ‘A” but goes beyond the requirements of the assignment. In our standardized system, we desperately need a way to recognize and acknowledge out of the box thinking. I suggest using individual and team assessment rubrics that contain a breakthrough column. This is a blank column that rewards innovation and invites inspiration.
  • Use online collaborative tools. Collaboration and invention have moved online, but the same high performance standards are in effect. Teams should be able to show rich interactions, critical inquiry, and clear communication in their online collaboration. They should hold each other accountable. In this case, teachers need to be part of collaborative teams by being online as much as students. No more hiding behind statements like, “I don’t know much about Edmodo, but my students are really good at it.”
  • Reflect and move on. Before teams disperse, close the circle of learning. Allow a class period to debrief and reflect on the experience. Reinforce high level collaboration by using a formal debrief process. What did we learn? How did we function as a team? What gaps were there? What did we learn individually and collectively? How was the quality of our work, and how do we improve it?

How PBL Educates the Whole Child

Over the past decade and a half, I’ve seen how well executed project based learning (PBL) can provide a joyful learning experience for students. Joy is not our number one standard, I realize, but when projects offer the right mix of challenge, engagement, and personalized support, blended with a motivating, meaningful learning experience that reaches deep into the soul, joy is the outcome. You can see it bubble up in the animated faces, big smiles, body language, and open-hearted response of students at the end of a good project. In other words, we’ve reached the whole child.

This outcome, in my view, can be explained by a little observed fact: PBL is built on the same foundation as whole child education. Inquiry into adolescent mental health, youth development, and developmental psychology has revealed the three core conditions required for young people to develop a ‘drive and thrive’ outlook that leads to successful adulthood: Experiencing mastery; finding meaning and fulfillment; and having a constructive relationship to a caring adult mentor. These are the exact three factors critical to effective PBL, which cannot succeed without a strong teacher-student relationship, a challenging, meaningful problem to be solved, and broad-based assessments that emphasize mastery and growth over time.

The importance of aligning teaching with the fundamentals of whole child education can’t overstated. First, having an educational system disconnected from what we know about healthy adolescent development is unsustainable. And second, educating the whole child is now a national, as well as planet-wide, necessity if we are serious about helping students become skillful, resilient, collaborative, creative, and self aware. The dilemma is that the whole child can’t be educated through the transmission model, and it is impossible to graft a holistic version of human beings onto a framework founded on industrial objectives, punishment and reward, and the achievements of the left brain. We try, but everything turns out to be a work around. PBL offers a way forward.

A quick disclaimer: Right now, not all PBL is equal, and we’re not to the point in which all PBL supports the whole child. Too often, the goal is to cover standards under the guise of ‘student-centered instruction.’ Ultimately, however, I foresee that PBL, supported by initiatives such as Common Core Standards, will continue to evolve and become a consensus teaching philosophy designed to implement whole child objectives.

If you’re a PBL educator, attaining this goal begins with careful design. High quality PBL uses proven methods for planning a project that challenges students, stimulates deep inquiry, and requires them to demonstrate their mastery of skills and applied knowledge. This is the planner’s function—and it’s critical for setting up a thoughtful, scaffolded process that balances problem solving and mastery of core knowledge and concepts relevant to the lives of students.

The second aspect determines the internal assets students will bring to the project. I call this building a ‘PBL-friendly culture’. Driven by intangibles—the personality and style of the teacher, a sincere regard for students, and openness to the failure and success cycle of discovery among them—the culture directly affects the quality of thinking and engagement during the project, and thus the level of mastery at the end, by establishing the positive relationship with students necessary to effective personalization, differentiation, and individual feedback.

This may sound daunting, but the good news is that PBL is in the midst of a rapid improvement process, and experienced PBL teachers are developing student-friendly tools and teaching styles that aim for this more holistic approach. I see progress on at least four fronts:

Teachers as skillful mentors. A mentor relationship is the key to having conversations with students about the meaning and fulfillment they seek in life (what are their interests?) and about their performance (I’m going to tell you how well you are doing and you trust me enough to listen.) PBL led by teachers who talk at, rather than talk with, generally fails. But good facilitation yields amazing results.

