Managing Collaboration in the PBL Classroom

Blog Series, EdLeaders, Leadership, Learner Experience, Learning, Learning Design, PreK-12, Smart Teachers

By Jennifer Isbell

Central Coast New Tech High School is part of the national New Tech Network, a group of 200 project-based schools in 29 states. Its goal is to effectively prepare students for the 21st century by focusing on engagement, relevancy and experience within standards based curriculum using a project-based learning method.

Collaboration. We know this word as a 21st century skill and something that is essential for facilitating deep, authentic experiences within project based learning. Undoubtedly, the ability to work in a team to create and produce is one of the most important traits desired by today’s world. As we create generations of students that need to be prepared for the unknown and rapidly advancing technology, teachers must discover ways to manage the collaborative process.

d6eb930d-fb2b-4222-bcbe-1b9b2b2ede4b_PSP3One of the first things we learn as practitioners of project based learning is the idea of the team contract to help facilitate effective collaboration and prevent problems from arising between team members. While team contracts are a fabulous start, we need to remember that they are simply that: a start.

The real collaboration happens (or doesn’t happen) during the middle phases of the project when students are working to answer driving questions and create final products and presentations.

One way to reduce frustration and the breakdown of team dynamics is to take time to pause and reflect upon the project as a process for learning. Allowing ourselves as teacher designers to build in time to guide students towards the real world applications of the content will establish, through example, the importance of collaboration as a skill that with effort and practice can grow and develop.

As facilitators of deep learning on levels beyond just content, we must help our students learn to identify problems they are experiencing. Only after we do this can we begin to expect them to work through and create solutions to their own challenges. The same way we need to regularly revisit the classroom norms we set up to build the culture of our class in the beginning of the school year, we need to help students reflect on the norms they set up in their team contracts at the beginning of a project.


Allowing students to have space to create team norms at the beginning of each project is saying to them that they each matter. It helps students think about their own abilities when joining a team and can be a powerful way to help them build self confidence. One of the best ways to mindfully revisit norms set in the team contract and to manage the project process is through the use of protocols.

The most effective protocol I have found for facilitating collaboration in a deep learning environment is the Problem Solving Protocol by the recently launched CraftED Curriculum. After using project based learning for the past five years as my instructional strategy, I have personally discovered the importance of building in time for student teams to meet and reflect on the way they are collaborating and managing their tasks.

Just providing this time is not enough, but teaching students a structured way to communicate about the problems and challenges they are experiencing in the project is a step toward fostering true teamwork. This protocol draws on the strengths of each individual by allowing them to express concerns and then work together to identify what potentially caused the issue in the first place. The teams are asked to discuss and brainstorm potential solutions to these self-identified challenges. These solutions then turn from ideas into actionable next steps for students to follow.

c588f6b1-9810-49bc-bf9b-67b473408f20_4In well designed, authentic projects the process of learning how to learn begins to surface. To effectively teach collaboration, we must understand it and model it for our students.

We as 21st century educators do not just teach content or skills in isolation, but as ingredients for humans to connect and create. Effective communication and true teamwork are key ingredients to living a happy, healthy, engaged life.

When we can truly accept and internalize that our actions as teachers and role models speak louder than our words, we can begin to tap into the power of protocols as tools for teaching the process of learning. Protocols help to empower students; they take the need for the teacher to control and manage and put it in the hands of our learners.

Let’s practice what we preach in project-based learning and model what it means to be an effective communicator and collaborator. We learn best when we do it! Let’s be amazing facilitators of collaboration by practicing it ourselves.

Please leave a comment below with your idea of what it will look like for you to really model effective communication and collaboration on your school campus.

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Jennifer Isbell is a Central Coast New Tech High School project-based learning facilitator & trainer. Follow her on Twitter: @PBLLAB.

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Averi /

J. Isbell is the best!

Shakeh Haroutiounian /

Thank you for introducing this idea of having protocols as a foundation for effective collaboration. Although I have a basic understanding of the team contract in PBL, the notion of having protocols is really helpful. I have been thinking about how I will model effective communication and collaboration at the school where I serve as the Curriculum and Instruction Specialist. I would definitely like to incorporate more technology to communicate and collaborate.