7 Reasons to Use Contracts in a PBL Classroom + Tips for Use

When I talk with teachers about Project Based Learning, I always field questions about group work. I hear questions like, “How do you keep one kid from taking over?” or “How do you keep kids from doing nothing?” “How can you assure that all students are working?” “How do you keep them from picking on each other?”

These questions are no surprise, mostly because many of us have our own fair share of group work horror stories. Students, from Second grade to Seniors are absolutely no exception. Group work for many of them is something that gets them to roll their eyes, or starts their plotting for how to get another student to do their work for them. For many students, group work is something to be dreaded because they felt as if their voices were not heard, needs were not met, and no one cared.

I get it.

Illustration of Honoré de Balzac's The Marriag...

Illustration of Honoré de Balzac’s The Marriage Contract: Solonet and Mathias. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teachers are absolutely within the bound of reality asking these questions and more.  One of the answers to making this work, (in addition to purposeful grouping which a vital topic we’ll explore more deeply in another post), is to use well-designed contracts.

“Well-designed as in a template? Great! Let’s link to that template and let me get on my way!”

O, dear friend. If it was only so easy as using a teacher-created, one-size-fits-all worksheet template to fix all possible student group work issues. What a nice dream, but unfortunately, in reality, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Of course.

Group contracts are truly essential in a PBL environment for setting learner expectations and helping to manage the temperaments of young people who are learning how to be big people in the world. And as with everything about PBL, it’s about learning by doing. It’s about being student-centered. It’s about being responsive to your own community and rarely, if ever, is a one-size-fits-all approach going to work.

Let’s look at the rationale behind using contracts, as well as a few tips for how to make them work for  you. Because they can work, even with Kinders.

Why Use Contracts?
  1. It’s real life practice.
  2. The writing and use of contracts helps kids learn and understand specific behavior that moves a group forward. And holds it back.
  3. Students learn to take charge of their own environments by taking a voice in setting clear expectations for themselves.
  4. Students get a taste of what contracts mean. And what it means if you sign one that you don’t agree with! And what it means if you break a contract.
  5. Students get to learn how to compromise for the sake of the group and the work.
  6. The entire classroom community is bolstered by having students who know each other well enough to write contracts that maximize learner strengths and minimize learner weaknesses.
  7. It’s real life practice. Really, is there a need for any other “why’s” than that?
My favorite best practice

A great way to get started with 100% student-created contracts is to ask students to write a list of everything they’ve disliked about group work. This list allows them to get the venom out. Then have them write a (frequently shorter) list of of everything they’ve liked about group work.

Then, talking with their group members, consider how to get their own needs and concerns addressed on the document. Everyone is responsible for getting their own voices heard, while still listening to and considering everyone else’s needs. My students preferred to use Google Docs for this work so everyone can see what is one everyone else’s minds. I also liked that they could paperlessly share the lists of +/- and the contracts with me so I can more easily keep track of individuals and group dynamics.

“My students could never do that.”

Yes, this may sound like a pipe dream, but I assure you, it works. And eventually, once your kids have worked together with contracts enough, they may have had time to truly develop a deeply collaborative learner community.  Eventually, I had students who knew each other well enough, they would opt out of writing contracts because they felt each member of that group knew how to respect group work time. They were eager to get into the project and didn’t need outside guidelines to move forward confidently.

The reality is though, not all my students could do that. And none of them could do that when we first started using contracts. For that reason, I’m sharing some tips that I’ve learned through experience to get contracts working smoothly in your classroom environment.

Tips for the beginner

The purpose of contracts is to build up the groups’ foundation toward success. It’s not a list of rules to obey. It’s a list of guidelines to sheppard us toward a successful final product.

Contract-writing takes more time than you might expect. Build in adequate time, while still creating that sense of urgency to not get bogged down in this process. Remind them that we have fun work to get to and that this contract is only a tool to help ensure that work goes smoothly. The contract itself is not the project!

