Last week I described the self-esteem benefits that surfaced when I presented the Thrively strength assessment results to my students in groups rather than individually. During these conversations another powerful benefit of using Thrively in the classroom emerged—improved group functioning.
     When children work together on an academic activity, teachers, of course, want each group to complete the task successfully and produce quality work. The primary goals of cooperative learning, however, have less to do with the final products the kids create and more to do with the development of important habits of character that will serve students well throughout their lives. For example, when members of a group work together, we want the students to treat one another with kindness and respect, be open to the ideas of others, solve disagreements peaceably, maintain their focus without straying off task, and take pride in the final product the group produces. These are extremely valuable life skills.
     Thrively helps take cooperative learning to an even higher level. Now, in addition to focusing on important habits of character, students can use the information from the strength assessment results to determine how each member is able to contribute most effectively to the team's efforts. My favorite example of this phenomenon happened when one student noticed that his write-up described him as a strong "big picture" thinker while his partner's mentioned a keen ability to pay attention to detail. In a really cool "aha" moment, the first child said, "Hey, when we start our project, I can try to think of the big ideas, and he can help with the details."
     Children who display the habits of character that cooperative learning requires and possess the ability to analyze each group member's strengths to determine how everyone can contribute fully to the team will become our leaders of tomorrow. Bringing this mindset to cooperative learning will empower students to maximize both individual and team potential. Strength-based cooperative learning will also provide children with experiences that more closely resemble the type of work they will do as they progress through school and enter our 21st century economy.
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    In last week's post, I mentioned that my each of my students took an online strength assessment at Thrively.com and received a detailed summary of the results that was 100% positive and motivating. I first incorporated the results of this strength profile into my instruction during the Community Resource Project, a problem-based learning unit that was part of our science curriculum. (To review, Thrively is a free website for teachers and parents that’s designed to help children discover their interests and passions, personalize the learning process, and maximize their amazing potential. Over the past few months, I have been collaborating with the founder of the company due to our mutual interest in strength-based education and teaching the whole child.)
    After my students took this online strength profile, my original plan was to meet individually with each child to discuss the results and determine the different ways we could incorporate the identified strengths into our daily learning and try to develop them further. Our daily independent reading period is the only consistent time I have to confer with the kids, but I knew I needed to devote the next two weeks of conferring time to conducting one-on-one reading assessments.  
    Rather than wait, I decided to hold these conversations while the children were working on the Community Resource Project. Instead of meeting with each individual child, I met with each group. I thought this decision would allow me to go over the strength profiles in a manner that was more efficient and that wouldn’t take too much time away from each group’s work.
    An unexpected benefit of this decision soon surfaced that was far more important than efficiency.
    After first gaining each child’s consent to share the assessment results with their partner present, I read the write-ups aloud as all group members listened. I quickly realized that it’s one thing for children to hear their teacher describing their strengths. It’s quite another for children to hear their teacher describing their strengths while peers listened to the entire conversation.
     Presenting the write-ups to a whole group, as opposed to individual children, changed the dynamic significantly and took what otherwise would have been a private moment and transformed the occasion into an event in which students felt as if they were in the spotlight, gaining attention for something that was 100% positive and gaining validation and respect for the skills and attributes they brought to the group. This was especially valuable for students who may have never before received this type of recognition. The self-esteem boost was incredible.
    From now on, every time my students begin a group project with new partners, I plan to review the strength profiles in this way to get the team off to a great start.  
     Next time, I will share another significant benefit of using Thrively in the classroom: helping each group perform more effectively.
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After completing the California Choice Project, my students moved to their next Problem-Based Learning unit, the Community Resource Project. Focusing on earthquakes, landslides, and other land changes, this science unit was introduced by the following problem statement:

“You work for the government of a city that has seen many changes to the land over the years. You have lived in this city your whole life. Many people have been moving to your city lately, and they have never seen these types of changes before. Understandably, they are nervous about living in such an unfamiliar environment. You will create a resource that teaches new residents about these different types of land changes. Your resource must include the definition and pictures of landslides, earthquakes, creep, chemical weathering, mechanical weathering, dunes, volcanoes, runoff, erosion, and deposition. Also, your resource must include some type of rating or description of how dangerous each of these things usually are.”  

There are three major differences between this unit and the previous one. First, as I mentioned in last week's post, the kids had complete “choice of team.” Those who wanted to work alone were allowed to do so, while everyone else chose the members of their team. Many children decided to work with the same people as last time, and others formed brand new groups.

