Monday, October 1, 2018

The Benefits of PBL Collaboration

Veronica Buckler
Columbus Signature Academy New Tech
Columbus, IN
Collaboration is a key element in the PBL process, but it is often overlooked when discussing the benefits of PBL. In fact, it is usually the one tenet of PBL that we get the most grief about from some of our students. During every project, our classes go through the Know and Need-to-Know process to set the stage for the necessary workshops and lessons for a successful outcome. One Need-to-Know I can just about guarantee is, “Will we have groups?” The group of students that I hear from the most on this are our high-achieving ones. They tend to struggle, or just disagree, with the need for the collaboration aspect of academics. However, I believe they are missing out on some of the significant benefits of collaboration. Below, I have listed my top five skills associated with collaboration our high-achievers (and all students) gain from engaging in a PBL environment.

Learning How to Listen

Our highest achievers are usually, but not always, our most vocal learners. They love to be the first person to share their responses, to take a guess as to the correct answer, or to display their knowledge on the board. This can also be the case when working in their groups. They know a correct answer and are eager to dive right into completing the task. However, this can lead them into encouraging the group to move on without allowing for that crucial brainstorming step.

Just recently, I held a literary circle discussion with my Honors English students. I invited a few other students to participate and engage in a higher level discussion of the book, Life of Pi, which we were reading at the time. I had two fairly articulate and analytical students take charge of the conversation right off the bat. The fact that they both have North Compass personality traits also assisted in this demonstration of speaking before listening. They had rather insightful and thought-provoking ideas about the book and its themes, but did not leave a lot of room for others to step in and share their own ideas. When it came time for others to speak up, the more reserved students ended up surprising the more vocal students, forcing them to reconsider their own views and better understand a part of the story. This was a great moment for all involved because it allowed the “take charge” students to learn from the more reserved students. Furthermore, the more reserved students had the chance to teach their classmates a new perspective. It allowed all present to see the merits of taking a moment to listen for a new understanding.

Sharing the Workload and Responsibility

The shared workload, or the lack therein, is usually what causes some parents and students to question the benefits of collaboration as well as the practice of tying a student’s grade to the success
or failure of that collaboration. I would like to offer, instead, that this is precisely why a student should embrace PBL; simply because this is exactly what happens in the workforce. We as adults must rely on others to complete their parts of the task, and when they do, we get to celebrate as a team and know we were a part of a successful venture. On the other hand, when others do not follow through, we experience the need for problem solving and a hasty dash for task completion. Now I am sure this does not sound fair or glamorous, but I boldly suggest this is what allows us to learn accountability and community. We learn from the appreciation or disappointment created by our group members, the dissatisfaction of our work, and the necessary feedback that comes from invested parties. Sharing the workload also allows each student to become an expert for the group as he/she focuses on a specific aspect of the final product. It allows students to display their talents to the group and the class, while also being able to learn from others’ talents, as well as teach their skills to others.

Trusting in Others

We start building trust and relationships in our class through our first project, A Walk in the Woods, by sharing personal narrative stories in nature and learning how to tell our stories with emotion and personality. After this project, our students have a chance to feel more comfortable in their group projects and sharing in class. In our second semester narrative project in Global Science Perspectives, our community partner, local theater owner, Robert Hay Smith, encouraged our students to be comfortable with their work and each other’s performances during our Dystopian Masterpiece Theatre. While at the Harlequin Theater, his place of business, he shared an anecdote from his work as the stage manager of a play where he unfortunately missed his cue for a soundtrack at a specific time. A fellow actor supported this blooper by improvising the missed cue into his own delivery. Mr. Smith soothed some of our students’ fear of failure on stage by addressing the wonder of the theatre and its flexibility with mistakes and improvisation. This was a very timely lesson for our students, who are currently working together to create an experience on stage, trusting that each member of the “troupe” will perform their piece skillfully to the success of all.

Succeeding with Others

Through collaboration, students have the opportunity to share in each other’s successes. This is comparable to the shared success and encouragement players have as a part of a sports team. Working together to succeed is a great feeling and allowing students to be a part of a larger goal helps build
confidence, but it also helps build lasting relationships. The same can be true for the classroom, too. When students work together to be a part of a presentation, they can share in that success and build a relationship with their comrades.One of our second semester projects, Dystopian Masterpiece Theatre, which I mentioned above, asks the students to write and perform their own dystopian plays. Students get a chance to learn from the creative process of a think tank, while also having someone to share in the elation of stepping outside their comfort zone and succeeding. During the project, students are stressed about the performance and often develop stage fright. After the performance, students express their joy in the presentation of their work and reflect over the highs and lows of being on stage. For every project, we encourage this same process of celebrating and reflecting on their process, their successes, and their failures, which allows students to continue to learn what works for them and what does not. Our reflecting usually involves gathering up into a tight circle and having each student share a rose and a thorn from the project. One skill, process, activity that went well for them, and one that did not go well. We then ask how they would design this project for next year to make it even better and more engaging for the next class.

Holding Others Accountable

The last skill that our high achievers learn from PBL collaboration is the ability to have a difficult conversation with a peer. This often occurs when one group member asks to see the work of another group member who is not performing to expectations. This is something adults in the workplace have to cope with no matter the job specification. It is also a tough conversation to have with a group member who is considered to be a close friend, or that has seniority over the worker. Too often this conversation leads to some kind of confrontation or accusation, between students, or adults.
In order to equip students with the skills to deal with these conflicts, we teach our them to establish a group contract with agreements and steps for accountability, such as agreeing to contact
group members when absent, or agreeing to letting one student get up and walk around when they need to. Steps for accountability include the twenty-four hour check-in rule: if something someone said is eating away at you and you cannot let it go, you must check in with the person within twenty-four hours and address your feelings about the matter. Early on, we role-play these steps and work on the best way to approach a conflict brewing in a group. Since the group is dependent on each other for success, we encourage students to think of strategies that allow for everyone to feel heard and be supported. By setting up this framework, we ensure that when a student finds his/her self doing all of the work, that student has the chance to learn through collaboration, build a stronger group relationship, and potentially succeed in a more unique and creative way by having this conversation together. 

Our goal is to always encourage rigor and in depth knowledge of content throughout a project. Yet, we have also found encouraging the soft skills of collaboration, agency, and oral and written communication pushes students to be more well-rounded, employable applicants in the workforce. A PBL environment builds into a student the ability to not only excel on their own, but to also excel as part of a group, or more specifically, a community: a community of high-achievers, leaders, followers, and every other student who has unique traits to bring to their groups.

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