Creating Interdependence in Your PBL Classroom

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By: Britni Purdue, Elementary PBL Facilitator

Southport Elementary School

Southport, IN

@Bnpurdue

As the school year begins you will be faced with the challenge of creating a culture in your classroom that can set you up for  a successful year. One of the greatest challenges of working with young students is teaching them to put themselves aside and work as a team. When you are new to the world of project-based learning one of the most important things you will need to create in your classroom is a culture of interdependence between your students. One of the most important employability (21st Century) skills your students will learn through PBL is how to work as a team and how to collaborate with others. You can learn more about all of the employability (21st Century) skills, how they fit with PBL, and find rubrics to assess these skills through this resource: Employability (21st Century) Skills. I know as teachers, many of us like to jump straight into the curriculum on day one of the new school year; we are used to using the first day to tell students the rules, pass out materials, and then get straight to the teaching. I used to do the same thing in my classroom until I was given the freedom to use the first few days of the year to build a respectful culture and norms in my classroom. If you give yourself and your students the time it takes to create real, genuine relationships you will see that the respect and teamwork your students need to be successful throughout their PBLs will spill over into other parts of their school year. Here are a few tips and tricks that I use to help create interdependence in my own classroom. 

Team Building Activities

Marshmallow Tower Challenge

Marshmallow Tower Challenge

One way I like to build interdependence in my classroom is by doing team building challenges and games throughout the first few days of school. One of my favorite team building challenges is the Marshmallow Tower Challenge. A reason I like this challenge is because the materials are cheap and easy to find. The best part of this challenge is that you can find out who in your room is an innovative thinker and who is most comfortable staying inside the box. Another part I love about this challenge is there always seems to be a group that gets done extremely quick, but you can always challenge them by having them look at other group’s ideas to make their tower taller. This is a great teachable moment to show students that we are never “finished” early with a challenge or project because there is always room for revision and improvement. One way you can add to this challenge is to create a collaboration opportunity for every student where they each sketch their own plan and bring their ideas to the group before building. You can give your students some requirements to make sure at least one part of every person’s plan was attempted and then have them revise and go from there. This will give students with good ideas who are shy or English language learners an opportunity to be heard and appreciated in the group. This challenge is not always easy for students because they build a very tall tower with the spaghetti and then it falls over when they go to put the marshmallow on top. Aside from team building this is a great way to teach children grit and perseverance.    

Cup Stacking Challenge

Cup Stacking Challenge

Another team building activity I enjoy doing with students is a cup stacking challenge. This challenge  is one where I can scaffold the difficulty as teams progress. All you need for this challenge are jumbo craft sticks and plastic cups. I love this one because I already have these materials in the science kit that comes with our curriculum. The first part of the challenge is to have students use as many craft sticks as they need and two cups. They can create any base that they want, but they have to get 2 cups to balance on each side of a craft stick. You can give all students a time limit or stop the challenge after the first group is successful. After this part of the challenge is over, I like to give students access to unlimited cups and craft sticks and challenge them to see how many cups they can balance in a given amount of time. I love that this challenge starts simple and progresses to become more difficult. You can teach communication and parts of the design process by allowing the students to have time to communicate and come up with a plan to balance the most cups before building. The best part of this activity is that students have a chance to communicate, plan, fail, and go through the process multiple times while also using this as a teachable moment to learn how to work through arguments and solve any issues that arise.

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As you plan for the beginning of your new school year with your new group of students, keep in mind that these are only two examples of the endless possibilities for team building activities. Teachers Pay Teachers  and Pinterest are crawling with fun ideas to help you and your students on their interdependence journey. Just keep in mind that while some activities come with a specific protocol and materials you can be flexible with any of it to make these work for you and your students. Feel free to change materials to make it more age appropriate or budget friendly. Be sure to stop the timer and embrace teachable moments about teamwork, conflict resolution, and tackle the phrase “stop copying me”!  I often use the strategy and phrase “fish bowl” in my classroom, based on the Fish Bowl Protocol, which is where a struggling group can go watch a more successful group and collaborate with them to get new ideas. The phrase “fish bowl” takes away the stigma from copying and creates an environment of collaboration. Remember, while all of these activities are great fun, they are filled with teachable moments that will prepare students to handle conflict and teamwork on their own without running to the teacher. The image above is a tool that I like to use when talking about group contracts or before a team building activity. I allow students to brainstorm their own solutions before giving them steps to resolve conflict. This year my students came up with the following steps during their work time; take a breath and walk away, go get a drink, go to the desk in the hall and work alone for a few minutes, watch a group that is doing a good job, and my favorite, apologize to each other and move on. As a class we collaborate and take all of the steps we brainstormed to deal with conflict and then create some whole class steps that can help students through issues on their own without ever getting a teacher involved. 


Strategic Grouping Creates Teachable Moments

One thing I make sure to do before I start any kind of team building activity is to use some protocols to help me and my students get to know each other. Compass Points is a great activity to help students understand their own learning styles as well as their classmates. If you have never done Compass Points for yourself, I would highly recommend taking the adult survey before giving the student version to your class. After getting to know my students and their compass points, I like to use the information to put them in meaningful groups for some of the team building challenges mentioned above. In order to teach natural leaders how to step aside and let others take control I like to put them all together. This type of group often ends up in a power struggle and creates a teachable moment for dealing with conflict and communication. After compass points it can be a great opportunity to group some “wests” with some “norths”. These students often have a great view of the overall goal, but have different approaches to getting there. Giving these students opportunities to learn to work together now will save everyone headaches during future projects. Many of your “south” students will need to have a chance to work with some “north” students during these team building activities as well. These students tend to cry or accuse others of being mean to them during challenges. The first few days of school can be a time for them to learn how to effectively communicate their needs and feelings to others and teach your natural leaders how to take time to pause and listen to other’s needs.  

I know, you're thinking that I’m insane for telling you to purposefully put students in groups that will set them up for conflict, but unfortunately the skills needed for conflict resolution are not ones that come naturally. Students need to learn how to work together with different types of people who have different work ethics and learning styles. If you take time to set up these authentic learning situations early in the year, it will keep you from wanting to pull your hair out mid project. Allowing students to have conflict and learn from mistakes and experiences will set up more authentic opportunities for creating classroom norms for dealing with conflict during future projects. 

Another way I like to group students at the beginning of the year is by commonalities. I could say, find a partner wearing the same color as you, or find someone that went to the same pool as you this summer, or who played the same sport as you, and so on. I like grouping students this way because it gets them talking about non-academics and gives them some common ground with new people who could become their friend. I have found that grouping kids this way at the beginning of the year gives my shy students an opportunity to come out of their shell and become comfortable talking to their peers and to me. You can’t expect a shy student to feel comfortable talking to you academically if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you personally. Interdependence is dependent on the relationship you build with your students and the relationship that is encouraged to be built among each other. 

Collaborative Learning Strategies 

Jigsaw Strategy

Jigsaw Strategy

After students work on team building strategies and conflict resolution as a result of these fun challenges, they should be ready to take their learning into classroom curriculum. One of the collaborative learning strategies that I really enjoy using in my classroom is the Jigsaw strategy. You can do this to help divide up large PBL tasks or in a non-PBL lesson. I used this strategy long before implementing PBL in my classroom. The overview of this strategy is that you take a large task and divide it up into smaller tasks, assigning one part to each group member. Each student is responsible for his/her small task individually and then partners with other classmates that had the same task. Those are your “expert groups”. After students share and use the other experts as a resource, they go back to their jigsaw group. In this group, each child presents their work and the other students will have a task to hold them accountable for listening to them present. After each person in the group shares, everyone should have all of the parts of the larger task complete, but were only responsible for one small portion. This strategy for learning helps build interdependence and individual accountability in your classroom because everyone knows that other people in the classroom are relying on what they learn. Every person has a job; every person has an opportunity to meet and get feedback from other people with the same job and then share what they learned with other people who need their information to complete the larger task. 

Consensus Mapping

Consensus Mapping

Another learning strategy I like to use is Consensus Mapping. This strategy is similar to Jigsaw, but allows students to have some more independent responsibility. In this type of activity each student in a group of three or four is responsible for some independent learning and note taking. You can make this as structured or free as you need it to be for your lesson. In the middle of the work space is one question that all students have to answer together at the end of the lesson. Students can use different texts as their research resource or they can all use a small piece of one large text. After they read and take notes that support their opinion of the middle question, they are given time for debate and conversation. In my classroom we use the phrase “disagree nicely” to set our norms for debate. We have a class discussion on what it means to be kind and respectful when speaking and when listening. We use phrases such as, “that is a good thought but I think…” or we use the frames of “I like how you… but one thing I wonder is…” to help us set a respectful yet conversational culture in our classroom. After  their collaborative discussion only one person is allowed to write their final answer in the middle part of the consensus map. The key to this strategy is that groups are only allowed to write an answer once everyone in the group agrees. This type of activity builds interdependence in a few ways. The first is that students who tend to be unmotivated workers are more likely to work hard on their individual piece because they know their group is depending on their information. They are also more motivated to only write down high quality work because they know they will be held accountable for sharing with their group. Lastly, they are all held accountable for having good collaborative conversations to come up with a final answer that everyone agrees with. The criteria put in place for the final consensus is that they must write a RACE answer, using at least 3-4 pieces of evidence. This means that each person in the group should have one of their points in the answer as evidence. 

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Remember, none of these activities are going to be rolled out perfectly the first time you do them with your class. Use these strategies early in your year and take advantage of teachable moments. The first time you use Jigsaw or Consensus Mapping try to keep the content light and fun. Give the whole class verbal reminders that everyone needs to be a hard worker because other people in the group are depending on their work. Try not to call out individuals who are not working right away and let the group encourage them to do more so they can all succeed. I would recommend trying the Jigsaw Strategy before the consensus map so students can compare their work to other people who are doing the same thing and see the high standard they should be holding themselves to during independent work time. I firmly believe that if you take time the first few weeks of school to roll out team building in both fun and educational ways you will see your students take ownership of their own work and hold their classmates accountable for being active participants. Interdependence  among you and your students will lead to successful end products and collaboration throughout your PBL journey and set everyone up for success.  


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Britni Purdue teaches third grade in Perry Township on the south side of Indianapolis. She loves teaching in the same district where she attended school all throughout her childhood. This past year was her sixth year teaching and her fourth year teaching third grade. She is currently going through the PBL Certification process with Magnify Learning and facilitating with them this summer. PBL has created amazing opportunities for her and her students that make everyday an adventure!


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