Know the why. Very recent research reveals that even ‘rigorous’ standards have little impact on test scores. Rather than focus so tightly on standards, good PBL teachers envision a powerful challenge, invite students into the planning process, and then incorporate key standards and concepts that support the learning goals of the project. This shift—from coverage to questions—by itself addresses many whole child issues in schools today.

Redefine rigor. Both whole child learning and good PBL demand a broader view of human functioning and new standards for performance. Outdated notions of rigor as a tensile measure (How hard can I make this test?) or quantity (How much homework can I give them?) don’t tap the depths of motivation necessary to foster self-determination and awareness. Instead, detailed rubrics that describe world class skillfulness, work ethic, habits of mind, craftsmanship, and deep thinking help students develop from within.

Allow the ‘wow.’ The whole child is a creativity machine that can be turned on—and effective PBL teachers know how to reward innovative thinking, as well as honor divergent solutions that adults haven’t yet discovered. The best PBL employs creativity rubrics, ‘breakthrough’ columns on rubrics, brainstorming, peer protocols, and formal reflection as core tools. It is quite possible to activate the inner resources of children by simply following two guidelines—one, that today’s young people want to reinvent, not reenact, the world; and two, that ‘genius’ is derived from the same root word as joy.

Why PBL is Good for the Brain

Image of open book for project based learning

The news coming in about neuroplasticity—the finding that the brain changes dramatically in response to experience—continues to amaze scientists and intrigue the general public. But the news hasn’t yet impacted education, partly because the gap between teaching methods and neuroscience can’t yet be bridged, and partly because our profession, though relying on the brain more than any other, can’t quite fit a standardized curriculum into a new paradigm that has made obsolete the old view of the brain as hard wired and immutable, or even as the repository of a fixed IQ.

However, maybe we need to take a leap of faith and make best guesses about the relationship between brain function and classroom instruction. My guess is this: Based on preliminary findings in neuroscience, I suggest that PBL fits perfectly with what we can surmise about encouraging optimal brain function.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about cognitive studies showing that working memory—the ability to manage facts and short term responses—can be marginally improved with practice. These studies aim us at better test taking, but little else. The real prize is increasing creativity, problem solving, and fluid intelligence, which is the ability to adapt to new experience. This ability to innovate in response to environment, in fact, seems to be the main message of today’s brain science. It’s what we do as humans. For example, imagine our Neanderthal ancestors around the fire 200,000 years ago. Somewhere in their brains lurked the ability to do AP Calculus, program an Android phone, or parse a presidential debate. What’s lurking in the minds of the 1.5 billion children alive today that can help them manage their adult world? Inquiring teachers should want to know.

So, teaching students in a brain-friendly way is crucial. Here are reasons that I believe PBL supports the brain:

Rich experiences create dense neural networks. Of course, walking alone down a deserted street at 3 a.m. in a dangerous city is a rich experience, especially if you’re being followed. But in the classroom, PBL is designed to offer an educationally rich experience: A complex problem to be solved; multiple inputs and potential solutions; a team-based environment that relies on extensive collaboration; adult interactions; and exhibitions that stretch students. Contrast that with coverage, front of the room instruction, and even low level activities aimed at solving known problems. In workshops, I urge teachers to aim for the top of the new Bloom’s Taxonomy, the sections focused on critical inquiry and creativity. The brain is drawn to those sections as well.

Neural development depends on feedback loops. The brain has an intelligent system for improving itself. Neural development takes place in areas of the brain most useful to solving the problem at hand. Most of the research these days focuses on understanding the pre-frontal cortex—the site of execution, planning, and problem solving. This is a tricky area, because if you present a problem to a student that is too difficult, it activates the hind brain and the stress response. But an appropriate, engaging, manageable challenge is exactly what the brain likes. The brain, in fact, loves novelty. PBL is an excellent method for inviting novel solutions to authentic problems—a combination that feeds the brain and speeds connections.