Contracts work best when students have as much autonomy as their social readiness allows. In other words, as soon as possible, move them away from a contract template (if you ever choose to use one in the first place) and have them create their own contractual agreements. I concede that perhaps our K-2 students might need a template for scaffolding the learning and understanding of what a contract does for us. But as students become more socially aware (not necessarily mature yet–that’s why we’re working with contracts), they can move away from a template structure.

Even Kindergarteners can use group contracts. Don’t underestimate a learner’s capabilities based on your own presupposition regarding an activity you’ve never asked them to try before.

Be sure to encourage students to use more “we will” and only a few “we will not” type of statements to ensure that the contract, as well as the attitude of the group, starts out on a positive note.

There should be clear levels of consequences spelled out in the contract regarding what will happen if a member violates the terms of the contract.

Don’t let anyone fire a group member unless it’s a violation of the contract. If it’s not there, they’ll learn to write their contracts better next time. If a firing is desired, but doesn’t happen because it’s not in the contract, be sure you stick very closely with that group to help them work through their struggles. Don’t leave them hanging in the breeze. Help them problem-solve toward solutions that will work. Get super active!

At the very least, every single firing has to be approved by you and each side has to state their cases clearly to you and you have the final say if this happens or not. While that puts you back in the “in charge” seat, PBL is not about creating a Lord of the Flies situation. It’s simulating real-world. And you’re the closest role-model connection to that real world. In 5 years of working in a fully-PBL school, I believe I might have had 3 kids fired, if that helps the concept. Again, contracts are about building up group work success.

Do all you can to keep a student from getting fired in the first place. Get involved if you need to, but only in the role of mediator when things are apparent that a firing is imminent. Don’t save them from their struggles, but do ensure that frustrations stay within a manageable framework. Stay positive. Role model what a good leader might do to create compromise, consensus and  solution-finding. But don’t hover. It’s a balancing act on your part. It’s their group. It’s their contract. It’s their learning. It’s their consequences. They’re your children. Help them. Don’t save them. Keep them focused on the bigger picture of the project. It’s not easy. This is the art of teaching and why you earn the big bucks!  And hint, good grouping techniques help immensely. Again, there’s a blog post about grouping coming soon!

Be sure to talk with parents early and often when you use contracts in your room that are student-created. Keep your door, phone, and email open for any concerns that might arise about the process.

Examples of contracts

While I personally don’t agree with using contract templates, I concede there are students and classes that might need more guidance than others. That’s the reality. While I do still encourage you to get off the templates as quickly as possible, mainly because they create “tunnel vision” for what a contract could be, I’ve provided a few below for example.

Team Contract Template (MS/HS) from BIE

Team Contract Template (Elem) from BIE

Contract Samples/Templates (elem) (can be used in PBL, but these have more of a differentiated instruction feel. Subtle difference)

6/7 grade sample, fully student-initiated/created (from my classes)

7/8 grade sample, fully student-initiated/created (from my classes)

5th grade sample, fully student-initiated/created (notice that at the bottom, they’ve noted the strengths of the members. Good to keep in mind.)

Please do contact me with questions, feedback, and most importantly, your own tips you’ve found successful in using contracts for group work in a PBL environment. Let’s continue to share and grow together!

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Written by GingerLewman

  1. This is great…thanks for sharing your thoughts and some tips. I know what-if’s are often moot, but what happens to the student that is fired? Especially in a large-scope project, that could turn into a major problem. What safeties are built in for kids that are asked to leave the group?

  2. What a great question and I can’t believe I neglected to post that. It’s important, for sure.

    Of course figuring out what the assignment is depends upon the age/readiness of the offending student, the time invested in the project so far Vs the amount of time remaining, as well as the ultimate purpose of the project. Creating this balance is definitely one of the arts of teaching.

