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Project-based classrooms vary in their levels of student protagonism (agency), particularly when it comes to idea generation and student groupings for collaborative work. In many PBL schools, teachers define the core topics, determine groups for collaborative work, and even define the solutions students will work toward. Providing space for all students to generate ideas, and by doing so increasing the protagonism of every student as the central character in their own education, is an essential equity practice, as is providing safe and productive groupings for projects, so that all students thrive in their collaborations and produce meaningful solutions.
It's not surprising that teachers tend to control topics and groupings, as such control can help us reach specific goals and mix learning levels or talents in ways that can sometimes improve student learning. However, doing so too often means missing two core equity opportunities afforded by student-centered learning:
1. To elevate the ideas students might offer if we don’t preempt their thinking or let our assumptions about who has insights impact whose voices we choose to hear, which will increase agency for all and ensure the inclusion of all thinkers and possible solutions
2. To discover what students might produce if they have more ownership over creating safe, asset-based working groups based on their affinities and interests, and over defining the solutions they work toward
While it can be easier to reach our standards when we define all avenues for inquiry or solution building, magical things happen when we model less and elevate all students’ ideas more. Introverts and neurodivergent learners, for example, are rarely well served by classrooms that generate ideas through hand raising and more traditional forms of participation, and they often feel limited by teachers who control the direction of projects. Accessing these students’ best ideas means using strategies that create more think time, that invite students to contribute ideas in a variety of public and private forms, and that foster a sense of safety and community that encourages intellectual risk-taking. When students have an opportunity to journal before sharing their ideas, for example, or to generate ideas and questions in small groups through a protocol like the World Café, we can more effectively elevate all students’ voices and ideas.
How we group students for collaborative work is also incredibly important to bringing out the best in every child. While teachers do need to make sure students have experiences with a variety of peers so they learn to collaborate across differences, opportunities for students to choose their own groupings can help build motivation and a safer environment for all. In a recent event for What School Could Be, a transgender man shared how terrifying group work was during his K-12 experience, noting that he knew perfectly well as early as kindergarten which peers were safe and which were dangerous. When he was partnered with his tormenters, his experiences were deeply traumatic; but when teachers allowed him to choose safe partners for group work and avoid his bullies, he thrived in the classroom. Or consider the brilliant introvert who became explosive or shut down when her ideas weren’t valued by her group, who became angrier and more introverted the more her peers ignored her. While some adversity is part of the PBL process, and managing frustration is an essential skill PBL can help develop, feeling unsafe or unheard is not likely to foster meaningful growth.
Interest-based affinity mapping, which allows students to form their own groups on the basis of common interests, helps to eliminate these kinds of conflicts; students will still encounter struggles in collaboration, but beginning on common ground can help ensure that students interact with an asset orientation and build inclusive teams. Further, common ground will allow students to dig deeper into their ideas and solutions, helping ensure that students produce solutions and other products that are deeply theirs, not just a cookie-cutter copy of something the teacher directed them to.
In The Landscape Model of Learning (2022), my coauthor Kapono Ciotti and I share an adaptation of the “chalk talk” ideation activity which provides opportunities for student protagonism in ideation and works to support affinity mapping. In simple form, our suggested design is as follows:
1. Generate questions on the project challenge with students through the Question Formulation Technique or other ideation activity (Note: this activity will work similarly if students generate ideas about possible products/solutions and then do the steps below to form teams based on their interest in a particular product/solution)
2. Facilitate a narrowing and prioritizing process with students, so that each class chooses an appropriate number of “final” questions/products (approximately one per every 3-4 students)
3. Write final question/product options on posters (one each), to be placed around the room on tables or walls
4. Give all students 15-20 minutes to circulate in silence and write their ideas on every poster—they should also put check marks by ideas they like
5. Once all students have contributed to all posters, ask them to stand by the question/product that resonates most for them, that they’re most curious to solve or produce
6. The teacher can negotiate with large groups to split into smaller teams on the same topic, and negotiate with outlier singletons to either work alone or identify another group they want to join
7. If any essential content is not chosen by a group, the teacher can use activities and direct instruction to fill curricular gaps
As an additional benefit, this approach leaves every team with a myriad of ideas from all of their peers, which provides rich foundations for their project work.
Educators’ assumptions about which students might have insights or creative solutions can too often limit who we hear from and what we work toward in our projects. The more we can practice student-led ideation and grouping, the more we can foster opportunities to be surprised by our students, by brilliant ideas and solutions we hadn’t even envisioned. Just as the biological world thrives on diversity, so can the classroom; educators who keep equity at the core of their practice ensure that the diversity of the classroom—different thinkers, experiences, cultures and identities—helps all students thrive and develop richer, more multi-dimensional understandings of our subjects and themselves.
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