From Groups to Teams: The key to powering up PBL
August 29, 2016
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:
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: