PBL and Collaboration

Among the things I like about Project-Based Learning (PBL) is that it provides a context for learning.  Most PBL advocates would say it should be to target real world problems.  I think not necessarily.  There is merit in doing work we value or interested in, which may not be a real world problem at all such as building virtual worlds or any fictional world, for that matter.  I think it would be rather fun to create a project to solve problems of fictional characters such as Harry Potter in his own world – complete with magic and Hermione, of course.

Building on my previous post on defining PBL, projects and having either a proces or product focus to planning, this post is on PBL as a context for learning, and specifically by collaboration.

Collaboration can be loosely viewed as working together towards a common goal.  One might very well ask, as @T_Milkins had, “Are we confusing collaboration with sharing and conversation?”   I could add to that “group work” as well.


courtesy of www.lumaxart.com/

What does it really mean to collaborate?

In the IT systems development projects I’ve been involved in, project team members collaborate.  That is, each one contributes towards achievement of the goal. Is there sharing? Yes. Is there conversation? Definitely. More importantly, each one contributes something that is uniquely their own contribution.

To effect collaboration in PBL, the teacher must ensure that each group member has a role to play that is uniquely their own and for which they are personally accountable.

This means that part of PBL planning is identifying roles and responsibilities which helps determine how many should be in a group.  Ideally, the roles are aligned with the actual context the PBL is designed for.  Here are some examples:

  1. IT projects (e.g. for IST and IPT): Project Leader, Analyst/Designer, Quality Assurance, Developer
  2. Drama projects: Director, Set and Costume Designers, Scriptwriter – more drama goodness from @karlao_dtn
  3. Movie projects: Director, Storyboarder/Scriptwriter, Editor, Actors
  4. Science projects (via @jybuell): Prediction Manager, Evidence Collector, Researcher, Skeptic (love this)
  5. General projects (via @rileylark and really via @jybuell): Facilitator, Task Manager, Resource or Materials Manager, Reporter/Recorder
Anyway, hopefully you get the idea that (1) PBL can be contextualised to the content you want to teach, (2) there are people involved and people mean roles and responsibility and (3) each group member understands his/her role. THEN, collaboration is possible.
I should add, however, that defined roles and responsibilities does not guarantee collaboration.  Students may need to be facilitated to work collaboratively and that may mean assisting them to negotiate ‘rules of engagement’.  A rubric that assesses individual contribution and not just one group mark helps as well.  Rotation of responsibilities – i.e. via multiple PBLs over the school year – is also a good idea.  What else can you suggest?
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10 thoughts on “PBL and Collaboration

  1. Tim Milkins says:

    This is a great post. You have added to the direction of my previous post on collaboration and given a nice twist of Project-driven context.

    I agree with you statement that when students are developing projects and outcomes in teams that they need to realise, and be assisted to value, the function of the individual in collaboration. I further agree to making every member accountable to some individual component of the assessable components of a task.

  2. malyn says:

    Thanks Tim. Teacher is a facilitator in PBL – or should be. But beyond that, the teacher should also teach project skills such as planning, task management, time management, risk and issue management, communications, collaborating, etc. Kids don’t learn this by osmosis on a one-off PBL….which means, PBL should not really be a one-off activity; students will get better with experience….which means, skills are probably best programmed in as you would with technology and literacy skills.

    I did wonder whether or not to add that word ‘value’ but eventually didn’t. It’s not because it’s not important. On the contrary, I think that if each member genuinely has something of value to offer (given their role and responsibility), they will be valued as well as personally value their own involvement.

  3. Russell Darnley says:

    This post accurately outlines the forms if collabortion usually adopted in various projects. I’m not sure how extensively these skills are found in the class room teacher’ s tool kit, so you’re making a succinct and valuable ontribution here.

    • malyn says:

      Thank you Russell.
      I don’t think these skills are found extensively in classrooms but not entirely the fault of teachers, ie. they would not have had such an experience in-school or even in pre-service.
      However, there are many teachers who are trying and doing well as well; most examples above are from other teachers, after all.
      Thanks again.

  4. Mark says:

    Really like your discussion of well defined roles for team members. This is very helpful. People enjoy working in PBL when they can work to their strengths.

  5. Megan says:

    Hi Malyn,

    I am from Kelli’s English Curriculum 1 class. I just wanted to say thank you for such a great post on collaboration and the reminder that in collaborative work everyone should make a unique contribution. Unfortunately in my experiences as a student, it is a sentiment that is usually lost, with group members agreeing with the loudest student (often the one with the most social capital) for the sake of peace and getting something together to hand in.
    I hope as a teacher I can facilitate a more positive experience with collaborative work.


    • malyn says:

      Hi Megan, thanks for commenting.

      The best part about a well-designed collaborative task methinks is that it allows individuals to still be individuals. Part of the design is grouping strategy so those with the most social capital, for example, will have to re-negotiate that capital or work with different groups over the year.

      Another good strategy I found was to have students reflect on their individual contribution and group dynamics – either as part of the assessment or not. Because it is an expectation, the teacher can raise it during class time to point out positive and negative incidences – addressed accordingly.

      I think all good teachers hope to facilitate positive experiences. Personally, I know it doesn’t happen all the time and therein lies the difference between hope and expectations.

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