From Groups to Teams: The key to powering up PBL

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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

PBL and Common Core Standards

Image of students raising their hands for the project based learning

The first question about Common Core Standards has been answered: What will they look like? The answer is: Very different. The internationally benchmarked standards will emphasize creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, presentation and demonstration, problem solving, research and inquiry, and career readiness.

The second question is more challenging: How will we teach these new standards? For several years, the winds of change have been howling in one direction, pointing educators toward greater focus on depth rather than coverage, thinking rather than memorizing or listing, and demonstrating and performing rather than ‘hand it in and grade it.’ With 46 states endorsing the Common Core Standards and half of those planning for full implementation in the next three years, we’ve moved into hurricane status. Quite soon, we’ll land on a distant, unknown shore. Teachers will have to teach differently.

States and professional development organizations recognize that the kind of transformative professional preparation necessary to meet the challenge of teaching the new standards is not yet in place. But for those teachers and schools who want to jump start the process, I suggest a solution is in place: Use project based learning (PBL).

First, I refer to high quality PBL, as outlined in a recent post. Successful implementation of the new standards will require innovative best practices that persuade and prepare students to engage in thoughtful problem-solving, as well as encourage better performance through more sophisticated, broad-based assessments. PBL, well done, accomplishes those goals. But old style ‘projects’ won’t come close.

The Six Moving Parts

There is an overriding reason that the Common Core Standards will challenge our professional capability as educators: Teaching inquiry and skillful problem solving is not a simple change of strategy to, let’s say, favoring one reading method over another. Instead, success relies on shifting a number of teaching practices simultaneously. When aligned, these practices act synergistically to activate a student’s desire to learn, support growth over time, invite deeper engagement, and stimulate the reflective and critical faculties—often in a team-based, collective environment—that lead to superior solutions and analysis.

I call these shifts the six ‘moving parts’ of PBL. They help meet the goals of the Common Core Standards in the following ways:

  1. Moving from instruction to inquiry. More than ever, curriculum will now start with questions rather than the delivery of information. Subject matter is important, but teachers will now need to know how to apply knowledge through designing a problem solving process. PBL teachers begin by posing a significant challenge to students and capturing the challenge in a manageable problem statement or driving question. The question frames the project; the problem sets the solution process into motion. Choosing and crafting a suitable problem requires experience, curiosity, and passion, as well as thorough knowledge of the discipline.
  2. Balancing knowledge and skills. The Common Core standards rebalance the equation between content and skills. In every subject, the emphasis is now on a blend of knowing/doing and learning/demonstrating, in which students apply what they know and demonstrate mastery of 21st century skills such as presentation and collaboration. This shift changes expectations for student mastery, rearranges assessments and grading systems, and relies on coaching students (more on that in a minute) for better performance. These represent the core skill set for PBL teachers, and are backed by a well developed set of PBL tools.
  3. Going deep. Deep thinking sounds good in theory, but takes time, making it problematic in the context of a 48 minute period or a 180 day school year. Deep thinking also conflicts with current testing requirements, which do not reward insight and analysis. PBL approaches this challenge by assessing fewer standards (the goal of the Common Core), using a variety of proven thinking tools, and designing a controlled process that helps students focus their thinking on the driving question.
  4. Teaching teamwork. The Common Core Standards identify collaboration and teamwork as a 21st century skill to be taught. This is laudable, but something bigger is underway. As the outside world shows us, we’re moving into a collaborative culture of continuous learning within networked communities. The Common Core Standards implicitly recognize this fact, but PBL teachers give it life in the classroom by using team contracts, peer collaboration rubrics, and work ethic rubrics to turn group work into effective teams. This guidance is a necessity for a curriculum that emphasizes problem solving and inquiry, now generally done in the real world in project teams.
  5. Establishing a culture of inquiry. This moving part determines the fate of a project in a PBL classroom—and it will be central to the success of the Common Core Standards. The challenge can be stated simply: When you’re no longer standing in front of the room, giving instruction, it’s hard to be in charge. And, when you’re implementing problem solving and inquiry, you’re usually not standing in front of the room. The only way to remain in charge (and sane) is to teach students how to take charge of themselves, to respect the inquiry process, and become self-directed learners. This requires time, patience, a dose of psychology, and a careful blend of assessments and tools that promote the development of self-awareness, respect, self-control, and other attributes of a functioning community. PBL has led the way in developing and using these tools.
  6. Blending coaching with teaching. Finally, high quality PBL demands coaching skills as well as teaching skills. In PBL, a teacher often works shoulder to shoulder with students, giving them feedback, questioning them, and urging them on to the next level of achievement. It is a collaborative, communal form of teaching and learning that requires good listening, appropriate praise, and focused criticism. The same will be true of the Common Core Standards.