Risk and failure feeds the brain. Neuroplasticity tells us that neurons form alliances, hook up, unhook, and reform their networks in milliseconds, always on the hunt for the right response or a new solution. In fact, it seems apparent that without challenge, or in the presence of low level facts, the brain gets bored. Working memory is crucial to us on a daily basis, but if that’s all we used, life would be a monochrome. On the other hand, using a design mentality, with the constant goal of getting better, more thoughtful, and finding more elegant solutions, is second nature to the brain. Quality PBL makes failure, risk, and improvement an integral part of the process of learning. No wonder that, with PBL, teachers see extremely high levels of student engagement.

Integrating thinking and feeling fits with the design of the brain. The old view that cognition—the ability to think—is separate from the ability to feel is not supported by current neuroscience. The brain operates as in integrated organ, processing emotions and thinking together in the amygdale, limbic system, and other parts of the brain still under investigation. Significant evidence also exists that the heart drives brain function through nervous connections to the hind brain and cortex. This is close to the frontiers of science, so we don’t know much yet as to the exact mechanisms. But it is well established that love, care, and personal mentorship increase educational achievement. In PBL, this is critical. Basically, a teacher won’t get performance in a PBL environment without creating a culture of care and connection. In my view, this sets up the brain for learning. Without the care, the brain says, “No.”

The power of reflection. Studies show that mindfulness increases neural density as much as a multi-stimulus environment. This tells us that the brain doesn’t just respond to massive amounts of information or a super-interesting problem; in some way, it also benefits from stillness and a meditative look at its own performance. In quality PBL, reflection is critical. This includes reflective pauses in the process of a project, as students review and assesses their progress in solving a problem, as well as more in depth reflection at the end of a project. The end of the project reflection encourages students to power down and probe their development. Evidently, the brain thinks this is a good idea, too.

The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry-Based Learning

Teachers in a rural southeast Michigan high school were recently discussing the odd behavior of the senior class. It seems the 12th graders were acting more civilly toward the junior class in the hallways. The prom was also quieter and more well-mannered than in previous years. More perplexing, prom was over, it was mid-May, and the seniors were still engaged in learning.

The teachers’ explanation: Project based learning.

Here’s the back story. All seniors at this school spend one half of their day hard at work on interdisciplinary projects, in an expansive new space designed to encourage relationships, collaboration, self-management, deeper inquiry, and an easy interface between students and teachers. A year in this environment matured the seniors beyond the usual. Acting out was no longer required.

Stories like this are about to become more important to educators. As education continues the march toward a student-driven, project-oriented approach that values intelligent solutions to open-ended problems, it won’t be sufficient to focus on the wonderful discoveries and authentic work that result from an inquiry-based system. Instead, a far more difficult issue will come to the fore: How will we know if inquiry-based learning is successful, and what non-standardized measures of achievement, like better attitude, apply?

This is a steep challenge because it forces education to cross a philosophic divide. Inquiry-based learning is disruptive to test-based standards and, by extension, the industrialized system itself. Tests reward the right answer, and even brief essays are expected to abide by the perimeters of known knowledge and standardized terms. But open-ended problems result in idiosyncratic solutions, derived from a process of exploration in which students practice evidence-finding, thoughtful exchange, and creative design. During that process, they change and grow as people, not just as test-takers. It will take thoughtful development of new metrics, some strange to education, to develop an assessment system that captures the richness of inquiry-based education.

Standardizing 21st Century Skills

To put a new system in place, a first key step is to disseminate and train every teacher on a clear set of performance standards to assess skills required for effective inquiry, such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Replacing one set of standards with these 4C’s may not sound progressive, but right now rubrics are generally created by individual classroom teachers, rarely shared school-wide, and often poorly written. The goal is to adopt world class rubrics for use at every grade level, in every class, in every district. This sends a message to students that inquiry is a standards-based process. Plus, rubrics are an essential training tool. Students graded against good performance rubrics will perform better over time as they assimilate the new requirements for skills-based learning.