    Usually a student (we’ll call her Annie) has been fired from a group for not working. That will be the case 99% of the time. Which means that Annie probably need to start from scratch in the learning process. I might tell the class that if they’re fired during the project, they’ll be responsible for completing the entire project on their own, (you should see their eyes at that point). However, after weighing all factors, a teacher might have to create a modified assignment. There’s danger in this. Be thoughtful in your next decision.

    In some environments, the students are looking to you to “punish” Annie by giving her the giant task you’d said you would. If you don’t, you could lose credibility and the trust of the class. But if you do, you could sever all remaining possibilities to bring Annie back from the brink and into the fold of success.

    I say you use your best judgement to create a win-win situation. In reality, Annie has already had “punishment” by being publicly fired. Piling on extra work will not start to heal her wounds. In fact, not only might she choose to ignore the new assignment and try to take a zero, she might also never trust you again.

    What a devastating loss. And yet one more reason for Annie to hate school, her peers, and herself.

    No, it’s time to talk with the students on that team and explain why you’re giving Annie modified assignment. Remind them that being fired is horribly embarrassing punishment and they should concentrate on their own work and deadlines. You’re working to help bring Annie back to the path of learning with the rest of the class. That you understand and appreciate the struggle the team went through to try to make it work with her. That you appreciate them holding each other accountable for the right actions. That you recognize how hard it was for them.

    But now we’re moving forward to make the class a better place. And you’d appreciate their help there too.

    Maybe the group doesn’t need that conversation or maybe they’d appreciate a slight comment of recognition of teamwork effort instead of a long conversation.

    Ultimately, you’re the role model for always doing the right thing. And it’s not easy. But they’ll understand it. You’re growing the entire community by creating win-win’s even in terrible situations.

    I hope this helps. Thank you for posting that question!

  3. Couldn’t agree more – with the exception of the use of “compromise” in the list! Much, much better is the “BETTER ALTERNATIVE” from the late Stephen Covey. (It’s better than any position championed by any participant at the start; much better than any compromise – which by definition is some portion of what each participant championed at the start.)

  4. Yes, any time I use the word “compromise” I do think of Stephen Covey, who says that both sides lose with that technique.

    You bring up a good point that I hope each educator will consider for their own best classroom environment. Thanks!

  5. […] 7 Reasons to Use Contracts in a PBL Classroom + Tips for Use ( […]

  6. […] 7 Reasons to Use Contracts in a PBL Classroom + Tips for Use ( […]

  7. While I see the benefit of the contract… I’m unsure that students internalize the meaning of ‘respect’ in the way teachers do.
    I’m using Top 20 training.

    Mind you– no one thing is a silver bullet. However, I found that actually teaching the roles and giving kids a practice session daily- using simple questions, at first… more complex as time goes on-students are able to perform as a group when they know how to perform as a group in the first place. My Spec. Ed. mentor turned me on to the program. Top 20, or TLC (Thinking, Learning, Communicating) as it is also known, gave my sixth, seventh and eighth grade kids skills to use once they’d gotten into a project. The specific lessons– staying focused, pulling out of an emotional ‘tornado’ of someone else’s making– were things I don’t think these kids had been taught, or that anyone had ‘articulated’ for ’em.

    Because I teach language arts… the tendency, I think is to assume someone else taught kids to disengage when they are getting sucked into bad behavior, and it simply isn’t the case… or at least in my district in Nevada.

    Once the ‘skill sets’ are in place for a contract, I think it is a practice that would reinforce the behaviors, and give the group the first crack at a resolution with the ‘power base’ of the teacher as back-up, rather than primary response.

  8. I really enjoyed this post, Ginger. A student-initiated/created contract could be of enormous benefit for children embarking on the PYP exhibition. We often come up with Essential Agreements but they tend to be written with the entire class rather than by the small group. I can see lots of opportunities for using this with my Year 8s.

    Bridget, Christchurch

    • I’m glad you were able to see how to make it work in your classroom. Please do come back to let us know how it worked out for you!

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