PBL conundrum: How do teachers ‘manage’ project teams?

Visiting Riverside Girls High School to talk about PBL with a small group of teachers was a really wonderful experience. I’m not sure what I found the most pleasing, the fact that these are public school teachers like me keen to learn about PBL, the fact that they were each from a different KLA (including Maths, Science, HSIE, English, PD/H/PE and TAS) or the fact that we chatted for nearly five hours and I NEVER heard a negative or disparaging comment. I think the last point is what really excited me. These teachers were NOTHING but positive about getting stuck into PBL and doing all they can to make learning ‘real’ and ‘engaging’ for their learners.

Team: same but differentOne of the many questions that arose out of our discussions concerned the managing of teams. This is a skill that most teacher lack. Why? Because in the traditional teacher-centred classroom managing group work or team projects just didn’t happen that much. I guess Drama or Dance teachers would be adept at this, even PD/H/PE teachers, and these are some people that we should seek out for tips.

So the question went a bit like this, ‘Have you had any issues with the equal distribution of work within groups? Do you find some students carry the load whilst others barely contribute?’ I had a think about my experience with PBL over the last 12 months and felt confident answering that it hadn’t been an issue I’d noticed. I really haven’t, but I don’t suppose this is any reason to conclude that it doesn’t happen. One teacher in the group told us that she had used surveys at the end of a project to ask students who worked well in the team and who they felt didn’t contribute enough to the project. This information was used by the teacher to organise groups in the following project as well as helping her target the students that needed more support during the projects. This data was also used to identify students who the teacher would speak with 1-1 about their performance and see if there were any welfare issues contributing to the poorer performance.

We all agreed this experience  reveals the strength of PBL and not its weakness – PBL allows the teacher greater flexibility to engage with students on a 1-1 basis, thus any problems can be addressed rather than ignored. Finally an added bonus of this survey of contribution levels is that students were aware that their contribution was being monitored by both their peers and their teacher – a motivator to work more productively. Of course it can be argued that a failure to contribute may reflect deeper ruptures within group dynamics such as personality clashes or differing skill levels. It can also be argued that it may reflect a lack of engagement in the project. The former possibility may be countered by ensuring students assign roles and responsibilities at the outset of a project. A great post on the need for this type of group management can be found on Malyn  Mawby’s blog, here. The latter calls for the teacher to (re)evaluate the project itself using a project evaluation tool like this one. Rubric_Project_Design_June2010

I suggested a couple of tools that could be of assistance to help ‘manage’ group work more effectively, like ClassDojo and Memiary. I argued that both of these tools would assist in the managing of classroom behaviour and expectations. If we have both of these managed in our class, then we will be a good deal of the way to managing the issue of equal contribution to a team project. No?

Anyway, when I got home from Friday’s meeting at Riverside Girls HS I found an edmodo post that made my heart sink and made me feel a little foolish. But I like these types of shocks – they shake the foundations of my ‘PBL evangelism’ and make me rethink where I am going with student-centred pedagogies. So what was the edmodo post about? One of my Year 10 students posted that he didn’t like group-work because often only a small minority of the group did the mass of the work whilst the others mucked around and contributed minimally. Wow.

It was a timely reminder for me that PBL is hard and that quality project and people management is essential to effective PBL. It makes me panic a little that PBL isn’t right and I’m doing the wrong thing by my kids. Then I step away from my emotions and remember that life requires people to work together. These students are learning valuable skills in collaboration … this is one of those ‘just in time’ learning opportunities.

Year 10 and I will be having a little chat about collaboration skills on Monday. Looks like ClassDojo and Memiary are going to be getting their first airing in my classroom this week. Read about these tools here.


7 thoughts on “PBL conundrum: How do teachers ‘manage’ project teams?

  1. Pingback: Love2Learn - Process, Tools, People

  2. Clearly the student in year 10 has an issue. I also think that is the hardest thing to manage the group. In fact, you have to be a far more engaged teachers – moving from group to group, ensuring roles and responsibilities are being followed and all are contributing – it’s the direction we as teachers can give at those ‘just in time moments’ with the small groups or DEAL (drop and everything and listen) to the whole class that makes or breaks successful PBL learning. Look forward to the first airing of the class management tools!

  3. In my opinion, something that students (and often teachers) think is going to occur in groups is EQUAL work. I don’t think this is true or realistic.
    The way I guide my group work is to get students to allocate roles. We do this is real life, why not in class tasks?
    Why would all the students do the research? They would cross over
    Why would all students do the visual presentation? The aesthetic wouldn’t be resolved
    Why would all the students collate the data collected? Then it would be individual.
    Realising that everyones role is important, even if it does not appear to be equal is also key to group work.
    There is a video on BIE where the teacher tells students to choose a job they want to do like designer, engineer, data collector etc, then students have to stand in a group. Then, to form the PBL groups, one person from each ‘profession’ has to be included in the group.
    I think that this realises that all students have strengths and can really reach their full potential this way!

    • This is a great response, thanks. I agree with your point that students each have individual strengths. I also agree that roles and responsibilities is the way to go.
      In terms of being practical with this in a class such as English it becomes much more problematic.
      Why? Because research needs to occur before the product can start being made. The problem with this means that there will be periods of time where one ‘profession’ isn’t ‘active’ in class – they are waiting. This is an issue I’d like to know how to resolve. How can we ensure all students are engaged with the project each lesson … there is a logical/chronological sequence required for a project to reach its conclusion – this is the ‘process’. Managing it is hard imo.
      Thanks for the comment – hope you can solve my problem 😉

  4. Thanks for your post. To be honest, I think that in practically every project there will be great differences in contribution and engagement — perhaps not in every single team but in every class doing project-based work. I found that the more engaged students usually don’t complain about it because they feel it would be like teaming up with the teacher against class mates.

    I try to manage that by discussing early on how to communicate within the team, how to criticize someone in a fair and non-personal manner. I also tell students about the importance of open communication as opposed to »swallowing« anger which is bound to break out at some point.

    My projects (in a subject called »Science and technology«) are graded and the whole group gets a grade for the various products they make. But it’s clear from the outset, that not everyone in the group will/has to get the same grade. I do a fairly extensive process involving my own observations and notes and a thorough discussion among students to come up with »differentiated grades« for each team member.

    Here’s a sheet I use for that (in German:).

    With this, students have to evaluate their own performance as well as that of their team members in four criteria:

    1. quality
    2. engagement and perseverance
    3. reliability
    4. cooperation

    Here’s the info about the process that they get to understand the process:

    And here’s an example of what the final »grade suggestion« might look like:

    Some groups suggest grades for themselves ranging from 1- to 4 (in Germany, 1 is the best and 6 the worst grade).

    Based on these suggestions and on my own observations I grade each student individually.

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