Making PBL Accessible to All: Building a Collaborative Culture


"Big Al" Tear Apart Team Builder - 3rd Grade

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Think about a time when you’ve were a part of a team that struggled. Teachers with diverse styles and needs just couldn’t see eye to eye. The one year seemed to last three.... Now think of a time when you’ve been a part of a fluid team that realized each other’s potential, strengths, and needs. You were able to work through conflicts and challenges that arose. Regardless of how difficult the students were, you could tackle anything because you had each other! Those same feelings, the good, the bad, and the ugly, are felt by our students too. 

So how in the world do you craft and create and cultivate a culture of collaboration in a classroom of such diverse learners? We intentionally build that culture with our students. I learned that time spent building a positive classroom culture was imperative to the success of PBL in any classroom.

“You need to be aware of what others are doing, applaud their efforts, acknowledge their successes, and encourage them in their pursuits. When we all help one another, everybody wins.” – Jim Stovall

I realized in my own classrooms that students weren’t entirely sure in the beginning why they had signed team contracts. Teams weren’t sure how to work through problems that arose. Students had a hard time trusting each other enough to struggle in front of each other. My response was to plan a four-week scaffolding of the skills students would need in order to be successful during PBL units throughout the year.

That first year I had to embed team building lessons, activities, and reflections along the way during our first project. The next year, I began the school year with what I dubbed “20 Days to PBL.” This was my attempt to intentionally teach students what it means to learn cooperatively, think critically, how to work in teams, how to solve problems as a team, and how to honor each other’s voices. Each year our “20 Days to PBL” was made stronger by reflecting with my students. I explicitly modeled how to critique and revise work and how to problem-solve with my students.

I don’t know why this shocked me, but few of students came in knowing exactly what it means to “collaborate.” We had to learn what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to solve problems together, to think critically together, and how to communicate by honoring each other’s backgrounds, strengths, and skills. I found that the time I dedicated to building the culture at the beginning of each year actually bought me time later on. The time we spent building a positive class culture also helped students enrich their learning far beyond the content standards I had planned for each PBL unit.

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