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PBL Beginnings

Building agency through collaboration and co-construction

by Julianna Lux and Dawn Mitchell

Matt Bertasso says in his article, “The Secrets to Great Teaching,” “When students have ownership over their learning, they aren’t learning for the teacher, the grade, or for their parents, they are learning for themselves and deeper learning happens. Students, at this point, are truly fishing.” At the heart of PBL is the idea that students must be given opportunities to use their own voice, make their own choices, and have control of their learning. In a perfect classroom, the teacher could ask the students to form groups, identify a common topic for research, and set them free to conduct the research and create a publishable product. The teacher would assist in the case of hiccups and fine-tuning the final product or provide need-to-know lessons, but mostly she would stay out of the way. The students are able to exercise their voice and choice seamlessly.

Perhaps those classrooms do exist, but we are not aware of any that work this way all the time. That is not to say we shouldn’t find small ways to build student agency into our everyday lessons.

In fact, what we’ve learned in our experience implementing PBLis that agency can’t be just assigned through activities or opportunities. Instead, agency has to be intentionally developed through opportunities embedded throughout the PBL process. We discovered this through a project based learning coaching cycle this past spring that proved to be beneficial in building agency not only for our students, but for us as well.

The third course of Furman University’s Project Based Learning endorsement program encourages the teacher-students to utilize the professor as a coach, sometimes inviting the professor to co-teach a PBL lesson. Our original plan was for Dawn to help co-teach a feedback and collaboration session with my CP students because I expected them to be at a point with their PBL products to share with their classmates for feedback; however, because they were nowhere near this point, we discussed what soft skills my students needed to strengthen to be more successful with PBLs.

Over the course of our conversation, we kept coming back to my students’ need for collaborative experiences. From small group and partner activities, in addition to daily interactions, I had observed my students struggling to work successfully with students outside of their own comfort zone (and sometimes within their own comfort zone) and having a difficult time resolving conflict. This reminded Dawn of a book she’d recently read: What Do You Do With a Problem?, and I recalled a collaboration activity I discovered somewhere online challenging students to create art from torn paper. Through the reading of the children’s book and the collaboration required in the challenge, we hoped to guide our students through the process of agreeing on a process to achieve a goal and how to address conflicts along the way.

In her Edutopia blog, “5 Ways to Give Your Students More Voice and Choice”, Rebecca Adler wrote, “Two educational theorists who inform my thinking about co-constructing knowledge are Vygotsky and Freire. Both saw learning as a social act, where teachers and students dialogued and all created knowledge together, rather than teachers filling the students with content and information as if they were empty vessels.”

Instead of providing students with pre-printed copies of a Group Work contract such as those from BIE or New Tech, we wanted our students to understand the purpose of a group contract for providing both support and accountability for the group work, and we also wanted them to be able to co-construct their work contract together instead of just signing off on a pre-constructed contract. In the past, we’ve found that this process of group contracts becomes just another task or work assignment, and what students put down does not always transfer to their actual collaborative work. We believed students would have more success understanding and applying the concepts that undergirded a group contract if they built it along the way.

Description of What Do You Do With a Problem? Torn Art Challenge:

The “Torn Paper Art Challenge” has taken multiple forms in my classroom over the past year, but here is the basic gist:

  1. Identify a text or topic for which a group of students must create an image. The original lesson used What Do You Do With a Problem? by Kobi Yamada, but I have also used “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and the idea “What is America?” (both for an American literature class).
  2. Group students, preferably in groups of four to six. When I grouped my students the first time, I did so with consideration for their strengths and weaknesses, especially in regards to group work. The purpose of this task is to give them opportunities to learn how to resolve conflict and abide by contractual guidelines.
  3. Explain the task.
  4. Write the contract. Encourage your students to think about the struggles they have encountered in the past and establish guidelines that should help them avoid those. I found stopping my students about halfway through this process and discussing their progress helpful. Some groups that struggled received an a-ha! moment and catch up quickly. A contract template can be found in the full lesson plan. (Sample Contracts)
  5. Complete the task. Leave time to debrief the students on the struggles they faced, the strategies they used to overcome conflict, the reasons they may not have completed the task successfully, and how they felt about having some voice in the rules for the group.

