Monday, April 26, 2010

Group Accountability during Challenge Projects

I have now put 85%* of our school's class of '12 through modified Challenge Based Learning projects. The experience, has given me a handle the biggest general objections to group work: How can you evaluate individuals fairly? How do you prevent "free riders" who benefit despite doing little work? Even worse, is it fair to penalize the entire group if a member or two entirely drop the ball?

In response to past blog posts, I have received two suggestions for dealing with this issue: 1) Weekly conferences and or self-evaluations to monitor individual contributions. 2) A detailed accounting at the conclusion of the project as to who did what.

I applaud any teacher who doesn't simply turn a blind eye to the problem and either wimps out by not applying any standards to group work ("A's for all!") or supposes that the students should "just work it out, just like the real world". (Hello, in the real world your employer has not retained employees with zero work ethic). But I have found the weekly interventions too time intensive for both teacher and group. And in my opinion both approaches put center the teacher's role in the project more than is desirable.

Here's how I handle group evaluations these days:

*As students select their groupings, they are informed that any ensuing "group chemistry" issues will be addressed with a group sit-down.

*Students write group goals at the outset and are instructed that these must be measurable.

*At two intervals, I require each group to create a specific work schedule that creates a road map to completion of their goals. At this time they must also log individual responsibilities that all members have agreed to

* These goals and schedules are logged onto Google Docs that the groups share with me. I give them feedback on their goals and insist that their expectations be concrete.

*At the end of the process, the groups complete assessments of their goals. They are urged to note individual break downs and heroics. Individual members are told that they may append a dissent to the group report (This is rare).

This school year, I received no interventions or complaints from parents. Only two students approached me during the process to "tattle" on other students who were supposedly not doing their share. I listened to the students but insisted that they work within the system, trusting that no group would be brought low by a dead-beat member.

Such dead-beats were regularly identified in the group assessments. In some cases these individuals agreed that they had dropped the ball (and were penalized accordingly). In other cases, the entire group took responsibility for procrastinating and putting individual members in a situation where success was unlikely.

The group assessments and presentations were refreshingly honest, reassuring me the project had taught the students about more than just their topics. They also learned about working with other people.

As I move forward, I will definitely continue handling group evaluation in this way.
*American Government is required of Mercy sophomores and I was assigned six of seven sections this year.

Image above is a CBL slide for my M-Hub presentation on April 20, 2010.


WillKnott said...

First, six of seven Gov classes is heroic. Second, your plan sounds so much more educational than those of teachers who just throw kids into groups and hope for the best. I spent 30 years in my office at Mercy hearing those groups in the next room talking about dates, the mall, etc.

The one thing that I question is whether or not all the deadbeats were identified simply because kids are still so afraid of calling other kids out, even if they do it anonymously. As Scout says in "Mockingbird", it is the "code of childhood" not to rat someone else out.

Still, you seem to have done everything possible to ensure that this was truly an academic experience and not a way for teachers to have some time off.

My guess is that, for the most part, it worked well.

Larry Baker said...

Wow, WillKnott, you make 3 great points:

1) You are reading my mind re the six sections of "regular" gov-- I have a post coming up called "Fired Up or Burned Out?". Get my drift?

2) You KNOW I agree with you on the "group work" as time-filler-technique for the frenzied teacher. On a given day I can walk you past a couple of classrooms where that is a regular feature, and that dull roar you hear in not the blasting of the furnaces of knowledge.

The key is exciting the students and then setting the bar VERY high. The CBL can be a truly rigorous exercise. It's also scalable so that less than gifted kids can be stretched.

3) I certainly am not breaking the "code of childhood" with my methods. And I suppose that my accountability process might help me stay blissfully ignorant of the deadbeats. But contributions also remain disproportionate in virtually all endeavors of "real world" work and play. (so it goes....) Relative to the adult collaborations that I have experienced, my kids are "all in."

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