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classroom tips
Tips

Working in Groups
The Role of Technology
Teacher as Coach
A Real World Focus

Working in Groups

Teamwork and cooperation are a necessary part of project-based learning. In order to complete a project, students of varying abilities, talents, interests, achievement, and motivations must work together. By doing so, students develop the ability to work within a group to accomplish goals -- a critical skill required in the modern workplace and everyday life.

Appropriate specific ground rules should be established by the students before the group begins project work. Issues that should be resolved are:
  • What will ensure the participation of everyone in the process?

  • How can the group stay focused?

  • How will the group make decisions? Will there be a vote whenever a decision needs to be made, or will some decisions be made by specific group members?

  • How will the group get back on task if project development falters?
Students should also consider the responsibilities of the individuals to the group. They should discuss how to participate in discussion, how to respond to a statement with which one disagrees, and how to permit everyone to make an equal contribution.

Groups early on should determine and list the functions that will be needed. They should then use this list to establish specific roles that can be assigned to the students. It is very important that the duties of each role be clearly defined within the group, and each student should be clear about what his/her role entails. The process of assigning roles to students is important and should be given substantial time -- students must recognize that this is the first problem they are tackling in their project. It is also important to determine a process that will allow each member of the group to take a leadership role occasionally. Roles that can be assigned are facilitator, recorder, timekeeper, communication director, media specialist, etc.

An important part of the students' work is reflection on the group process itself. After the process has continued for a time, students should review what has been successful and where there is a need for improvement. Student should also reflect on their own performance in the group. They should, for example, question how they have contributed to the group, and how they can improve their involvement in group discussion.

It is in the group process that the teacher acts as observer and facilitator. Teachers should circulate among the groups and listen for issues that students are struggling with, using this as a starting point to initiate group discussion or brainstorming session. They should listen to successful activity among students and add positive reinforcement. Teachers should be clear about what constitutes normal give-and-take in the process, what are indications that the students are involved in productive work, and what are indications that the teacher should become involved as mediator or facilitator.
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The Role of Technology

Bringing technology into the project-based learning process reinforces the real-life focus of the project. It gives the student a sense of authenticity of the problem, letting them feel that they are solving problems using the tools that professionals use and that they will use in the future.

Technology can be integrated into the project in various ways. Spreadsheets, for example, can be used to organize data. Databases can be created and maintained to synthesize data. E-mail, electronic mailing lists, and forums can foster communication and collaboration within the group and among the groups, and can establish important contacts for knowledge sharing and collaboration outside the classroom. The Web can provide access to information and public databases from libraries, museums, and government and private research facilities. It can also provide access to devices such as Web-cams, telescopes and other research instruments set up in remote locations. Finally, the Web can be used maintain progress reports and to publish the final outcome of the project, connecting it once again with the real world.

Depending on the technology available, projects can also involve simulations, reconstructions of objects and events from the past, models of a proposed invention or a virtual world, animations, and electronic art and music. Results of a project can be presented using programs such as PowerPoint. Technology can also be used in assessment: for example, electronic portfolios of ongoing work can be maintained by the students, and can later be examined for peer review or assessment by the teacher.
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Teacher as Coach

Throughout the project-based learning exercise, the teacher takes the role of coach, facilitator, and even fellow learner, rather than disseminator of knowledge. In project-based learning, the students become active participants who drive the problem-solving activity to its culmination. Teachers monitor their process, ask questions that challenge students' thinking, and elicit particular student viewpoints and talents that may be useful to the group. The class's group dynamic is continually balanced and rebalanced, to keep students involved. Decision-making is left to the students, who provide the ultimate meaning for the process. The teacher keeps the process moving and provides a timeline/deadlines for solving the problem. Since project-based learning is process-oriented, teachers should also be sure to monitor the performance of each student throughout the exercise.
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A Real World Focus

Project-based learning activities are often most motivating when they aim to solve a real-world problem. The problem should be one that needs solving and impacts many people. It can be local, regional, national or global. The problem should be one that does not have a clear answer, or for which more than one solution is possible. Assisting students in devising projects to deal with this problem in a hands-on way gives them the sense that they are using their talents to make a real contribution; this in turn stimulates them toward achievement. It can also motivate them toward lifelong learning and community service.

Project-based learning activities also encourage students to "think globally and act locally." In each activity, global issues are broken down into local steps. Because of that, environmental projects lend themselves well to project-based learning. For example, in order to study global warming, students might design a project to determine if the vegetation in a particular locality has changed significantly over the period of 100+ years, using information from old records compared to modern surveys performed by the students themselves. Or, students might redesign their school so that it has 100 per cent "smart classrooms."

By thinking of global issues in terms of local outcomes, student projects become much more compelling. Students will then choose methods that are realistic, such as polling, researching and experimenting. Global/local problem solving also establishes relations between subjects, leading to a multidisciplinary approach.
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INNOVATION Online is a production of Thirteen WNET New York. Copyright 2004 Educational Broadcasting Corporation.