Seven Steps to High Quality PBL

I emphasize the term ‘high quality’ PBL for two reasons. First, many educators still equate PBL with ‘doing projects,’ ‘hands on’ learning, or ‘activities.’ This is an industrial holdover from the time when projects were designed as an antidote to lecture or a respite from seat time, as a culminating opportunity for students to finally demonstrate what they had learned during the year, or even as a simple reward for having endured tedious instruction.

PBL is a far more evolved method of instruction. Well-executed PBL begins with the recognition that, as in the real world, it’s often difficult to distinguish between acquiring information and using it. Students learn knowledge and elements of the core curriculum, but also apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce results that matter. Students focus on a problem or challenge, work in teams to find a solution to the problem, and often exhibit their work to an adult audience at the end of the project. Most important, PBL emphasizes carefully planned assessments that incorporate formative feedback, detailed rubrics, and multiple evaluations of content and skills.

But even with a method, mediocre PBL is still possible (and too prevalent). Simply turning students loose on a problem or question, putting them in groups, and having them do an exhibition or PowerPoint at the end of two weeks, does not meet the criteria for ‘high quality.’ This is especially true if innovation is our goal. Fostering innovation is a complex, challenging task that requires a teacher to do many things all at once: Refocus learning on the student; teach critical content; develop and assess global-age skills; offer constant opportunity for deep thinking and reflection; and reward intangible assets such as drive, passion, creativity, empathy, and resiliency. High quality PBL can offer students that complete experience, but it doesn’t happen automatically.

High quality PBL begins with a consistent, considered project design. Teachers move through a design process based on specific principles backed by proven methods and practices. Taken as a whole, this methodology allows teachers to conceive and implement a coherent problem-solving process that brings out the best work in students and addresses the key standards in the curriculum. Slight variations exist among practitioners, but there is general agreement on these methods. In my work, I use seven design principles. Each principle represents a point—or fault line—at which the project can be made more powerful and engaging, or less so:

  1. Identify the challenge. At the core of PBL lies a meaningful, doable challenge. This means that projects start with a powerful idea, an authentic issue, or a vital concept. The challenge must then be defined so that it aligns with the objectives of the course, but not so narrow that it doesn’t demand innovation and insight.High quality tip: Design projects that matter. A project that gives students an opportunity to contribute to their community or prepares them for life will invite their best efforts and whole-hearted participation. Generally, if projects originate from a laundry list of standards, they lack a big idea to power the project. There must be a reason to learn beyond covering the curriculum.
  2. Craft the Driving Question. Your intention drives a project. What is the deep understanding that you want students to demonstrate at the end of the project? There is a proven process for turning a challenge into a driving question that captures the intent and depth of the project.High quality tip: Make the problem relevant. An effective Driving Question taps a deep level of motivation. For example, a social studies team shifted their question on a Depression-era project to get at deeper lessons from the 1930’s that resonate today:“What can we learn from the 1930’s?” to “How important is self-reliance in today’s world?”
  3. Start with Results. PBL mimics the ‘plan backwards’ approach recommended by many educators. Given that PBL focuses on problem solving, innovation, and ‘fuzzy’ goals, it is imperative that you design both the knowledge acquisition as well as the process of learning. Think of yourself as more of a coach than a teacher. Your job is to put together a game plan for high performance.High quality tip: Think beyond normal lesson planning. Questions that should come up at this stage: What protocols and peer methods will you use to encourage reflection and deep thinking? How will you organize your teams? What evidence will you require to reward innovative thinking?
  4. Build the Assessment. The key to high quality PBL assessment is to view content as one of several outcomes that will help students become more skillful, be reflective about their capabilities, and prepare them for post secondary success. This means designing evaluations and formative assessments in five areas: (1) global-age skills; (2) conceptual understanding; (3) personal strengths or habits of mind; (4) innovation and creativity; and (5) critical content.High quality tip: Distinguish assessment and evaluation. Assessment is a constant tool, used to improve performance and support growth over time; evaluation is the final score. Formative assessment is essential to PBL. Use it regularly throughout a project to improve performance. Assess skill development as well as content mastery.
  5. Enroll and engage. Starting right is the key to success at the end. This includes helping students connect their interests to the question or problem, and organizing teams for effective performance by establishing norms and clear benchmarks.High quality tip: Use a Critical Friends or tuning protocol to have students refine the question or the project. This is an excellent time to incorporate student voice. If you need a copy of the protocol, download the Top Ten PBL Tools at
  6. End with Mastery. PBL is a non-linear process that begins with divergent thinking, enters a period of emergent problem solving, and ends with converging ideas and products. A good PBL teacher manages the work flow through the chaos of the project, but also closes the project by giving students every opportunity and support necessary to experience a sense of mastery and accomplishment.High quality tip: Reflect. Take two days to review and reflect on the project. Reflect on accomplishments, and evaluate the project against criteria. Was the Driving Question answered? Was the investigation sufficient? Were skills mastered? What questions were raised? The project debrief improves future projects, as well as teaching students the cycle of quality improvement.

How can we sum this up? PBL promises more engaging school work and a shift in the culture of learning that should be visible in the form of more satisfied, higher performing, and more innovative students. But it does require a systematic approach that fully engages students, offers a potent blend of skills and intellectual challenge, and prompts or awakens a deeper curiosity about life. From that standpoint, PBL is still a work in progress.

Ten Terms that Keep Us in a Box

Albert Einstein nailed it: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That truth will decide whether we develop a 21st-century friendly educational system or continue to tinker at the margins of school.

So far, we’re not showing much out of the box thinking. The Common Core is really just an extension of the past, with a few new standards and practices thrown in to stimulate more problem-solving. My view is that part of the resistance to the Common Core is the nagging suspicion that focusing on standards as the ‘it’ of transformation is too feeble for the times; we seek deeper change, but don’t know how to go about it.

Partly, this is because we’re stuck in factory-model terminology—and getting unstuck can be hard work. Thinking is driven by metaphors that become patterns of thought. Over time, the patterns get hardwired into the brain and limit us to a particular world view. The old terms act like conduits to keep our thoughts contained and channeled in the direction of more industrial education rather than opening us up to a more fluid system based on personalized learning, inquiry, authentic projects, and distributed knowledge—all of which, we know, will be part of the future.

One way to get at the problem is to change our vocabulary intentionally so we can redirect our thoughts. It’s similar to the growth mindset. The words of the teacher affect the beliefs of the student and result in different performance. With advances in neuroplasticity, we know these shifts are physiological as well as psychological. The brain is malleable, but needs direction. When it comes to reinventing schooling, that should be our aim as well.

Outside of education, this is familiar turf. Society and industry has had to invent thousands of innovative terms to capture new trends, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. But education might as well be using rotary phones. So much of our vocabulary speaks to the past, not the future. For example:

Lesson. In the 13th century, a lesson meant “a reading aloud from the Bible,” or just “a reading.” It’s hard to escape this history. The term is freighted with the past: The static delivery of information, listening as opposed to doing, and the passive transfer of information. Can’t we substitute ‘experience’ or something more process-oriented?

Unit. In the old way of thinking, knowledge is discrete, compartmentalized, and divisible into bite-size pieces. The unit nicely captures this metaphor, holding subjects, teaching plans, and pacing guides in tidy confines. The world no longer fits in boxes. Enough said.

Rigor. Rigor may be an educational favorite, but it’s associated with drudgery: The amount of diligent effort necessary to transfer mountains of information into the brain, memorize it, and recall it for a test. The result: More homework equals more ‘rigor.’ Today, rigor needs to be redefined as personal rigor. Information comes at the touch of a button. How a student holds themselves in relationship to the information is the key.

