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Play, Challenge, Work – A Simple Formula for Creating a Culture that Supports PBL - Part II: CHALLEN

This post is the second in a series of three about building a classroom culture that supports PBL. Please refer back to my last post for the first part of these series.

Step 2: Stress-Testing The Support Structures - CHALLENGE

Once students have had a chance to lay the foundation for group work though low-stakes activities like games, it is time to up the stakes. This next step requires you to provide them with some sort of challenging activity or task that will require them to make use of the collaborative skills they have begun building in order to complete.

What you choose doesn’t matter. It should be authentic to your classroom, meaning a reflection of work or processes in they will follow in class, but doesn’t need to be overtly standards based. For Math it could be a logic puzzle. In a science classroom it could be an engineering challenge of some sort. A good rule of thumb for the time commitment is that it should take no more than three contact periods to complete. Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure it is scaffold carefully so that involvement by everyone in the group is a requirement.

As a Social Studies teacher, I give my students an activity called The Great American Road Trip that I created as an introduction to our first unit on US Geography. Student groups of between 3-4 work together to plan a 1,000 mile road trip through American, but must make sure to visit as many famous landmarks as possible in as many states as possible. The project is very open-ended with lots of student’s choice involved, so the end products are varied. After they complete their challenge, they present it to the class and argue why their “road trip” does the best job of meeting the requirements.

For some groups I scaffold the experience by giving them roles (computer user, mileage recorder, stop researcher, etc) so that students with special needs or those who tend to take over every aspect of group work can still work collaboratively. At the end of the challenge, the students participate in a reflective conversation about teamwork where they discuss things that worked well, congratulate group members who were particularly helpful, and discuss problems that arose and how they dealt with then or might deal with them better next time. This entire process is guided by a collaboration rubric like this one.

Although I provide many scaffolds for effective teamwork myself, students always seem to have a way of finding more effective methods of collaborating than I can suggest. One group decided to start by writing down all the tasks that had to be accomplished on sticky notes and post them on the wall next to them. Each member would take one of the notes off the wall and continue to work on it until it was complete. This way, the entire group could see the progress they made and what each member of the group was busy working on. When students create their own methods of organizing group work, I make a point of highlighting these approaches so that all groups are able to benefit from the different way groups were able to organize themselves for effective work.

Again, even though this step may seem time-consuming and with little merit in terms of meeting standards, it is still crucial to success later on in group situations and as a way of fostering independence in students.

In my next post, I'll discuss the final step in this approach, the work phase.

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