Do you ever introduce projects or tasks that require students to work in groups or teams in your classroom? What are some of your greatest challenges with managing them?

Sometimes the best starting point for creating high-functioning teams, is by discussing the qualities of low-functioning teams.

Teams where:

  • One student shoulders all of the work
  • Most of the time the team is off task
  • Work quality is poor
  • Team members aren’t sure of their roles
  • There is little to no focus during team meetings
  • A bossy leader takes over and starts ordering everyone around

We’ve all been there.

But a lot of the challenges our teams face is a direct result of…


Ouch. Let me explain…

We haven’t explicitly taught them how to collaborate effectively; Manage team tasks. Allocate roles. Determine deadlines. Or manage their work flow.

The team pictured below is one that has clarity on everything listed above; and it’s because their project facilitators were clear on how to guide them.

They are assembling a podcast to share community stories that help re-define the ‘American Dream.’

Each member knows their role, and each member has something VALUABLE to contribute.

Here are the 5 magic ingredients that allow this team to be high-functioning, and how you can use these same 5 strategies to create high-functioning teams in your classroom as well.

Strategy #1: Each Team Member Knows Their Role

Most projects require a skill set beyond the capacities of one person. And in high-functioning teams, individual members know exactly where they can add value. In this 5- person group, one member is in charge of writing the script; one, producing the music; one, conducting interviews; one, sound editing, and one, episode artwork. Above, they are working together to edit their first episode- an intimate interview with a teacher on campus.

Project Facilitator Move: Students knew their team roles because Ms. Willis and Mr. Sheehan, their project facilitators worked with them to define the roles necessary to carry out the project tasks. They started with a few obvious roles, like ‘interviewer’ and ‘producer,’ and then brainstormed some less obvious roles, including ‘designer,’ and ‘music mixer.’ This allowed each student to feel a sense of ownership in the end result, and add value according to their strengths. After brainstorming roles, they worked as a class to carefully define what each members’ responsibilities would include.

Do you create team roles?  How might defining team roles help all of your students know where to contribute and add value?

Strategy #2: They Agree On Deadlines

I always find it odd when project facilitators introduce a 6- week project and expect it to magically come to completion at the end of 45 days. Even mature adults would struggle to meet this expectation. Students NEED deadlines. The team pictured above have several. There is a deadline to find an interview subject; generate thoughtful interview questions; record; edit; receive feedback; produce, and share. And well it might be a nice concept to have students generate these deadlines on their own, they are most likely going to need our help.

Project Facilitator Move: At worst, as project facilitators, we can hand students a calendar with clearly defined due dates for project work. At best, we can have students generate these entirely on their own. Usually it’s somewhere in between. Pictured below is a typically soft- spoken emerging class leader reviewing the agreed upon deadlines for project work with the class. On each deadline is a post-it for teams that have met the deadline and are ready to move onto the next task. This helps create accountability to both the class AND the teachers/project facilitators. Teachers can check-in with these teams to understand challenges they may be facing in completing the work on time.

How can a project calendar help support your student teams? How can you create shared ownership of deadlines, and accountability if they are not met? 

Strategy #3: They Agree on Tasks/Goals

Pictured above is a student with a task folder that sits in the back of Mr. Sheehan and Ms. Willis’ classroom during every open work period. Inside the folder is a simple checklist for project work:

  • We completed our interview questions
  • We received feedback on interview questions from one other person
  • We scheduled an interview time
  • We completed the bio and intro for our podcast episode

Each team establishes a goal prior to open work time around tasks they hope to complete. This aligns them on a share sense of purpose. During the final 10 minute reflection at the end of project work time, they reflect on their progress towards the goal.

Project Facilitator Move: To create a collaborative spirit in task completion, rather than check-in with each student individually, Mr. Sheehan and Ms. Willis instead meet with team leaders to review progress. They use this time to share their big wins, challenges, and progress towards their agreed upon goal during work time. Checking-in in this way allows teams to feel shared ownership of the process.

How might a task check-list support your teams? Who are the emerging leaders in each team? How can you empower them to help manage group work time?  

Strategy #4: High-Functioning Teams Share Work Regularly and Often

Pictured above is the whole class conducting a feedback session on podcast logos submitted by their peers. Ms.Willis started the conversation with a simple question:

‘How do we give constructive feedback?’

By receiving regular feedback on their work, high-functioning teams get fresh ideas, uncover blind spots, and gain clear direction on next steps. It also creates a collaborative, non-competitive culture in the classroom that honours all products as ‘work in progress.’

Project Facilitator Move: Putting student work on public display for the first time can be quite scary. To facilitate the process, and honour the feelings of the presenter, Ms. Willis and Mr. Sheehan first established feedback norms, and modelled them with their own work. In this way, they were able to create a safe space for critique and unpack the language, tone, and empathy with which it is given and received. Other strategies for critique include gallery walks, world cafe, and small student ‘expert’ committee sessions.

How can regular feedback sessions help elevate the work quality from your project teams? How might modelling the giving and receiving of feedback create a high-functioning culture in your classroom?

Strategy #5: They resolve conflict seamlessly

There is no such thing as a team without conflict. On the moderate side, this looks like a team that can’t agree upon roles, or an idea to take forward in a project; on the severe side, it looks like team members deleting each other’s work or refusing to contribute, and communicate with team members. The best way to mitigate this conflict is to work with teams to establish norms for collaboration. In the podcast project, teams worked together to create these norms. Sample norms included:

  1. We will complete work on time
  2. We will not edit another member’s work without their permission
  3. We will be kind, helpful and specific when offering feedback on teammate’s work
  4. We will stay on task, and ask the team leader for direction if we don’t know what to do
  5. When we disagree on something, we will take a team vote to resolve the conflict 

Next, teams established agreed upon consequences if the norms were not followed. By empowering teams to create their own norms, teams were suddenly accountable to more than just the teacher.

Project Facilitator Move: Similar to strategy #4, the best way to introduce this strategy is by modelling it with the class. Share a team you are a part of, and discuss the conflicts that tend to arise. I like to talk about my band, ‘The Funkaphones,’ and  the disagreements we have during the songwriting process. Allow students to act as contributors; generating possible solutions, and creating sample norms that will help mitigate the conflict. Use this model as a springboard for students to generate their own.

Let’s be real. We are never going to have 100% of students working collaboratively and seamlessly within their teams.

But through clearly defined deadlines, roles, tasks, processes for feedback, and conflict resolution, I am confident you can get pretty close!