(This blog is mirrored on the New Tech Network web site)
At some point in your PBL lifetime, you will get to a point (and perhaps you already have), when you think you have achieved nirvana; the classroom is humming. Students are working in groups on the project, they seem to be self-directed based upon what they need/want to know, and are enacting next steps that they generated, or next steps that you helped them generate.
This moment is to be relished, for sure. But don’t sit down. This is a golden opportunity for formative assessment, so that you can understand exactly how the classroom is humming, and where your student groups are going. Too often, teachers will allow this opportunity to slip by, often by sitting down at their desk to attend to the million other tasks they have.
Here are a few options for teacher moves during that open “student work time”. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but a means of getting you started thinking about it.
Meet with groups on a rotating basis:
You can create a schedule of groups coming to see you, and apprise you of their progress thus far. I’ve found it most helpful to create a table specifically for meetings, and they have to come to it: it makes the process just a little more formal, and important in their eyes. The meeting can carry a grade, but doesn’t need to. I often ask questions about (i) progress toward the major task of the project (ii) student understanding of the underlying concepts, and (ii) processes that the group is using to collaborate. A checklist can help, especially if you fill out the checklist during the conversation, and give it to the students immediately after the meeting. Here is a rubric that I’ve used with a fellow teacher for a project where every group created its own product in support of a Wildlife Refuge. You can see that there is assessment for both team, and individual.
Observe the groups regarding their collaboration
As with all skills, the quality of collaboration improves with practice, and feedback. Here is a form you can use to provide feedback for a group. I prefer to use this without a grade. It’s best to let all the groups know what you are doing, so that when you are standing in proximity to the group, they know what’s up. If you don’t grade this, what do you grade? A reflective summary from the group or from individuals might be an option.
Participate in conversations
Perhaps the work time for the groups requires them to make a decision, which could be informed by research, or an understanding of a concept. This is a great time for you to act as that “guide on the side”, listen in on the conversation, and weigh in when you think it will help the group move forward. If you choose to do this, make sure that you announce to the class that you might be joining the conversations.
Provide optional workshops
While some of the group is working, a group member might be having difficulty with a particular concept. If you have seen a pattern in students across the class having a hard time with a concept, or even better, you have created a way for students to request workshops, then group work time might also be a time that you can offer a workshop to delve into some focused skill- or concept-building sessions with the student who need it. HOWEVER, I share this strategy with some trepidation, because it can be tricky. If you have provided some work time for groups, and you have suggested specific tasks for them to work on, or they are under a tight deadline, and you also offer a workshop, then you put groups in a position of making a difficult choice: should they all work on the task, or should they work on the task in the absence of a group member who is attending the workshop? It might be better to save that workshop for a time when you’ve assigned individual work for the rest of the class. Or, you can make sure that you call up entire groups up at once for workshops, so that everyone in the group is on the same page.
Develop the Rubric with the students
During some worktime, my teaching partner and I have held rubric-creating workshops. All the other groups are working, and then you ask for input from a given group on the development of the rubric for your project.
From these examples, you might have seen some patterns emerge, but let me be overt. There are a few guidelines to keep in mind when planning for group work time. First, plan group work time always with the question: what will I be doing at the same time? If you don’t have a plan, then your time won’t be nearly as well spent. Second, be sure that students know what to expect, both in terms of the tasks that they are meant to accomplish, and in terms of what you as the facilitator will be doing. If they know that you will be participating in the conversations, they’ll welcome you. If they know that they will need to meet with you about progress, they can plan their time around that meeting. Expectation management is key to making work time useful, and students feeling (and being) in control of the work.
If you’ve got some moves that you really like to use during student work time, I’d love to hear about them.