This Framework Makes Group Projects More Collaborative—and Individual

Project-Based Learning

This Framework Makes Group Projects More Collaborative—and Individual

By Bea Leiderman     Jan 3, 2018

This Framework Makes Group Projects More Collaborative—and Individual

How does a team of fifth graders collaborate on a coding project? Eight hands on a single keyboard, four conflicting ideas and voices getting progressively louder to the point where no single voice can be heard.

This scenario is a recipe for disaster and it’s not uncommon in classrooms across the country. This type of chaos can easily discourage teachers from taking on long-term, open-ended projects despite the fact that these are the kinds of projects that let students develop interpersonal skills and explore their abilities and personal preferences.

Joe Beasley and Jim Frago knew all of this when they embarked on a semester-long coding project in the spring of 2015, and they were determined to see it through anyway. In an effort to preserve their sanity, Frago, a parent volunteer, introduced Beasley’s fifth graders to a simplified version of Scrum, a framework commonly used in the business world to help teams work better together. Essentially, a large project is broken into smaller chunks and completed one at a time, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s a way to let individuals shine, even in a group setting.

After sharing the most basic structures of the framework and helping students walk through the essential processes for Scrum, Frago and Beasley noticed a remarkable difference in the way the projects progressed. Students could get along, work together and execute complex projects well ahead of due dates.

The following fall, Frago joined our middle school faculty as a long-term substitute. In my role as an instructional technology coach for the district, I visited his classroom to help him get started with our online resources. I happened to walk in just as he was introducing a sixth grade class to the basics of Scrum. I waited for him to come to a stopping point. Listening to him speak, I immediately saw the potential for making team projects much more manageable for teachers to undertake.

Over the next few months, Frago and I collaborated to plan and implement classroom projects with his students, always using the Scrum framework as a guide. In the spring, we met with Beasley to brainstorm ideas for sharing this practice with other teachers. We wanted to find a way to introduce our whole district to Scrum.

We decided to invite teachers to observe our classrooms and to talk to us and our students about the framework. After each visit, if the teacher expresses an interest in adopting Scrum, I plan a project with them and co-teach during its implementation. This collaborative approach allows me to walk both the students and the teachers through the process to help them learn it.

Building Effective Teams

Within Scrum, there are procedures for planning and prioritizing tasks, giving and getting feedback, overcoming obstacles and maintaining accountability for all team members. In our adaptation of Scrum, we emphasize four essential components: a cross-functional team, a nimble plan, well-defined work sessions and regular checkpoints that provide feedback from all team members and from the teacher.

Since the principal purpose of Scrum is to enable teams to work well together, the process must always start with building the team. We advocate for self-selected teams and encourage students to think of the skills and talents each of their peers can contribute to the completion of the project.

Each team has an appointed Scrum master whose role is to preside over meetings and help all members of the team resolve disagreements and overcome problems. Any time a problem arises, the Scrum master will ask, “How can I help you?” The Scrum master is not in charge of telling team members what to do, but is there to ensure that team members have the resources and assistance they need to complete their selected tasks.

Teams plan their work by developing a user story which defines the project and its purpose. It describes what the end user (for example the reader, listener or viewer) will gain or be able to accomplish when given access to the finished product. All decisions made during the execution of the project must be aligned to the defined purpose of the project. The user story guides the creation of the individual steps, or story points, necessary for completing the project.

Each story point is a task that a single team member can complete during a single work session, with discrete starting and ending points and a deliverable “product.” When all story points are created, the team organizes them hierarchically on the Scrum board, a working record of the progress for the project that helps the team prioritize the story points necessary to complete the most basic version of the product. The scrum board can be a manila folder with sticky notes, a shared online spreadsheet or a tool such as Trello.

A Trello board can be used with the Scrum framework

The Scrum board has three sections: “to be done” (the backlog), “doing” and “done.” All story points start out on the backlog and as team members selects tasks to complete, they move the story point to the appropriate section of the Scrum board. When a member completes a story point, the entire team reviews the result to decide whether it’s sufficient or needs further work. The team must develop a shared definition of “done” and hold all members accountable to that standard. The “done” section serves as a record of the accomplishments of each team member.

Once the team has organized the Scrum board, the team starts its first sprint. A sprint is a set number of work sessions with a specific goal. For example, at the end of five work sessions, a team might have finished writing a script and producing props so they can move on to filming their skit. At the end of every sprint, the team holds a formal product review with the teacher to present the project as it stands so far. The team reviews how they are all working individually and as a team, and sets goals for improvement during the next sprint.

Each work session starts and ends with a stand-up meeting at which the team reviews the Scrum board. The team sets goals by reviewing what has been done so far and selecting tasks to complete before the end of the session. Stand-up meetings give teams the opportunity resolve disagreements, ask for help from people outside the team and to adjust the items on the backlog as the plan progresses.

Why Students Like Scrum

Throughout the process, teams and individuals have dozens of opportunities to review and adjust their performance. Additionally, as the teacher listens in at stand-up meetings and conducts reviews at the end of each sprint, students also get feedback from the teacher. Everyone is held accountable for the work they do, and everyone gets the chance to ask questions, voice opinions and suggest changes.

When I have conducted interviews with students whose teachers have implemented Scrum, students consistently show a strong preference for working in Scrum, reporting that they feel valued, welcome and in control.

The students in our district have been instrumental in helping other teachers adopt Scrum. We now have teachers and students using Scrum in every one of our five schools. Early elementary teachers have adapted the system to use simplified pictures instead of text to represent story points. High school students have used Scrum to plan Prom and other events, and student committees and clubs are using Scrum regularly to stay organized and track the progress of long-term projects between meetings.

It is widely accepted that opportunities to work in teams lets students develop better communication, collaboration and organizational skills. Before we started using Scrum, we had not found any surefire method to make projects successful. Now we have a framework that provides more structure and guidance for teachers and students. We are providing the necessary scaffolding so students can learn harmonious teamwork. With this in place, we can embark on classroom projects that let students explore, create and shine.

Bea Leiderman is an instructional technology coach at Goochland County Public Schools in Virginia.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up