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PBL Collaborative Discourse – Avoiding the Drift

Knowing that students learn better when the learn together, the Stride Professional Development Center offers suggestions to create stronger collaborative conversations and thus, an increase in student engagement and achievement. It all begins with the foundation for successful teamwork.

While teaching at a school that chose to embrace Project Based Learning (PBL), my principal shared that he wanted to hear students everywhere – not just in answering questions, or on the playground. He expected student collaboration in the halls, during observations, and popping into rooms. The goal was a whole-school environment where students were engaged in collaborative conversations as their minds connected on a common goal.

I was already sold on PBL, and this vision furthered the desire to drive students to seek answers, hold each other accountable, and provide thoughtful, specific feedback on each other’s ideas and designs. Being a realist, this type of classroom and school was not going to just happen—it needed to be built. The tips below are how to make it happen:

1. Establish the Why: First, the groundwork must be laid. You can read picture books that demonstrated the importance of “procedures” or share stories of teams who seemingly conquered the impossible. As a class, discuss what factors led to their success and/or why others failed. From that point, you can generate lists, both independently and collaboratively, about what students need to work successfully in a group.

2. Model the How: Students were broken into smaller groups of no more than four to continue these conversations. The goal was to decide on a list of five norms, or rules, they all agree upon where they hold each other accountable during collaborative work sessions. Make sure to understand that many students know how to agree but lack the language or confidence to disagree. Teachers may need to model conversations where they ask for clarification or thoughtfully challenge someone’s idea. Afterward you model, take the next step to provide sentence stems that encourage students to dig deeper with each other. This process creates meaningful discourse where all students can be heard.

3. Be Accountable to the What: Once student groups determine their five norms, the groups must create a contract with a signed agreement. The groups also need to map steps to follow if someone does not follow the norms. This step created an accountability system they owned and implemented rather than relying upon the teacher to solve every problem. For clarity, you – as the teacher – are present and ready to help if needed, but students must learn the life-skill of accountability; and the classroom is a great place to practice that concept.

Initially slowing down to create these solid, PBL foundations is critical for students to increase speed later in the project. More importantly, this process teaches and models real-world skills that will serve students well for the rest of their lives.

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