PBL Projects & Insights

The Power of Advisory to Build Student Identity

Posted by Camille Mortimore on June 15, 2016
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While reading a Getting Smart blog today—“How to Avoid the ‘Free Rider’ Problem in Teams”, by Tom Vander Ark—I was prompted to think about advisory groups in successful PBL schools like Avalon and how these groups seem to address the problem of students not pulling their weight. Last week, Tim Quealy wrote about Avalon’s advisory program as the most essential feature of their school. A well-designed advisory has the power to compel students to lean-in and begin sharing from their often well-hidden pool of abilities. It’s pretty easy to view the apparent “free rider” as lazy, opportunistic, or not able. Perhaps focusing a different lens on that learner produces different results.

Culture of Belonging

At the heart of every truly effective PBL school I have been a part of is a “culture of belonging". Think Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and focus on the middle zone of the triangle. We all seem to remember the first two zones that form the base of the triangle: physiological needs and safety needs. The top two zones have had so much focus in our schools that they are pretty memorable, right? Self-esteem and self actualization. But the middle zone—belonging—gets a bit foggy.

In workshops across the country, when we talk about Maslow, belonging is always the last one remembered, if at all—the “quiet corner of the plate". And I guess it makes sense. In our culture, belonging to a group often has prerequisites like having, or looking like one has high self-esteem; and being, or appearing to be self-actualized. In student culture, and often for adults as well, the rule seems to be, if you already have these qualities, then you can “belong". 
MaslowMaslow, on the other hand, says that the path to self-actualization must pass through belonging, and that belonging is the access point to self-esteem. Think of family, home, friendship, and community as the crucibles of our sense of self. In school, think of advisory as that place. Advisory is the home-place where new students get folded-in to the culture, where younger students learn from the experienced older students. It is the place where all members are safe to try on new ideas, new friendships, and new ways of being and learning, like deep discussions of thorny ideas, or projects previously unimagined, or teams they would never have found without this home-place. Advisory is a school’s building blocks for creating a culture of belonging.

Structuring for Belonging

I work with a school that calls itself “The Eagles". Every student is a member of an “Eagle’s Nest”. This is their home-base, their gathering place, their advisory where an advisor-teacher and peers make certain that every member is cared for, nurtured, prepared to fly, and gently scooped up if they aren’t quite ready to fly.

Advisory is a place of structured belonging: multi-age, shared norms, daily check-ins, weekly team meetings, buddies, jobs, and shared decision-making. Throughout the school, and in the advisory, each decision that is made is looked at with the lens, “Will this increase belonging?” If the answer is no, then it is not likely to be the right decision and discussion and revision ensue.

Avalon School Advisory Guide

Belonging, and the responsibilities that come along with being a member of a group, require participation. The blog idea of a “free rider” points to this expectation. I wonder if the lack of participation is actually masking a lack of belonging? When people are invested in a group, it is hard to resist joining in to make something more valuable, more workable, or more fun. It is hard to let your team down. The blog points to ways to encourage fuller contributions to team goals. Quality group work in advisory might benefit by these suggestions:

  • Make tasks more meaningful. When a task does not hold meaning or matter for people, they tend to commit less effort or talent to it. When people “get” the value or importance, they are more likely to make it their own and lean-in.
  • Show what others are doing.  Sometimes people simply don’t realize that they’re doing less than the norm. Sharing what “quality” looks like creates the ability for others to produce it. Quality is infectious.
  • Shrink the group. Anonymity is easy in a big group. It’s easy to fade into the crowd and believe that individual effort simply doesn’t matter. Smaller teams make belonging easier and contribution more evident.
  • Assign unique responsibilities.  When each person has a part of the work and a distinct role in the process, their importance to the team is magnified.
  • Make individual inputs visible. When people see each member’s individual contribution, it can be recognized and valued. Conversely, in a transparent process, when work is missing it is evident to everyone. Open discussion can lead to ways to support the “not-yet-done” group member. 
  • Build a stronger relationship. It makes sense to check in early and often on relationships in the group. Daily check-ins on process and work progress lead to creating advisory discussion questions that are right on target. These discussions build shared understanding, empathy, and support.
  • If all else fails, ask for advice. Ask each student, including the low contributors, “If we really want this team to work and want some members of this team to contribute more, what do you think would make that happen?”

Keeping the focus on belonging will pay benefits in advisory and classes, and in the lunchroom, hallways, and school activities. Safer schools, happier students, fuller participation, better learning, fewer discipline problems, better attendance, and stronger student leadership are common results of building a culture of belonging.