Second, whereas the kids were charged with creating a presentation in the California Choice Project, they were now being asked to make a resource. This change enabled the kids to engage in a different type of creative thinking and call upon different strengths and talents. Most groups chose to produce full-color books that we had printed and bound. A few groups, who saw some of their classmates create slide shows last time around, decided to go this route this time around. One ambitious pair, whose members have an interest in programming, decided to make a website.

Finally, the Community Resource Project was the first time we used the valuable information that we gained from Thrively.com, a free website for teachers and parents that’s designed to help children discover their interests and passions, personalize the learning process, and maximize their amazing potential. The process of using Thrively begins when the kids take an engaging, online strength assessment. After completing the strength profile, the children each receive a detailed write-up that’s 100% positive and motivating. As a teacher who’s dedicated to developing the whole child, I appreciate Thrively’s inclusion of not only academic strengths and interests, but also social skills, personality traits, and critical “real-life” attitudes and aptitudes.    
 
Though the strength profiles are created for individual students, I discovered two ways to use this information to help the kids work more effectively in their groups. I will share these strategies as this blog series rolls on.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I wanted to let you know that I have begun collaborating with Thrively.com and its founder in recent months because of our mutual interest in teaching the whole child.)
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In my previous post in this blog series, I shared the problem statement of the "California Choice Project" and described how my students had an opportunity to identify what they already knew about the project and determine what they still needed to learn before they could begin. The next step was to form groups. Because this project occurred early in the school year, the PBL process was brand new to everyone, and the students were new to one another. So, I organized everyone into pairs that I thought would work well together.

This would be the last time, though, that I would make the grouping decisions. Since then, the kids have had the choice of 1) whether they wanted to work alone or with others and 2) who would be in their group. I strongly believe that to maximize motivation, investment in the project, and work quality, children need to own their "choice of team." I accomplish this task by first seeing who wants to work alone and then honoring that choice. Next, I ask the remaining children to take a few minutes to walk around and find one or two partners with whom they'd like to join forces. My only caveats at this point are that they need to be sure that nobody's feelings get hurt and that they need to be sure to form groups that will be able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions. The first time we did this, I was shocked at how quickly and smoothly everyone found a group. I was prepared to step in and make any necessary adjustments, but that didn't happen this time around. I know that this method of "group forming" may not always work so smoothly, but I think it's important to give children this type of responsibility and see how they handle it. If it didn't go well, I could also do it differently next time.

Once the children were in their groups, their first task involved creating an action plan containing all the steps they would need to complete from the beginning of the project to the end. While each action plan differed somewhat, most started out with a research phase in which the children would use our social studies text, as well as other print and online resources, to find out the names of California's four regions; learn about each region's climate, geography, natural resources, and recreational activities; and identify pros and cons of living in each one. After the research was complete, the groups then turned their attention to choosing the region that would be the best fit for their company and creating the presentation (including visual aids) that they would make to their employees as part of the unit's culmination.

Every time a group finished a step of its action plan, the members would bring their work to me so I could check it. If everything looked good, I would initial that part of the action plan and send them off to the next step. If not, I would ask them to go back to fill in any gaps I noticed. This type of step-by-step accountability is absolutely critical in ensuring that everyone is learning the key objectives of the unit, an outcome that can only happen when these objectives are written in the original problem statement and, thus, need to be included in the action plan.

Completing the steps of the action plans took several class periods, and watching my students during this time was a joy. I was amazed by how focused, cooperative, and motivated they all were. I had never seen anything quite like it. Many of them asked if they could work on the project during our lunch period, and many others would ask me each morning at the door if we were going to be working on our projects that day. I realized what was possible when children were given the opportunity to execute a plan that they themselves created and that allowed them to organize, use, and present information in a way that made sense to them and excited them. In fact, engagement was so high, I honestly believe that there were many times during our PBL periods when I could have stepped outside the classroom for 30 minutes, and everything would have been fine. 

On the day of our big presentations in the cafeteria, the kids were eager to present their "California Choice" to their classmates, families, and other guests. Some groups created slide shows using our google chrome books, others made booklets and posters, and one pair created a four-part display, resembling a diorama, that included written information and visuals about each region of California.

