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PBL Reflections on Group Work: A Bad Start but Great Learning Experience

posted Jan 24, 2014, 12:51 PM by Kate Petty   [ updated Jan 24, 2014, 12:56 PM ]
By Kate Petty

At the beginning of our school year this year, our principal informed us that we would not be doing CST testing and that this was the year to try new things and not worry about pacing and fitting EVERYTHING in. In other words, EXPERIMENT. I'm not sure how many teachers embraced this freedom but I did. Actually, I've been doing it for a long time but this year I didn't have to hide it. I'm a big fan of inquiry-based learning and PBL. I went through the Buck Institute's PBL University and received my completion certificate last year. I decided to do a few PBL projects this year and really try to master the PBL experience. Day 1 sucked. Day 2 was ten times better.

Why Did Day 1 Suck?

It shouldn't have, I thought. I've been doing Genius Hour with the students all year- they know how to research. I gave them the Driving Question, we completed the KWL and Need to Know chart. Once I let them loose, they should have floated along, right? Nope. They were working in groups and were to report their results in a group webpage designed by the group. As soon as they started "research" they immediately began assigning each other pages for their websites- without doing any research first.
AHHHH. How can they design a website persuading readers to like poetry if they don't even know what poetry is first? They didn't understand that they can't begin planning the end result until they are well informed about the topic first. Doing initial research seemed obvious to me but when it didn't happen, I realized steps like that are learned- not natural. 

So What Did I Do?

The next day I admitted I didn't do a good job and asked them if I could start over. There was a resounding "YES!" which made me feel good and bad (but those are my own issues) and we began again. Don't forget how important it is to model failure for your class- they watched me struggle, reflect, and try again.

My Advice:

GUIDE and PAY ATTENTION: The first time you give students a task with a lot of independence, hold their hand throughout and explain WHY they need to complete each step. For instance- I changed my Guiding Question. I challenged my students to spend three days attempting to "LIKE POETRY." They had to figure out where to start (I suggested the Wikipedia article on poetry) and then see where their research led them. I asked them to document their journey and, at the end of the three days, I asked them whether they liked poetry now or not (80% of students DID NOT like poetry at the start). 98% admitted they had a new appreciation of poetry and were able to list the steps they took to create that appreciation. We discussed WHY they needed to do this initial research in order to complete their assignment- they now knew what kinds of pages, links, pictures, etc might actually convince someone that poetry rocked. NOW I let the students get together in groups to plan and design their websites. They had the new challenge of creating sites that would convince that 2% in the class that poetry is awesome. This goal is what I'd wanted at the beginning. 

CLASS DISCUSSIONS: I found that after the groups completed their initial planning, many still had pages that might not be persuading (my assignment) rather would be informing (BORING). I brought the class back and listed some of the groups' planned pages on the board and then we discussed why "WHAT IS POETRY?" might not hit the mark but "HOW TO USE POETRY FOR ROMANCE" might. We talked about the PURPOSE of the assignment and it really helped students get back on track.

REMEMBER, IT'S THEIR CREATION: Many of my students kept asking me "Can I ...?" I finally made a class announcement and said "Stop!" All the decisions the groups made were up to the group- they had to decide whether the "Can I...?" question would work for their group or not. Some students struggled with this autonomy. They are used to teachers telling them if they are on the right track or not. In this case, the group really had to deliberate and decide if each choice was right for the group or not.

GROUP WORK BUT INDIVIDUAL GRADES: When I first announced we were doing group work- the class groaned. They were used to teachers assigning a "Group Project" in which one student did all of the work but only one or two people were the ones who actually did ANY work. What I do is create a project that has INDIVIDUAL parts but is presented as a whole. For instance, each group in this class will design their own website. Each person in the group is responsible for a PAGE on the website. This way, if a student fails to complete a page or doesn't take pride in his/her page, the rest of the group will not be penalized for it. You can do the same for essays (each member has a component/section of the essay to write), poster projects, etc.

*Photo image courtesy of StormKatt on Flickr CC