Thom Markham

San Rafael, CA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 5 Years ago
  • 3.1k

Teaching PBL Teams to Think

Recently, a 7th grade teacher told me a story that thrilled her. She had passed a team of four students in the quad at lunchtime and overheard them having a spirited debate about what they had learned in their latest project in her class. They were exchanging cogent ideas, using the vocabulary of the discipline, and listening carefully to each other’s arguments. That was all the evidence she needed to know that her project had met its goals.


If you’re a PBL teacher, using high quality project based learning methods should lead to these kinds of results. PBL promotes curiosity, purposeful engagement, and—quite often—a noticeable shift in student attitudes. Students begin to demonstrate that they care about their learning—and they talk about it.  


But it is also a fact that often PBL teachers feel dissatisfied with the intellectual outcomes of a project. I believe the reason behind this is that we as educators are in the early stages of learning how to use teamwork to achieve high performance. This is an issue in PBL, which relies on teams to solve problems, but it’s also a challenge for all 21st century educators. In today’s world, collaborative groups in schools must step up to meet the requirements of the global age, a process in which teams routinely focus on a problem, design solutions, and navigate differences to achieve a result, with members using a variety of thinking tools to brainstorm and improve their ideas, and relying on evidence, facts, persuasive arguments, and knowledge of the subject to succeed. We haven’t yet built these new skills into team routines in the classroom.


I also believe that promoting quality interactions among student teams has a larger purpose: Preparing students for the rise of a networked, collective intelligence. Whether it’s putting a ‘like’ on a Facebook post, retweeting an idea, or blogging an opinion and receiving feedback, it is now the norm for individuals to bring their singular gifts to a communal discussion, assimilate information from multiple sources, and sample each other’s ideas before passing judgment or deciding a course of action. We’re all getting smarter together—and this is the environment in which our students will come to adulthood.


This means that it is vital that educators help students move from a Facebook culture to a thinking Facebook culture. The ultimate promise of good teamwork is that young people may learn collective ways to think more deeply about their world and design a better future. In fact, I’ll pause and put the term ‘depth’ in the context of another global age trend: Our knowledge of brain plasticity. What we know is that in the presence of attention and purposeful engagement, the brain is working very hard. Thousands of synapses every second are formed and reformed. The goal of teaching teams to think is to take advantage of the brain as a dynamic enterprise by having students exchange ideas in ways that promote a high level of engagement with each other, require the intentional use of appropriate terms and vocabulary, and challenge inattention and mediocrity.


This is a work in progress for all of us, but here are several ideas on how to make teamwork more effective. If you have other methods that are working, I’d love to hear from you.


Move to the vocabulary of teams. We’re doing much more collaborative learning in schools, but the group work strategies of the last twenty years are aimed at cooperating, not necessarily at quality of thinking. A good first step is to move from the terminology of groups to the more powerful vocabulary of teams. The concept of a team—a focused, committed set of individuals operating as a cohesive unit in search of a solution or attempting innovative thinking—raises the bar by replacing the old notion of having children circle a desk and exchange information with the idea that students team for a purpose.


Use a three step process to train your teams. Moving from groups to high performing teams is a three step process. The first step is to establish a collaborative culture by setting norms for teams and scaffolding essential skills like listening, eye contact, body posture, voice tone, and empathic responses. (These are best taught early in the year, before launching a full scale project.)


The second step is to form your teams intentionally. Balance your teams based on individual strengths and challenges, a profile of their creativity or critical thinking skills, or their personality traits. With younger students, this works best if teachers choose team members. But older high school students can be taught how to choose their own teammates—a valuable lesson in self-awareness and self-management.


The third step is to use PBL team tools. Three basics tools will do the job: A high quality collaboration rubric; a work ethic rubric; and a team contract that defines their operating agreements.


Grade teamwork. Teamwork should not be a serendipitous byproduct of a project. You can mix and match between grading individual students in a team, overall team performance, or a mix of both, but teamwork must be graded and show up in the final project grade. Depending on the time of year, age of students, and your goals in establishing solid teams, the grade percentage can change with each project.


Challenge your teams. We treat 21st century skills, such as communication and collaboration, as isolates. But at a deep level they emanate from one place—from some inner dialogue, vision, stimulation, exchange, wondering, surprise, validation, and joyful recognition of a new idea. A new idea may start with an individual, but we know they gain exponential power in the presence of a team. The kick start for this process is an engaging, powerful challenge that liberates ideas and draws teams together for the common purpose of solving an important problem. Without this challenge, you won’t get far on deep thinking.


Use protocols for thinking. A variety of tools exist to help teams learn to inquire, contribute, comment, share, respond, listen, and revise ideas. Use the visible thinking tools developed at Harvard, protocols that force attentiveness and careful responses, or team to team and peer to peer exchanges, with a clear goal and prompts, at every opportunity. Make the students do the heavy lifting and hard thinking. Have them track and report out on their discussions.


Create a design mentality. Drafting, critiquing, and revising are what teams do best. From the beginning of a project, expect students to think in engineering terms: As designers of a prototype that needs to be reviewed and tested for quality and specifications. The product may be a written piece, a media presentation, a drawing, or a gas-powered boat. It doesn’t matter. The objective of teams, in Ron Berger’s words, is to build a culture of craftsmanship.


Use the power of reflection. A project is never over until a one to two day reflection takes place after the products are delivered or the exhibition is complete, with probing questions to be answered by the student teams regarding their performance, quality of work, and overall learning. This is an excellent time to use thinking tools to explore good thinking—a proven metacognitive approach. Your goal is to help the teams move through a two-stage process: From the So What? (What did we learn?) to the Now What? (How can we improve, think deeper, and move forward?).


Thom Markham is the author of the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for inquiry and innovation for K-12 educators, where you can find more information on PBL teams. You can also download team rubrics and other PBL tools from his website, Contact him at



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