Whether it’s your 1st PBL project or your 50th - there are always surprises. The role of a constructivist PBL teacher is to curate a space in which that variation can flourish while still providing and facilitating an effective learning environment for a diverse group of students.
This blog post is the first of a series called Project Essentials through which we will describe some ways to maintain that effective learning environment in a varied and learner-centered classroom.
It’s the first week of school and you’re thrilled to introduce a new project to students. You’ve identified learning targets, planned out lessons and activities, and have a stack of handouts ready to go. Before you can finish your first sentence a hand shoots up.
“Mr. Swaaley - is this a group project?”
You proudly explain that yes, this is a group project in which we will model real world experiences through peer collaboration and the meaningful development of peer relationships. The student nods and you continue to explain the project. Seconds later another hand shoots up.
“Mr. Swaaley - how are we choosing groups?”
You then explain that either groups will be assigned or that they will be self-selected through wise partner choices. Instantly, even silently, students start the partner courting process and the rest is history. We’ve all been in a situation like this as both a learner and an educator. It never feels good. We teachers lose the focus of the class, feel like whatever we say will elicit backlash, know that parent emails are imminent, and worry about that one kid in every group that gets screwed. Students get caught in strange social obligations, feel like the last kid to be picked to play dodgeball, and are often forced to make awkward and immediate public choices. Is there a better way?
Let’s start with a few things we know:
Grouping is often the first thing students ask about. This shows how relevant it is to the student experience and I would argue that it’s the most immediate and clearly defining characteristic of the project experience.
Every student deserves to be challenged by work within their Zone of Proximal Development in a safe and supportive environment.
The formation of groups is a contentious process for both students and parents. Everyone is bringing in baggage.
Now let’s apply those principles to a few grouping methods and see what we come up with.
Method 1 - Hot Potato
This method works well if you have some familiarity with the students at the start of a project. If you don't know them well enough yet, you can enlist another teacher to help evaluate or give them a randomly grouped mini-project (a few days) to let you assess how they work with others and their competency in the subject. Even if you don't know the students, this method can still be helpful.
Have a conversation with the class about things to consider when deciding who to work with (see ideas below).
Hand out index cards and have students document the following on the lined side of the index card: (1) Their name in large letters on the top, (2) a list of three people they would like to work with, each identified with a '+' sign, on the right, (3) a list of two people they do not want to work with, each identified with a '-' sign, on the left, and (4) a brief note if there's anything they want to let you know.
They turn these into you privately and confidentially.
Outside of class, you lay all of the cards out on a table and shuffle them around to find copacetic groupings that accommodate as much student preference as possible, keeping an eye out for known distractors, gender balance, and skill balanced groups.
Before you give out groupings, chat about the importance of first impressions (i.e. no "groans", "yehaws", or whispers as group mates are announced)
You present the groupings to the class at the next meeting.
This method works well for a number of reasons:
Students are pretty good at making wise choices for themselves if the decision process is private. You'll be surprised how many students put their best friend as someone that they DO NOT want to work with.
Giving students a real choice, or at least a preference, empowers them to make better decisions and feel more personally accountable and willing to fix anything that goes awry.
This gives students a back-door to remove themselves from unproductive groups when a more public selection process may have made it more socially awkward.
As far as they know - the groups are entirely self-selected - wink -
There are also a few variations to this method:
If the cards don't align into tidy groups (which can and will happen), engage students in the process. Pull a student aside or email them a quick note to the effect of "Hey, Billy, I know you really wanted to work with Ben but I was wondering if you would be willing to work with Jen and Gavin? I think your organization skills, Jen's Art skills, and Gavin's Python skills could make a power team!" Most students will be amiable and you get lots of buy-in from students for minimal work.
Immediately before they complete the index cards, guide them through a quick reflection process where they, in writing, write privately about what they want out of a partner and what they don't want out of a partner. Even a bulleted list works for this. It helps put them in a reflective frame of mind to make more informed decisions.
If it works for the context of the project, you can also add competency preferences to the index card, but things start to get pretty complicated.
Grouping by ability or engagement level is a highly controversial topic. On one hand, students deserve to work with peers of similar ability. On the other hand, robbing a group of diversity removes tremendous growth opportunities for all involved. This topic warrants its own blog post.
It helps if students have a defined route to vent frustrations and to ask you for help with group dynamics. This could be an index card they submit every Friday, an email they send you, a one-on-one student check-in, or anything else that feels natural.
Have students write their own name one side of the index card, and the rest of the information on the other so that, as a teacher, you don’t bring your own bias’ into the equation. Then you can flip them over, see what groups were formed, and make adjustments if needed.
Method 2 - Say Wha...!?
This is a method that can be quite useful for shorter term groupings but may be seen as cavalier for long term projects.
As students come into the class, ask them to arrange themselves by something trivial but concrete (height, age, shirt color, etc.), with no context as to why.
Once they arrange themselves, quickly count them off into groups as you walk down the line and (on the fly) make some flash decisions about who to put where if you notice a pairing you don't like. Before they know what's happening, they'll be in groups and it'll be done.
This method works well because it happens so quickly that anxieties aren’t given time to rise and student politics don’t interfere. It just feels like something that happened as opposed to a deliberate slight or tension. There are, however, a few things to consider with this method:
If students start to predict outcomes and strategize, mix-up your process. Instead of selecting in groups from left to right, start from the outside and work your way to the middle.
Be cautious with your selection schemes and methods. By selecting for something as simple as eye color you can accidentally group your class by race, or accidentally group your class by gender by filtering for height.
If you’ve read this far then you're a serious PBL educator and I want to hit you with a few more mind-benders and considerations:
Groups are normally selected at the very beginning of a project. Sometimes it makes more sense for students to work to a certain point individually, only then grouping up for a final culmination. This helps to guarantee base-level competence across the board and lends to wiser group choices.
A PBL classroom has a tendency to favor the extrovert but class discussions, solo vs. group time, and written vs. oral work helps to balance the environment for introverts.
Despite your best efforts, groups will not be perfect. Just do your best and embrace the humanity of it. When conflicts arise, take the time to work it out with students, develop their Social-Emotional Learning Skills, and if it comes down to it ... sometimes it's even OK to move kids between groups mid-project. Real life is messy.
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