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.
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?
- It’s real life practice.
- The writing and use of contracts helps kids learn and understand specific behavior that moves a group forward. And holds it back.
- Students learn to take charge of their own environments by taking a voice in setting clear expectations for themselves.
- 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.
- Students get to learn how to compromise for the sake of the group and the work.
- 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.
- 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.
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!