The challenge: Right now, a standards-based environment forces teachers to straddle the inquiry process. Most projects employ performance assessment tools, but a majority of projects end up designed more for academic coverage than exploration and invention, which means they lack power and depth. And a more difficult issue looms: It is likely to prove impossible to objectively measure the more subterranean aspects of inquiry, such as creativity and critical thinking.

Assessing Collaborative Learning

The iconic model of the individual scholar has been replaced by team-based inquiry. In industry, team members are assessed for individual accountability and performance, as well as overall team productivity. Teachers will need to learn to easily navigate between teams and team member performance, engage high end students accustomed to book work, use effective coaching for reluctant students, and take greater care to assess individual mastery during presentations.

The challenge: Effective collaborative inquiry requires that students learn how to perform in a team, not a ‘group.’ New scaffolds include listening, brainstorming, and appropriate body language. But the skills issue is secondary. Teams depend on positive relationships fostered through communication, openness, and shared values. Team building will have to be built into the curriculum.

Making Depth of Thinking Evident

Thinking is very difficult to evaluate, but key signs include use of appropriate vocabulary, the ability to exchange ideas in a protocol-based format, and the ultimate skill of delivering a cogent solution supported by explanation, insight, and evidence. In inquiry-based education, all of these become assessable items. But each requires well thought out criteria that education has only begun to identify.

The challenge: In inquiry, process is as critical as the product. This shifts the grading process. Formative assessments will take on new meaning as teachers look for ways to give targeted feedback as students move through a problem, and to credit students with insights as they grapple with potential solutions.

Turning Engagement from Metaphor to Metric

The traditional model of information management stresses knowledge, skills, and attitude as the qualities required to perform in a job. A relationship-driven, information-based world turns the formula around: Performance begins with attitude and manifests as skills and achievement, a lesson evident in the behavior of the 12th graders in the Michigan high school, whose year began with two weeks of teamwork and ‘attitude adjustment’ exercises. Over the year, their attitude shift resulted in noticeable engagement and deeper learning. Education will need to develop consistent methods for assessing engagement, using qualitative tools such as reflection tools, problem logs, Socratic discussion, and regular school climate surveys.

The challenge: Since attitude is self-referenced and personal, this is highly disruptive to schools, which are used to defining how students ‘should’ feel about their education. But inquiry shifts the terrain. Inescapably, schools will have to move toward pleasing the customer rather than directing the show.

Overcoming Reductive Notions of Cognition

The engagement issue is really a buoy marking deeper waters. The old proxies for educational management—IQ, the ‘high level’ kids, standardized tests, academic intervention strategies—will come under increasing assault from the values and personal strengths that fuel good inquiry, such as perseverance, self-management, flexibility, resilience, and creativity. These qualities are not the exclusive domain of cognition and, in fact, will be delayed by continuing the reductive approach to learning. This requires not only a personalized learning environment but a personalized assessment system. A portfolio system is the prototype for this kind of assessment, but portfolios that stick to academic and career basics won’t be sufficient.

The challenge: Inquiry is intimately connected to character, social meaning, and aspects of emotional intelligence associated with personality. None of these are well understood, even by neuroscientists. It is likely, in fact, that inquiry will be accompanied by dramatic shifts in our explanation of intelligence itself.

Figuring Out Knowledge

This is the elephant in the room. Both brain research and common sense tells us that powerful inquiry requires a foundation of facts, concepts, and a knowledge base. This means that the standardized curriculum and conventional teaching methods will not disappear, nor should they. But the already heated arguments over the Common Core State Standards point to intense discussion over the next few years about the scope and nature of standards. How much do we teach young people, and what do we leave to inquiry?

The challenge: The inquiry approach is nested in the more transformational issue of the changing nature of global knowledge itself. At some point, it will be difficult to pinpoint exactly what an ‘educated’ person should know. Where inquiry will lead us then, it’s hard to predict. But it would be best to have inquiry-based assessments in place before that time arrives.