Thinking about ‘Teamwork’ in the Classroom

This week I am going to reflect on the concepts of problem-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (CBL). PBL is defined as an “active learning pedagogical approach” that concerns producing and resolving a “challenging open-ended problem.”[1] This pedagogical approach is contrasted to more traditional classroom orientations, such as the lecture form in which the Professor, designated as the one with knowledge, bestows knowledge on the students who receive, memorize, and internalize that knowledge. PBL, on the other hand, is conceptualized as being more applicable to the real-world, better suited for larger groups, and, also, in its very design, incorporates student participation. The largest upside is this last point, as it is student participation or “teamwork” that is a skill that has to be modeled and practiced in the classroom, in order that students, when they reach the workplace, are productive employees capable of working beneath, alongside, and in charge of others. Thus, there are seven further characteristics associated with increasing teamwork capabilities: creating a common purpose, defining a clear goal, generating psychological safety (which is closely tied to making risk palatable and thus increasing innovation), defining clear roles for each member, instituting proper, respectful communication, practicing conflict resolution when it arises, and encouraging accountable interdependence. My interest with this post is to reflect on how problem-based learning can be applied to the social sciences and humanities, instead of engineering projects. It seems to me that the task, at least as I approach the classroom, is slightly different. Without denigrating teamwork and its associated skills, I aim to cultivate critical thinking, skepticism, research skills, as well as what it means to engage in political conversation with others. These skills are surely crucial in Engineering projects as well, however, it seems worth reflecting on a bit more how this might work in practice.

Oftentimes my pedagogical practice is far less about construction than deconstruction. What I mean by this is that the most common starting point in an undergraduate course is getting the students to identify themselves in the reading. How are they positioned in relation to the text, where do they stand in the world, and, also, how do they engage in conversation with others who are located differently? This is not to say this is a static process but constitutes in some ways what Antonio Gramsci refers to as taking an ‘inventory’ of oneself. In a political conversation, then, the first step is not the construction of a common goal, but perhaps recognizing the impossibility of a common goal. Put slightly differently, what if there is no political ‘we’? What ‘we’ am I a member of? What does it mean that my ‘goals’ might be incommensurable with others (in the classroom or the text)? These questions may all have answers, or they may not, but in any case, it is difficult for me to abide by the fact there can be assumed a priori a common goal in-class discussion.

Through discussion, then, goals will be more elusive and changing. As students engage with the texts, and I may interject and guide discussion as a participant, students will practice skills of close reading and be attentive to the conversation (at least this is what is hoped for). Psychological safety is assured through mutual respect, although this is not equated with comfortability (see my last post on the concept of safe spaces). Class is typically designed so that students are at times listening, speaking, writing and taking notes, or presenting. Accountable interdependence is one of the seven characteristics that I think is important as well for my classroom, as this sort of class structure that I am describing requires that students do read the text closely before class. I do not ask that they ‘master’ the text, but if it occurs that half of the class (or more) has not read the class, the class discussion will surely suffer. In other words, I think PBL is not at odds with the type of pedagogy that I am describing, but I think it is slightly different.

Now, another line of inquiry one could pursue would be what would it mean to generate a PBL exercise for my classroom? I recall at a previous institution we simulated the invasion of Iraq, with some students taking the perspective of the CIA and others the State Department. Many of my peers quite enjoyed the opportunity to ‘role-play’ and ‘play-out’ the institutional tensions between the two bureaucracies conflicting goals. The simulation was thus designed to ‘apply’ the reading in order to exemplify how ‘real’ these tensions were. Surely, this is part of priming students for when they occupy positions in similar institutions as well. This might be an example of PBL in which students are divvied up into groups, given a problem, and then tasked with coming up with a ‘plan’ to ‘solve’ the problem. However, while I see the pedagogical objective in such exercises, I am not sure they can, or at least oftentimes, risk failing to cultivate critical thinking. Another, quite different, example may help draw the contrast between potential approaches to PBL. In another class, we students were tasked with creating an ‘Archive’ of our readings. The Archive was quite welcoming of our interpretations. During our readings, we were asked to write down lines that spoke to us, as well as the thoughts we had while reading. We were tasked with not only reading lines of text but reading what was outside the text, so to speak. How were we in the text? What lay in between or just outside what was written? We kept our own individual Archives and after a number of weeks, the Professor cut off a long strip of white construction paper, maybe 25-30 feet in length (about the length of the entire classroom). He put the paper down in the middle of the classroom and we started writing entries of our Archive on this collective Archive. We then had a conversation about the readings and reflected on this collective work. I think both these examples can roughly be called PBL exercises in which various aspects of ‘teamwork’ are cultivated, but the latter operates on a principle of deconstruction, but which ultimately ‘constructs’ many lines of inquiry. I do not mean to suggest PBL is not worthwhile, but I do think it is worth reflecting on how pedagogical orientations travel across disciplines and towards what ends.