Soft skills. Memorizing information may be hard, but who believes that 21st century skills, such as communication and collaboration, are easy? Relegating the most challenging aspects of human performance to the category of ‘soft skills’ misses the point of teaching them. They are not an ‘add-on.’ Mastering those skills lies at the core of 21st century learning.

‘High’ and ‘low’ students. I hear this terminology a lot, and always cringe. First, the ‘high’ and ‘low’ is often system-induced; somewhere along the line a child did not get the support or love they needed. Second, research shows the brain can change and intelligence is malleable. In a personalized system that will depend on the more subtle learning abilities of the student, rather than the ability to absorb information, it will be critical that teachers maintain a neutral stance, along with the belief and expectation that a student is capable of breakthroughs in their abilities.

Off task. A recent study showed that six-year olds who play more and have less structured activities have higher executive functioning abilities. Imagine what life in school will be like for them over the next twelve years. The brain does not like to be focused on one thing every minute, but that won’t stop us from continuing to insist that each of those precious minutes in class be used in pursuit of a dedicated learning goal.

Learning styles. Some terms feel progressive, but aren’t. There is no research that connects learning styles and effective instruction. There is no evidence, as well, for multiple intelligences. Yes, people are diverse in their abilities and thinking, but instead of trying to categorize learners, why not just develop a personalized system that lets every student flower in their own way?

Summer learning loss. Loss of what? Facts or other chunks of information that the brain doesn’t really need to keep in storage? This term is an artifact of a test-based system focused more on recall than understanding. The ability to ask questions, understand a concept, or solve a problem is like riding a bicycle—it doesn’t go away in three months, or even a lifetime.

Special education. This is industrial education at its best. There is education for normal people, who fit into a pre-designated template of what a good student does. Others need special help. How about a system that embraces human diversity and recognizes that everyone expresses their gifts in different ways? That’s the direction of the world right now; education must follow.

Brain-based learning. I know this term is meant to advance our understanding of the brain, but it overemphasizes cognition and ignores powerful research that shows how the heart and brain work together for optimal functioning, peak brain performance, and emotional self-regulation. To explore the roots of motivation, persistence, flexibility, and empathy—the foundation for 21st century learning—we need to rebalance heart and brain.

Ten Tips for Better PBL

Image of teacher teaching students for project based learning

Meeting Common Core Standards requires more emphasis on inquiry and project based learning (PBL.) Increasingly, in the 2012 -2013 school year, teachers will be asked to design and implement high quality, student-focused projects that help students go deeper into subjects, think harder, and perform better.

Teachers with experience in ‘doing projects’ often feel that they know how to do this, but delivering high quality PBL that yields ‘visible greatness,’ in the words of a teacher I talked with recently, is not easy work. Effective PBL begins with mastering a design methodology that combines discovery with accountability. After that, the power of PBL is harnessed when teachers employ a set of tools and principles aimed at engaging students in a powerful learning experience—the kind that directs them toward deeper thinking, and that often permanently shifts their behaviors and attitudes in a positive direction. That’s the standard we now seek in our schools.

That standard can be met through PBL, but not without overcoming certain pitfalls and gaps in PBL by letting go of ingrained practices in education that actually retard deeper thinking. What should you look for, either to use or avoid?

First, I’ve found that high quality projects begin well before students ever see them. This is the stage in which you are conceptualizing a project and working on a design idea that will engage students in solving an important, relevant, open ended problem. What do those problems look like, and how do you get there? Here are ten tips:

  1. Start with a challenge, not a predetermined outcome. Letting go of predetermined outcomes sounds simple, but industrial education is built on the premise that we teach students what we believe they ought to know. That’s why we have standards. But PBL aims at getting students to know and apply the standards. If you know the answer to the problem already, it’s not a good project idea. Here’s a good test: Can the answer be Googled?
  2. Think of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, which emphasizes creating and evaluating, rather than remembering and understanding, is a helpful tool in the early stages of project planning. Your goal is not ‘awareness’ or ‘recall’ or even ‘analyzing’ in the academic sense; your goal is to direct students into the deeper domains of learning, in which they struggle with ideas, draft conclusions, weigh alternatives, and create solutions. Stay away from project ideas that result in students listing, defining, or categorizing. If the products of the project sound too conventional to you, they probably are.
  3. Commit to inquiry. As you plan out the teaching and learning on a project schedule, commit to keeping the inquiry alive. It’s easy to default to teaching the curriculum rather than allowing students to think for themselves. Use lots of triads, pairs, and teams to get students to brainstorm and trade solutions. Given time constraints, this is tricky territory for PBL, so you probably will need to decide how to balance direct instruction with think time. But err on the side of thinking, and as you plan out the schedule, allow the time necessary for students to work their way through a complex problem.
  4. Refine the DQ. The challenge needs to be captured in a solid Driving Question for the project. This question is not an essential or thematic question; it’s designed to tell students what they need to learn in the project. At the end of the project, they will have answered this question, either through the products they prepare or the reflection at the end of the project. Getting to the right question is hard work. Think of it as an editing process. You’re trying to identify exactly what you want out of this project. Often, the right question emerges when you investigate the purpose of the project. Recently, I discussed a cell structure project with a 9th grade biology teacher. Once he realized that the purpose was not to teach the parts of the cell (that’s Googleable), he moved onto how the structure of a cell compares to a virus, and how students can use this knowledge to probe diseases and their cures.
  5. Beware the PowerPoint and the tri-fold brochure. It’s hard to design projects with products that matter. The usual suspects—such as a PowerPoint or a brochure—rarely invigorate students. Your first objective is to plan for products that mirror what professionals would do. For example, in a recent health/fitness project, students design a Personal Fitness plan that matched the form used by a local health club. Similarly, in Biology, students designed a zoo, and in Algebra, students created a chart that matched school attendance to District revenue—and placed the chart in the front hall for all students to see every day (attendance went up.)
  6. Use a protocol to tune your project. There is one key best practice that has emerged at schools that succeed at PBL: Teachers review their project plan with colleagues prior to launching the project. This process works very well if teachers use a Critical Friends Protocol to analyze the project plan. Discussions alone (“I have an idea I’d like to run by you.”) aren’t sufficient. PBL is complex, and benefits from multiple viewpoints and detailed feedback.
  7. Grade work ethic. Good rubrics are essential to defining performance in PBL, both for assessing the application of content and 21st century skills. However, good performance is very dependent on training students to work hard. A work ethic rubric is your most essential tool here. It is a flexible rubric that can be adapted to different grade levels, defines expectations for students, and grades them on the kinds of skills and attitudes that employers seek today. In many schools, work ethic is now ten percent or more of the final grade on a project.
  8. Design a breakthrough column. Ideally, PBL doesn’t result in ‘A’ work; it encourages something better. Every well designed project offers the opportunity for students to go beyond mastering concepts, facts, and skills—and to demonstrate ‘break-through thinking. This is the kind of insight captured in the top of the pyramid on the new Bloom’s Taxonomy, but in a strict standards-based environment, that kind of thinking is not encouraged or supported. But any rubric can be adapted to this vital goal by having a breakthrough column. What do you write in this column? Nothing, leave it blank. Let students show you what insightful solutions look like.
  9. Use visible thinking routines. I’m will elaborate on this in a coming blog, but the most pressing issue for PBL teachers is how to encourage students to talk intelligently in teams about problems that matter. Moving from groups to the language of teams is a first step. A second step is to require protocols that train students to share prototypes, probe each other’s thinking, share and evaluate solutions, and use the vocabulary of the discipline they are studying. The Visible Thinking routines developed at Harvard are ideal tools for your PBL teams.
  10. Plan to reflect. Follow this rule: Your project does not end until you have led students in a reflection on what they have learned. Use a systematic approach to reflection, with key prompts that review student performance, the project outcomes, and your contribution to the project plan. The general approach is to get at three elements of reflection: (1) Encouraging deep learning and retention; (2) Focusing on quality and excellence; and (3) Developing a ‘growth’ mindset.

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.