Job Rotation: The Secret Ingredient in Main Course PBL Everyone will Love!

“Group Work.” The very phrase sends groans through a classroom and shudders through every teacher bold enough to launch a “main-course” project-based learning experience for the first time. Students know–for sure–that one of them will end up doing all the work, either because most of the team will slack, or one of the team will insist on getting his or her way. Teachers know–for sure–that there will be agonizing decisions about assigning group grades, and even more agonizing phone calls from parents once these are assigned. No wonder launching projects takes a great deal of courage, on top of a great deal of planning!

But none of what everyone knows for sure has to happen, unless you insist on managing your project like a teacher, rather than the project manager you have to become to succeed with Project-based Learning.

What’s the difference?

Most teachers manage a project with the aim of getting grades for student work into their grade book, even if that grade is pretty lousy. The focus is on the product, and teachers often see themselves as quality control engineers, rather than as a project manager. Project managers are human resource specialists; they look at getting the most out of the team during the process of the project so that the quality control engineers will have nothing to do when the project is done! In many fields, this will be done using the practice of job rotation.

What’s job rotation?

Well, first, you know that every project has several unique jobs that need to be completed for the project to succeed, and assigning clear roles for students is essential to getting the job done. Too many cooks spoil the sauce, as they say. So, if you’re going to serve up a great project, someone gets to buy the ingredients, someone is the sous chef, and someone has to be the chef before the last person on the team can even think about serving the main course. Yet once the ingredients are purchased, the shopper is left with nothing to do. All the weight falls on the chef at crunch time. If anyone on the team slips up, the poor waiter is the one who bears the brunt of the bad tip.

Job rotation is the secret ingredient that makes sure teams get the most from every role, because when teams take turns practicing one another’s jobs, they function more as a unit. Sure, the person with the best people skills is probably either the waiter, or the buyer, and that’s the role that person should play for most of the project. All that charm leads to lower purchase costs and higher tips. But that doesn’t mean that the buyer or the waiter shouldn’t know something about the chefs’ job. Likewise, a chef who has never been out to meet his or her customers is probably not faring so well. To truly function as a collaborative team, rather than as a group with assigned “cylinders of excellence” (aka, stovepipes), people have to be able to help one another. Job rotation teaches them how to do that.

If you make job-rotation an expectation of your projects, three wonderful things will happen:

1) MINIMIZE IMPACT OF ABSENTEEISM No matter how good a teacher or project manager you are, you can’t fight the flu, or routinely truant students. When each member of a team is only responsible for one role, a student out sick for a week means a team that is going to be ‘sick’ when grading time comes around. If, however, you spend a little time at the start of every project with students rotating through and learning one another’s roles, the team will know what to do when the chef is too sick to cook. Absenteeism is minimized, and this also leads to the important part job rotation plays in supporting formative assessment.

2) FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT FOR EVERY STANDARD Most projects that rely on roles end up missing their intended standards by a mile. Why? Because it turns out that if you’re the chef, the only math you’ll be doing is working with the ratios in the recipes. If you’re the purchaser or the waiter, you’ll just be doing simple arithmetic. The poor sous chef may not do any math at all! So, when it comes time to grade student work, you can’t enter grades on ALL those math outcomes because no one student did ALL those math outcomes. Job rotation early in the project solves this. If on the third or fourth day of a project, everyone rotates to another role, and if you collect an assignment sheet or exit ticket, then Voila! You have formative assessment data that can go into a grade book. Rotate enough that every student has a grade for every standard, and the last wonderful thing occurs. There’s no longer a problem disaggregating individual and team grades!

3) DISAGGREGATE THE DATA OF TEAMWORK This is every teacher’s biggest headache when projects are served up for the final grade. You now that Zach, Keisha, and Erin did a lot of work. You also know that their group’s product deserves a lousy grade because Jeremy didn’t lift a finger on his role, and the group’s project isn’t finished. How do you explain that to the other students’ parents? If you’ve been collecting formative assessment data from job rotations, you don’t have to. The three students who worked hard on ALL roles will have the grades to show for it on ALL the outcomes related to the project. If they struggled on one role, you’ll have the grades to show that, too. Jeremy, on the other hand, will have nothing, and that will show, too. He earned his bad grade, but the rest of the team earned better grades, and you have the evidence to prove it even if the team’s final product is less than “cordon bleu.” The process tells you all you need to know!

Whipping up a main course project every student will love is hard work! It usually takes a high-functioning team of teachers to design a project like that, so why shouldn’t it take a high functioning team of students to complete it? Want to get the most out of your teams? Be sure to rotate roles or jobs throughout the duration of the project. Students will learn more, projects will turn out better products, and the only people left with a bad taste in their mouth will be those who didn’t try everything on the menu!

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