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How Can We Make Sure our Students Are Collaborating Effectively in a PBL-style Classroom?

After attending a conference run by the Buck Institute for Education last year, three colleagues and I delivered PD to the rest of our faculty on the topic of Project Based Learning last August. Now, PBL is by no means a new concept, but administration felt that our faculty would benefit from hearing more about it.

Since we felt that many teachers were attempting to run PBL-style classrooms without even knowing it, we thought that our faculty would be receptive to the idea of having their students learn through projects. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that many teachers at our school were likely teaching in a traditional manner and that these really cool projects probably came at the end of their unit - served as dessert or as a reward for listening to them the entire time! Thus, we decided to focus on helping our colleagues develop PBL units of study that could help them transform their projects in a way that promoted sustained inquiry throughout the unit and not just at the end.

We taught them the basics for planning, explained the why, hit on all the important terms, ran a Gallery Walk which allowed teachers to share their past experiences, modify current projects, and brainstorm new ideas. Over the course of the year we held Lunch N' Learns the tackle ongoing issues and provide support. We even revisited the topic in our end-of-year PD session to celebrate successes and acknowledge the efforts of individuals who tried.

The main message we were pitching was this: Students in your class will be more engaged and become better collaborators through a PBL style of learning. 

The engagement piece wasn't hard to convince teachers of. Most teachers can agree that students love the idea of a project if it's actually authentic and meaningful. Where we received push back, though, was with the collaboration piece. In theory, students should work together to solve problems and propose solutions throughout the course of a given unit. The hope is that this collaborative inquiry is sustained and that they develop a number of soft skills as they learn the content in a more meaningful way. Over the course of the year though, we realized that many teachers were struggling to get their students to collaborate effectively on a consistent basis. The general consensus were that work periods were often misused, time management was a concern, and group dynamics were a constant battle. I experienced this, myself, at times. 

It was during a meeting in June that we reflected on our initiative and realized that we were missing something with regards to collaboration. We hadn't given teachers enough tools to use in the classroom. The set-up had been fine and by all accounts, the majority of projects got off to a great start, but the day-to-day process seemed like a grind. Teachers were reporting that their students simply weren't collaborating as well as they expected. This put a real damper on our initiative and enthusiasm for Project Based Learning began to wane. Since I am a firm believer in Project Based Learning, I'm not willing to let this initiative die!

I have a few questions that I'm hoping some more experienced PBLer's can help me with. If you have any insight on any on the questions that I have posted below, I'd really appreciate hearing from you! I'm hoping to be able to take the advice I receive here and bring it back to my PBL working group at school.

1) With having a robust Driving Question being one of the most important aspects of a successful PBL unit, what role do the students play in generating that question?


2) What advice do you have for teaching problem solving and critical thinking strategies over the course of a PBL unit?


3) What role does collaborative reflection and revision play in a PBL unit?


4) How do you ensure that students are collaborating effectively in PBL units?


5) How do you ensure that inquiry is sustained by all group members and not just the strongest?


6) What do you feel are the most important aspects of project design for a successful PBL?


7) What types of technologies are the best for encouraging collaborative inquiry?


8) How do you give students the tools they need to tackle the types of ill-defined questions that come up naturally in a well-run PBL unit?

Any and all comments are appreciated!

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