PBL – A code for students

Project Based Learning demands students communicate with each other. Contemporary project design requires the teacher to provide a climate for students to do this – with each other – and there are numerous ways to achieve it. Many PBL classrooms use wikis, blogs, forums and my personal favourite, Edmodo or Schoology. I also encourage classrooms to have a third space, where students can break-out and be – students.

These spaces should be owned by the students, and the teacher should consider themselves a guest, providing facilitation and support for the project development.

Having spaces for students to communicate, does not require the teacher to Tweet it, or publish it online – unless the project has a specific goal to do so. I am a firm believer that the role of the teacher in PBL is to provide a safe, trusting, learning environment to encourage discussion and sharing of ideas, but not overtly police or publish them.

To be effective as a communication space, it is important to develop a code of conduct – rules and expectations that will further the learning experience.

Here is a baseline code s to work from. Not every conversation will take place online – so the code should be developed to foster a spirit of participation in both face to face and online communication activities.

Code of Conduct

  • respect each other
  • criticise ideas instead of people
  • listen actively
  • seek to understand before being understood
  • contribute to group discussions
  • keep an open mind
  • share responsibly
  • attend all meetings
  • return all messages

This should be considered a ‘living document’. It should allow students to address and articulate other shared concerns they might have. At the end of a lesson or group meeting, they should use it to assess their performance and identify areas for improvement. This encourages a philosophy of continued improvement, using shared principles and criteria that matter to the student – and not just the ‘rules’ of the teacher or school – which have often involved to manage poor behavior and effort, not optimise better performance.

Over time, students develop a code of conduct that they believe optimises group performance. Initially they tend to focus on punitive statements, driven by past experiences of working in groups under the rule of teachers. The teacher should pay close attention to this, and strive to resolve and remove ‘deal-breaker’ rules whenever possible.

How games teach students to work in groups

In massive multiplayer games, the code of conduct is often spelled out in a fairly simple group charter (Guild Code). Players in the game come from many Guilds, but when playing with others, they are acutely aware of the ‘core’ expectations and standards that will be enforced during the game. In Warcraft for example – high level players have learned the social-rules though hundred of hours of play – and experience. No one sets out the rules at the start of a ‘raid’ – everyone knows them and the group will ‘kick’ anyone who acts outside of them as it impairs the group performance. The goal is always driving group behaviour.

Give students a way to assess themselves and their peers that is meaningful

Another way of encouraging this in PBL, is to provide students with a self-assessment plan – and build it into the assessment (don’t make it less than 10%). Use a rubric – very often, often, occasionally, rarely, never. You can evoke self or peer review at any time. This is often a great way to resolve conflict within groups.

  1. I try to get to know my classmates
  2. I study with other students in the project
  3. I work with other students in informal groups
  4. I assist other students when they ask me for help
  5. I tell other students when I think they have done good work
  6. I discuss issues with students whose background and viewpoint differ from mine
  7. I offer to serve as a tutor, advisor or resource person when I am knowledgeable and can share skills with others.

PBL encourages students to take direct responsibility for their own learning. These two tactics foster, but also give a clear guide to students of your expectations. If you replace the word ‘student’ with ‘colleague’ – you might discover that this approach is not limited to the classroom – but to the whole community.

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