[1] Homero Murzi et al., “Working in Large Teams: Measuring the Impact of a Teamwork Model to Facilitate Teamwork Development in Engineering Students Working in a Real Project,” International Journal of Engineering Education 36 (January 8, 2020), p. 275.


3 Replies to “Thinking about ‘Teamwork’ in the Classroom”

  1. Hi Sam,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post on PBL this week. You spent a lot of time really thinking through the implications of different approaches and what they might mean for student learning.

    I wanted to push back a little bit on one thing I read where you were questioning whether or not certain activities failed in cultivating critical thinking.

    So perhaps the activity you described might not cultivate critical thinking–but maybe it could with more to it? While it does sound like a PBL, maybe with a little more scaffolding to prepare students, it could achieve this level of higher student learning you’re questioning about. For instance, if the purpose is to just act out what happened, to simulate tension, maybe that’s not a PBL… BUT, if the steps were to run the simulation of the historic scenario, then create unique alternative solutions based on experience gained during the play, and then write a policy statement about what could have been done differently, and possibly even try again with the scenario with new knowledge in hand, etc. Then maybe in those last steps is where one could cultivate the critical thinking skills you wrote about.

    I agree, we should question our approach because there is good PBL and not-good PBL and it really depends on how it is organized and delivered and on how the instructor supports students through the process.

  2. Sam, you wrote an insightful post, as always. It made me think of the idea of case and problems and their various significances in humanities. While your focus was in how the classroom coordination can be thought of in the wake of CBL and PBL, I was thinking about the very idea of knowledge and the consequences thereon when it would be thought of in terms of problems, practice, verifiability and so on. So there is a sense of distinction at work here, that is, the actual knowledge and the virtual knowledge, like metaphysical and real. While there is a Marxist Hegelian approach is sensed here, which is, actual knowledge as a critique of virtual knowledge, it is also very urgent to think about the idea of knowledge in the domain of humanities. I am sure the intersectional trends emerging in the humanities are somewhat an attempt to address this issue. However, I find most of the blogs in this section problematic because they all consider the question of ‘actual’, in terms of problems and cases, as instrumental (let’s remember Adorno and Horkheimer). So this instrumentality operative here at some point appears to question the valence of humanities altogether. Anyways, this is open to discussion.

  3. Sam, I agree with your argument that certain simplistic applications of case-based learning can fail to direct students to the more critical perspective that we are trying to offer in humanities disciplines. I have seen “mock debates” go in a very simplistic direction in my experience as well. It probably does not help that some students assume that humanities classes are meant to be fun or social spaces, and not a space for serious inquiry. So, and this is what I have observed, students may use break out rooms as an opportunity to share fun vignettes from popular culture, but will hesitate to engage seriously with assigned readings. When I try to focus the class more closely around the readings, attendance goes down. In relation to your point about directing students to see themselves as political agents with their own unique views, it is tricky to figure out how to emphasize the political nature of classroom discussion without setting up a familiar culture war backdrop. I understand you to be using political in a way that is much more intricate than reflecting a partisan view, and to be asking students to develop a unique intellectual voice as well. I consider this to be a very admirable, if perhaps Sisyphean task.

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