Contracts as Training Wheels
The following post is a brief excerpt from Chapter 4: the grouping, from my new book, Lessons for LifePractice Learning, available as a Amazon Kindle book here or the paperback on our ESSDACK store here. It’s a great book for those who are interested in transforming their classrooms to 100% Project Based Learning all of the time.
A primary step toward an intrinsic understanding of community norms is for students to create group contracts, where they outline positive behaviors that they expect the group members to abide by and uphold. If students don’t abide by the group-created contract, they can be fired by the group, but only if the infractions are on the contracts. They may also choose to add in a few “will not” edicts, but the positive statements tend to be more powerful and serve to strengthen the feel of community. As a basic foundation, contracts should also include a statement of what will happen if the participants do not adhere to the contract.
In order to get newbie students started, ask them to create a list of pet peeves or things they’ve disliked about group work in the past. This usually results in long, detailed lists, especially the older the students are! Then ask them to make a list of things they’ve enjoyed about previous group work. This goes much faster. Finally, ask them to, as a team, write a contract for their group, negotiating out details so everyone’s concerns are addressed. The first contracts they make take a while and usually aren’t great, but they get better when they begin testing whether they can fire someone or not. If the infraction(s) aren’t on the contract, there is no firing and the group has to find a way to work it out, with the teacher’s moderation and sparingly-used voice of wisdom of course.
Eventually, students will have enough experience working in groups with others they trust that they might decide to forgo writing contracts. This is their own decision which usually turns out well, but could potentially have rough consequences if things start to go badly for the group.
Whatever the students decide, they will live with the consequences, within reason of course. The teacher always retains the executive decision to step in if need be to preserve the balance between natural consequences and learning and complete breakdown of community trust. The wise educator always errs on the side of community trust.
Here is an example of a 5th grade level, entirely student-created contract. Note that the students seem to know each other’s working styles and have truly customized the contract to allow for their partners’ best work while minimizing distractions. Google Docs is a great tool to allow students to get collaborative while writing their contracts.
Here is an example of a 4th grade level student-created contract. Again, the students have customized the contract to allow for their partners’ tendencies. The students were asked to self-identify perceived strengths and weaknesses to help maximize their work. This is not a first-time contract. These students had multiple experiences with group work and group contracts before they wrote this one.
Here is an example of a High School level student-created contract. Again, note that the students have customized the contract to allow for their partners’ tendencies. This is a simple contract . Google Docs is a great tool to allow students to get collaborative while writing their contracts.
There are many ways to use contracts with students in a PBL setting. Experiment to see what works best for you and your kids. And if you do something different that you love, I’d love for you to share it below!