Next time, I will describe our follow-up project and introduce an important tool we used to improve each group's functioning.     
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In this post I begin to describe “The California Choice Project,” a Problem-Based Learning unit my students completed in the fall as part of our social studies curriculum. Below you will find the problem statement I introduced to the kids on the first day of the unit. In this statement my goals were to 1) create an interesting context that would engage my students, 2) establish a clear final project that would drive everyone’s efforts throughout the unit and allow for meaningful student choice, and 3) include essential content about our topic, the four regions of California.

“You are the founder and president of a new technology startup company in North Dakota. Ten people work for your company, and many of them have young children. To grow your business, you have decided to move your company to California and take your employees and their families with you. You need to decide which of California’s four regions to choose for your new headquarters. On Thursday, October 8th, your company will have its most important meeting ever. At that meeting, you will make a presentation to your employees that describes the pros and cons of living and working in each region. This presentation must include high quality information about each region and professional-looking visual aids. Your employees have told you that they want to know about each region’s climate, geography, resources, and recreational activities. At the end of your presentation, you will announce which region you have chosen and why you chose that region.”

At this stage of a new project, it’s natural for teachers to want to “talk through” the problem statement with the kids and explain everything to them. With Problem-Based Learning, though, the emphasis is on student initiative, with the children doing more and the teachers doing less. So, rather than explain the statement to the kids, I provided an opportunity for them to generate their own understanding of it.

Specifically, they responded to two prompts that were printed under the problem statement in two columns. On the left side, it said: “What I Know About the Project,” and on the right, it said: “What I Need to Learn Before I Can Start.” I gave everyone about ten minutes to reread and highlight the problem statement and then write bullet points in each column. Next, each child teamed up with a partner, and each pair shared their responses and added more ideas. Having the kids work individually at the outset gave everyone a chance to invest time and thought to make sense of what they were being asked to do. Following this up with partner work enabled kids to fill in any gaps that might exist in their understanding. Finally, we came together as a class to establish the most important things that we already knew about the project and determine what we, as a class, needed to learn in order to meet the objectives of the project.

Next time, I will share how the children formed groups, created action plans to guide their learning, and worked collaboratively during the rest of the unit.
  
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I was initially drawn to the Problem-Based Learning approach because of its child-centered philosophy and its emphasis on student initiative, choice, collaboration, and other critical “21st Century Skills” that I mentioned in last week’s post. As a teacher who focuses on educating the whole child, I was excited to discover that PBL offers an ideal way for my students to learn not only academic content but also strong work habits and valuable interpersonal skills.

One of the most appealing features of Problem-Based Learning is that children become the primary driving forces in their learning. In this role students make meaningful decisions about how they will learn, organize their work, and present that work to a larger audience. As teachers, our focus shifts to one of coaching, facilitating, and guiding.

A typical PBL unit begins with either a question, challenge, or problem statement. Often, this introduction presents an interesting context or situation, puts the children in a specific role, and calls for them to solve a problem by inventing something. The key to writing an effective problem statement is ensuring that the engaging context or situation we create addresses the essential skills and standards that we want the kids to learn during the unit. Unfortunately, during some project-based approaches, the emphasis is on making something attractive, cool, and attention-getting, and the content-area learning can take a back seat.

When the problem statement is presented to the class on the first day of a unit, the kids are tasked with making sense of the challenge at hand, organizing themselves into groups, creating action plans, and following through with those plans until the project is complete. This process usually takes a few weeks.

In my next post, you will see a sample problem statement, and I will describe how my students proceeded step-by-step from the beginning of this project to the end.  

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After a few years of reading about and tinkering with Problem-Based Learning, I fully implemented this instructional approach in my classroom this fall, and PBL has been an absolute game changer. As educators teaching in the Common Core era, we hear quite a bit about the need to help children develop “21st Century Skills" focusing on such areas as communication, collaboration, technology, and problem solving, and I have found that nothing comes close to PBL in this regard.

Plus, the level of enthusiasm and engagement students display while working on their projects is simply incredible. During a PBL session, the hardest part of my job sometimes is getting everyone to stop at the end of the period. On many occasions, the kids were so invested in what they were doing that I actually began to worry a little about my safety as I headed to the front of the room to signal that our time had run out.

In this blog series I will be describing my experiences with Problem-Based Learning, explaining its benefits, and sharing tips and lessons I have learned along the way about implementation, grouping, assessment, and exhibiting student work. Children at every elementary age can gain mightily from this approach, and I look forward to relaying my experiences and hearing your feedback.

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