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.
One 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.