Link to Full Lesson Plan; Link to PowerPoint; Link to 2nd Contract attempt last year

Discussion of Student Outcomes:

So what do you do with a problem? In past collaborative opportunities, our students would handle problems by laughing, crying, or giving up. Our students also mentioned they would get angry, shut down, run the other way, ignore it. With this activity, they had a problem they had to face and overcome, and we wondered if the co-construction of a group contract and the intentionality of creating an activity that focused on building agency instead of academic skills would be successful.

The activity started out well — some students were responding, most of the students weren’t acting up, all of the students were paying attention. Win! We discussed the types of problems we face and how we handle them, although we didn’t go as deep as I would have loved to. I only had two to three minutes before we began working on the contract if we wanted to stay on schedule. Dawn then spoke with them about the purpose of contracts and asked them to work as a group to create a contract highlighting their expectations for participation, how to handle conflict, who would talk, etc. Being the first time they had probably ever created a contract, they struggled. As we watched them struggle, we decided to abbreviate the contract and ask them to focus on participation and conflict. One group established a leader who would guide the group to success, another group discovered nobody wanted to talk but knew they would need to in order to succeed, and the third group had two dominant personalities that wanted to be vocal the whole time. Overall, the contract process took eleven minutes.

Finally, time to create a picture…in twelve minutes. I distributed the materials and stood back to observe. These groups could not have been more different! One group jumped right in, tearing their colors as they discussed what to create. The contracted leader had the idea, and they ran with it, successfully creating an image of a broom sweeping away “problems” (complete with problem written on every torn piece of paper). SUCCESS!

Sweeping away our problems. SUCCESS!

The other two groups weren’t as successful. One group quickly established an idea—a student sitting at a desk frustrated over a problem—but they couldn’t get anywhere because they wanted to use primarily the colors chosen by one student, and he became frustrated because he thought he was going to have to do all the work. I decided this required a little intervention to help them overcome the conflict and stepped in, asking them questions about what was frustrating (“I’m doing all the work. Why can’t they help me?”) and being misunderstood (“His paper is what we need down first, so we need him to start tearing it”). The students obviously brought prior bad experiences to the activity, which were shaping their interactions with each other, but we were able to talk about the concerns and solve some of the conflict. While they didn’t make their art, I believe they would have succeeded had they been given more time.

The third group couldn’t decide what to do, but they also weren’t talking to each other very much—three of the four students are typically quiet. One student became the leader by default because he was the most vocal of the group, so he tried pulling ideas from the other students with varying success — one student opened up and provided input and ideas, another started working, but the last student shut down and turned away any time he was directly addressed. They recognized their struggles revolved around their tendency to be introverted in group settings, so they came to the understanding that sometimes they have to come out of their shell for the success of the group.

I stuck to the time limit and stopped them at 12 minutes. They weren’t done, and a number of the more grade-conscientious students were worried about this, but our discussion focused more on the process and the ideas than on the end product. Isn’t that what PBL is about? We want our students to learn the how-tos and life skills instead of focusing solely on the “assessment” at the end or the content-area standards. What did they learn along the way? My students have some experience resolving conflicts in small groups, a little bit, so when we work on our first group-based PBL in a few weeks, they will have common experiences—”oh yeah, sometimes we misunderstand each other and need to ask questions about the process before blowing up” and “sometimes I need to speak up if we are going to successfully finish what Mrs. Lux asks us to do.” So in the end, shifting my perspective can help me understand the needs of my students and goals of PBL.

The overall purpose of the activity was to begin building agency through the co-construction of the group contract used during their collaboration in their torn art challenge. While the outcomes weren’t perfect, we definitely witnessed evidence of progress. Enough evidence in fact, for me to want to continue to apply the concept of both the co-construction of group contracts and the torn art challenge in other units of study.

Adapting the Lesson

1.) My honors English II students studying Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” completed this torn paper art challenge. The students, once again, created contracts and had all the same limitations except for the time constraint; these students had thirty minutes instead of fifteen.


2.) As an introduction to the course, honors English II students were given almost complete student agency in their design and contract guidelines as long they followed the challenge rules and addressed the topic: “What is America?”



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