PBL Insights

The Power of Collaboration in PBL

One of the many reasons I love PBL is that it provides so many opportunities for students to develop skills they need to be successful in life. Collaboration is a great example. Project work often requires students to work together through a process, problem, or product design and creation, making collaboration commonplace in project-based classrooms. And effective collaboration is one of the highly-prized skills of deeper learning like PBL, leading to better communication and enhanced critical thinking and creativity.

Chances are if you are reading this blog you are pretty sold on the why of student collaboration. The how is another matter. Simply setting up working groups will not necessarily lead to effective collaboration and equitable learning for all students—picking teams is a long way from being a winning team!

The power of protocols

Want to make equitable collaboration happen in your classroom? Consider protocols

Collaboration protocols have the common theme of small groups of students engaging in the exchange of ideas and perspectives. Protocol formats vary—from verbal to silent, artistic to written, short to long, sedentary to active. They happen as early as kinder and go on to be used with adult learners. Most importantly, protocols have an important place in a collaborative classroom, and here is why:

  • Protocols ensure that all students have equal air time to speak, and be heard. We have all experienced group members who have much to share, limiting the space for others to share ideas or concerns. Protocols can provide set times for each individual to speak, and if that time is not needed, the space is held to honor the student who “has the floor”; meaning silence is held for the allotted time designated in the protocol. 99% of the time when silence becomes deafening for a group, the student who “has the floor” will end up sharing an additional thought or idea that would have otherwise been rushed over.
  • Group members see each other in new ways when each group member has multiple opportunities to speak. Throughout these speaking opportunities, different types of intelligences are allowed to shine and perspectives that each student brings to the conversation are more likely to be heard.
  • Protocols provide a structure that implicitly teaches the skill of listening. Protocols often build on individuals’ ideas, therefore require each group member to be present and listen for a collective purpose, the group goal, not just their own agenda.
  • Protocols provide a framework for thinking and processing, which for some students can easily get lost when working in a group. Individuals have different needs when it comes to processing, but protocols ensure a mechanism for a group to collectively process their learning, rather than racing to the finish with the fastest member.
  • Protocols give a structure for healthy discourse. Mechanisms such as norms, roles and sentence frames are part of the protocol process, which creates a safe space for individuals to respectfully disagree. Equitable group work doesn’t mean that everybody always agrees and has the same experience. A better goal is that all members have the same opportunity to learn from their peers and be valued for what they contribute.

Tips for your craft

Ideas for when it may be a good time to try a protocol:

  • When brainstorming a project idea
  • When a learning activity will tell you where students are in the learning 
  • When a pivotal decision needs to be made in a group
  • When there is potential for diverse perspectives, or possible disagreement 
  • When you are in the messy middle of a project

Additional lessons learned from the trenches:

  • Model what the protocol looks like for the class by using a fishbowl protocol
  • Establish norms as a class for how students should interact in their group
  • Be upfront about your expectations for the group behavior and outcomes
  • Be present! Observe each group, assess their learning and offer diagnostic feedback
  • Provide students with roles to keep them engaged and accountable during the protocol 
  • Debrief! debrief! debrief! Analyze the effectiveness of the protocol with the class. Revise

A small curated list of my favorite protocols:


For more resources on planning group work, visit our friends at craftedcurriculum.

Project Based Learning with an Advisory System


At Avalon, a 6-12 charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota, we do a few things differently. We are project-based, we focus on student-centered learning, letting our students create the rules, and we have no principal. However, none of this would be possible if it were not for one important practice: the advisory model.  As one teacher at our school said, “Advisory is the most powerful thing we do.”

The Advisory Model

Advisories are groups of about twenty-two multi-aged students and one or two advisors (licensed staff). Students remain connected to the same advisory group for the duration of their time at Avalon: three years in middle school or four years in high school. These advisories are the base from which all work at Avalon grows. 

Students meet in advisory groups for the first twenty minutes of each day in order to check

In, plan group activities, discuss community issues, and set goals for the day. After the meeting, students begin their day’s work either at their desk within their advisory space—designing, implementing, or presenting independent projects—or by going to a seminar.  

Students work with their advisor throughout their school career to propose and execute projects, to develop graduation plans, and to figure out each students next steps. The advisor becomes the main point of contact for both the student and the student’s family, conducting conferences several times a year throughout the student’s time at Avalon.  

Why is the Advisory Model Important?

The advisory model is at the heart of everything we do; it is the foundation from which all work grows. The advisory system creates a safety net for each and every learner in the building. This in turn creates an environment that encourages growth in both academics and character development. 

Monica Martinez (2014) describes the essential nature of the advisory model in the first chapter of her insightful book, Deeper Learning: How Eight Innovative Public Schools are Transforming Education in the Twenty-first Century: “Students having solid, meaningful connections to teachers, other students, and to the experience of learning are preconditions for true academic rigor.” 

Building Community

The advisory model helps foster peer-to-peer relationships that would not otherwise occur—relationships that bridge gaps that differences in age, background, and interest often create. This, in turn, helps prevent negative and damaging social behaviors like bullying and the development of cliques. Students simply cannot learn if they do not feel safe and connected; the advisory model encourages both.

Foster 21st Century Skills

Beyond the important work of creating a supportive community, the advisory model also helps students develop some of the soft skills vital to success in today’s world.

Since advisory groups are multi-aged, student roles change and mature as the years pass.  New leaders are needed as the old ones graduate, and older students feel a responsibility to serve as mentors and positive models to the younger students.

Students also get a chance to practice important communication skills as they lead each other through discussions every morning. Skills like active listening, self-awareness, and collaborative problem solving are routinely discussed and modeled.  

Within an advisory, students engage with people from diverse backgrounds. As they learn to navigate and utilize it, they learn important character building skills and develop the ability to motivate themselves. Engaging in the advisory system gives our students control over their education and the chance to become strong self-advocates. The self-advocacy has made all the difference for Avalon graduates. It is key to their success in choosing colleges and planning careers confidently and with deep reflection and decision-making skills. 

Stressing the Importance of Meaningful, Active Learning Within a Project

At Wildlands, we stress independent learning and developing functional skills as a learner across grade levels. Over the years we have found students don’t always recognize these attributes and abilities, especially when they first enter the project-learning environment. Our students generally come from the control and compliance of more traditional school environment. Uncertain of how to move themselves forward as a project-based learner, we needed strategies to help students strive for independence and lifelong learning.

We have developed a set of tools to share with students as they plan, implement, and debrief or assess their work. Keep in mind these are not “introductory” tools and we don’t roll them out right away. These are for project learners who are starting to really understand their role as the driver of their own education, and the evaluator of their own quality. The last thing a teacher should do is hand these out and ask the students to use them without building up to what each and every topic contained within these documents really means in the project environment. 

With that said, the best way to get independent, active learners is to model, group, team, and make sure students are participating in project experiences that illustrate these ideas. By all means, do not put them in a PowerPoint and lecture about them! Show, do, experience, and model.

Active Learning Strategies

The first tool is a simple but effective list of Active Learning Strategies. In the age of Google, some project learning defaults to the web, and a very narrow set of learning strategies. Rich project learning requires students to function in a wide variety of modes, develop many skills, and apply knowledge to situations. Thus, we have our students strive for designing, implementing, and evaluating projects in the context of “Active Learning." 

This list was generated by students and staff, and is constantly being modified and improved as new ideas surface. Adapt, adopt, and use it as you see fit. One simple warning; Don’t just hand it out, you need to lead up to it, model these strategies, use them with group projects, and help the students own them instead of being required to do them.

Essential Project Elements

The second tool is what we call “Project Elements." This list is again a way to illustrate to students the nature of project learning in a structured, but flexible way. We have adapted these ideas from resource materials we found over the years, and quite honestly can’t remember who to credit for creating the first versions.

The way we use this is to work with students in project situations and discuss and think about how to create rich projects that contain many of these elements. This is another strategy to take students out of the digital knowledge generation mode and begin to move them toward authentic, independent, and community connected learning.

Project Elements can also be helpful to the new project learner if used in small amounts and built into early project opportunities. Measure success one step at a time, reward the failures and restarts with opportunities to change and improve. Most of all help the students realize the learning is in the journey, not the destination.

Both of these lists seem to be “checkbox” oriented, however we don't stop at checking them off. The real goal for this Project Element list and the Active Learning Strategies list is to create meaningful conversations and reflective learning. Whether it be verbal, or written communication from the students, we work to help them discover the metacognition of their learning. Thinking about thinking, and thinking about process.  

Sometimes projects are based more on content areas, sometimes projects take students outside of our walls, and sometimes projects have a deep connection to a community need. Regardless of the project, our goal is for every student to have learning experiences that are meaningful, relevant, and authentic. It’s more than just a project. When given the opportunity to make their own choices, build on their own talents, and own their learning students understand that it’s not an assignment, it’s a contribution.

For additional insight into Wildlands, we invite you to read our book, An Improbable School, which documents the creation of a teacher-powered, student-centered, project-based learning environment.

Driving Questions Driving Students

The Challenge

In the infant stages of the second campus of MC2- Making Community Connections Charter School, 20 students discovered how easy it was to drive their own learning - and how challenging that learning could be. Originally, they signed up for a class called The Mathematician’s War, an interdisciplinary math/physics class with a layer of military history thrown in. A few weeks in, however, a unique challenge presented itself. The local Pumpkin Festival was hosting its first ever Pumpkin Catapult Competition and students wanted in.

The Idea

Building a functioning catapult in 3 weeks would prove to be a daunting task for a normal class, but this class was anything but normal. In the early brainstorming stages a lone voice insisted they should strive for an unprecedented design: the underhanded catapult. This idea proved controversial with students asking:

  • “Were there even any examples of underhanded catapults?” 
  • “Could an underhanded design fire?” 
  • “What forces are at play?” 
  • and most importantly (to the students) “How would an underhand launch compare to overhand counterparts?” 

The debate provided a rich field of questions that originated from the students, all they needed was a driving question to give it life. They settled on, “Why not build an underhanded catapult? Why might an underhand design take home the prize?”

The Strategy

Successful, responsive instruction requires teachers not to micro-manage content, but rather, to help shape the terrain for rigorous learning. Students broke down their driving question into a series of guiding questions with aligned tasks during their many design sessions. Working through the design process, students tackled: 

  • How do launch speed and angle impact trajectory?  Before the students could hijack the class, they had to make a compelling argument for how the catapult challenge would allow them to demonstrate the competencies targeted in the class. A brief investigation into how vectors and kinematic forces gave students enough background to make an informed decision to follow through with the new project. As the project grew the physics and math became “just in time” rather than “just in case” learning
  • How would an underhand launch work? This question had to be addressed before the group could proceed any further. As a divided class, it was decided that some students would tackle the prototyping of an underhanded design, using mostly rubber bands, glue and popsicle sticks. Their initiative proved successful; a 5” catapult consistently yielded a 15-20 foot range of results. The prototype was so compelling that the class unanimously voted to proceed with the underhand design after its introduction.
  • What physical forces influence the launch? These questions emerged as the challenge of scaling up a prototype developed. Using 2x4s and lag bolts was markedly different from popsicle sticks and glue. Most importantly the previously ignored forces of tension and torsion provided a challenge that stymied the class for almost a third of their design time. Students explored multiple materials in numerous configurations in order to design an effective launch. 
  • Why are there no examples of underhanded catapults in history (or on YouTube)?  Students were constantly asking this question, desperate for inspiration and tips on how to improve their design. The lack of examples was unhelpful but also compelling. Students were motivated to create a truly unique product and many even followed up after the festival looking at the historical factors contributing to this question. 

Additionally, as an actual building challenge students were constantly wrestling with the question, “Why won’t it work this time?” testing their skills in problem solving, collaboration, material management, and critical thinking.

The Win

As dawn broke on the day of the launch, the field of competition had whittled down from 5 other teams to 1. The MC2 students prepared their catapult alongside the one other school left standing. After a broken axle, snapped bungee cords, liters of coffee and almost no sleep, the catapult, aptly nicknamed “The Underdog,” was ready a mere 5 minutes before the launch. Everyone hoped for a simple lob but were pleasantly surprised when the first launch went off without a hitch. Not only that, but as the throws progressed the range steadily increased. With only 3 throws to the contest, students became convinced that with more chances, they could steadily improve their performance. Though they lost the distance category by a few feet, The Underdog led in the remaining categories – an impressive win for a team and school a mere 3 months old. What powerful evidence of learning they created!

This led, naturally, to their next question, “Who wants to compete again next year?”

Don’t believe us? Check it out here!

Creating Strong Questions

Posted by Jennifer Williams


As part of creating strong projects, students need to develop thought-provoking questions that encourage deep thinking. To assist our students at Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) with this process, we use the Question Matrix. The Question Matrix guides students in creating questions that require more thought and research. We require students to have a driving question and four supporting questions (aka guiding questions) . The driving question should be one that encompasses the entire project and will show the big picture. The supporting questions are those that need to be answered to successfully answer the driving question. Students develop their thought-provoking questions by sliding across and down the Question Matrix.

The further across and down students move in the Question Matrix, the more involved the questions become. For example, a question such as “What is the formula for the area of a kite?” would be a simplistic and easy to find the answer. However, if we slide across and down the Question Matrix we could create the more complex question “How might the area of a kite influence how long it stays in the air and the height it reaches?” The second question allows students to not only find out the formula for the area of a kite, but also apply it using prototypes and testing. Students get to create models and see how the area affects the flight of a kite.

We have the Question Matrix linked in our Project Foundry Project Request Form for students to quickly reference as they are writing up their project proposals. Teachers also have printed copies posted in their rooms to remind students of the complexity of questions that are expected in their projects. Another way that the question matrix can be used is to have some laminated copies that students can write on with dry erase markers as they brainstorm their project idea and the questions they want to answer. The Question Matrix is a great tool for getting students to challenge themselves and their level of thinking.