The process of collaborating to achieve a shared goal can be a foreign concept and practice to most students, as they have not been asked to do it before. In many traditional classrooms, even asking students to discuss with each other rather than just to the teacher at the front of the room is a new idea. So releasing students to work and spend huge amounts of time with each other under the expectation that they solve a problem as a team can be a daunting task. That is why it is vital at the outset of every school year, as well as every project to set up a culture of accountability.
Here a couple tools I cannot live without in my PBL classroom:
At the beginning of a project, before any brainstorming or project work can take place, students go through an accountability process. The first step is filling out a group contract. A group contract is a shared document that the group members write and sign. The purpose of the contract is for the group members to have a discussion about what they expect from each other throughout the process. These expectations are clearly written down by a scribe in the group. For instance:
I will complete any task assigned to me by the group.
If I am sick or absent for some reason, I will check-in with the group.
I will not use my headphones unless I am working on an individual task.
I will meet all deadlines that the group sets.
Then students come up with the consequences of not meeting those expectations with each other. This usually entails a warning system where each student is allotted a certain number of warnings or strikes before more serious action is taken. In my class, the serious action is a sit-down meeting with me, the teacher. At this meeting I allow both sides to share their grievances and defense, and I try to find a way to get the group back on track working together. Most of the time, this is successful, as most students need to just be made aware that their actions are affecting everyone else, and they will do everything they can to remedy that.
However, if the student who has failed to meet their group’s expectations does not return to working the way they agreed to, they can be fired from the group. Being fired means that individual is removed from the group and must complete the entire project on their own. They cannot use any of the resources gathered from the group that they were in, but still have the same deadline and expectations that story deems from the rest of the class.
Sounds harsh, doesn’t it?
But this is not a punishment, and instead a natural consequence of negative actions, and it resembles the consequences of similar actions in the workforce. I make my students very aware of the firing process at the beginning of the school year when they first enter a project based, epic classroom. The reality is, students do not want to be fired from their group, and they do not want to have to complete an entire authentic project on their own. Thus they learn how to collaborate and hold each other accountable. This is why in my years of teaching, I can count on one hand how many times I have had to fire a student from their group.
Project Management Log
The Project Management Log (PML) is a tool that coincides with the group contract. It is a task list that students reference everyday at the outset of project work time. As a group, students discuss what needs to be worked on during that specific work session, and write down who is doing what. Therefore, everyone has a task to complete, and can use this log to hold each other accountable. If someone is not working or goofing around with another group, a teammate can ask them, “Did you complete this specific task that you said you would?” If the answer is “no”, then they can kindly ask them to get back to work. If the answer is “yes,” then they can help them figure out other tasks to work on for the group. The project management log helps students learn to divide and conquer, and if used as a vital tool, ensures tasks are completed and deadlines are met.
Holding someone, often your friends and acquaintances, accountable can be an extremely difficult task. But it is a necessary one, as accountability is a skill a student will use the rest of their lives in their careers and relationships. If students are completing important work together in your classroom, they need to be taught how to ensure that work is completed with excellence. This begins with the teacher creating that culture, but also allowing the reality of group work to teach it as well.
At the beginning of every school year during the start of the first project, groups write down in their group contracts the number of warnings that will be given out before firing. Without fail, most groups record that each student will receive around 10 warnings before a meeting with me, the teacher.
“You didn’t work today, you get a warning.”
“You didn’t check in when you were sick, you get a warning.”
“You’ve been on your phone all morning, you get a warning.”
You won’t stop using your headphones when we are collaborating, you get a warning.”
Needless to say, by the next project, kids start writing down in their group contracts that they are not giving out any warnings for offenses!
I of course then have to teach them about grace and second chances. But the point is, reality teaches them accountability, because if one person is dragging their feet in the group, it can have a dramatic effect on how much it slows the rest of the group down as well. Creating a culture of accountability is vital to the flow of the story in your classroom.