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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘A Powerful Purpose Propels Effective Student Collaboration’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 24, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the keys to effective student collaborative learning?

Collaboration is a word often-used in the classroom in the context of supporting student learning.

This series will explore what it might actually look like in the real world.

Today’s post features contributions from Michael Thornton, Robin Brandehoff, Ivannia Soto, and Nell K. Duke. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Michael and Robin on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

The many contributors to this series offer great advice. I’d like to just add one point to their suggestions. The Common Core Standards never mention “cooperative learning.” However, you find the word “collaboration” in many sections. Though I have not been able to find if that was a strategic decision, the most persuasive interpretation of that word—to me, at least—suggests that collaboration means student discussions designed to help individuals improve their own work In other words, it might mean students reading /analyzing a passage on their own, discussing what they wrote in a group, and then revising their final product. Or it might mean students writing an essay on their own, talking about it with partners, and then making changes—a peer review.

As Connecticut teacher David Olio explains:

“Individual students need to feel empowered to examine an idea by testing it by other students, strengthening it, then leaving with a stronger idea.”

It’s similar to how community organizers (I was one for 19 years) discuss the difference between “opinion” and “judgement": Opinion is what you think on your own, while judgement is developed after talking—and listening—to others.

Response From Michael Thornton

Michael Thornton has been teaching primary grades for 12 years in and around the Charlottesville, Va., area. He also writes a blog on education and can be found on Twitter at @mthornton78. Michael is co-authoring a book, Reimagining Education: A Space for Risk, with @irasocol and @PeacefulSmile that will publish in 2018 with Rowman & Littlefield:

Collaborative learning is essential in the 21st century classroom. Moreover, effective collaborative learning can change the face of the learning space while developing a learning environment that fosters creativity, critical thinking, positive peer relationships, and communication. In my 12 years of teaching, I have learned there are three keys to developing a classroom that cultivates collaborative learning. Those three keys are instructional design, the learning space, and student investment.

Traditionally, the classroom acts as an orchestra with the teacher as conductor. Personally, I have always viewed the classroom as a space with multiple conductors where all the players are harmonizing together to create the learning. Conductors change depending on the song but the music is always being played. Even though the teacher is the authority figure in the classroom, they don’t have to be, nor should they be, the sole instructional centerpiece. To develop a true collaborative space, the teacher and the students need to both play an instrument in that collaborative process. For example, over the last few years, my students have created projects and assignments for their peers. For the creator, it is a great learning opportunity to produce a work that re-enforces their knowledge or allows them to demonstrate their proficiency. For the peers, it enables them to learn through another lens based on the creative process of that student. In my experience, it is not easy for teachers to take a step back and allow instructional freedom, but this is a necessary step when moving towards a more collaborative learning space.

The design of the space is another important aspect of collaborative learning. Flexibility is key, and the teacher should feel comfortable moving furniture around to help the collaborative process. Furthermore, the instructor should foster a safe learning environment where students feel comfortable moving freely throughout the space and molding the design as they move.True collaboration happens organically while students are talking and “playing”. Having a space that guides that process along is important. When a collaborative moment is sparked, the space should make it easy for that partnership to blossom. In addition, if the teacher has planned a collaborative project or assignment, the space needs to be flexible so that it can match up with the planned lesson. Or, if a student needs the time to themselves to plan and develop an activity, the space should provide that. All the furniture should be on wheels or light enough to be moved by students. It is their space. When they start to take ownership of the space, they will use it in ways the teacher never imagined.

Lastly, student investment is critical. The students will not collaborate effectively if they aren’t invested in the work. This key factor cannot be stressed enough. The curriculum and standards are built without their input.Given their lack of voice in that part of the educational process, it is imperative they have a voice in how the curriculum and standards are taught. Their input will lead to investment. Their ability to take the curriculum and mold it to fit their learning style will lead them to want to learn. In turn, their investment will develop a positive peer learning environment that will inevitably lead to collaboration. Give them the wheel and commit to limiting control over their every decision.

Students naturally want to work together and share their work with each other. Creating a learning space where students are invested and are involved in the instructional design will help encourage effective student collaboration.

Response From Robin Brandehoff

Robin Brandehoff is a second year PhD student in the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research focuses on traumas experienced by students of color, particularly gang-affiliated and incarcerated youth, performance education, and increasing teacher diversity in public schools:

I began my career in education as a 21-year-old English teacher in East L.A., twenty minutes from where I grew up. It was a court-ordered continuation school, and though I was about five minutes older than my students, I felt at home. The gang culture of East L.A. was familiar for me, because I knew many of the affiliates, and saw beyond the tagging and brutal language of these teenagers. I could recognize the symbols and colors of opposing gangs and knew how to navigate this culture of opposing and violent forces I knew better than to seat these students together or ask them to collaborate right away This part of teaching was easy; however, nothing in my teacher-prep program could have prepared me for what it would be like to work within a school culture that valued test scores more than a student’s inability to read or her access to food and running water at home.

I should have been prepared.

In college, I studied theatre and decided to use pedagogies of drama with my students in class I found that Theatre of the Oppressed (Boal, 1985) offered a malleable medium to redesign the symbolism of gang culture and the relationships and interactions students felt forbidden to explore. It allowed students to rewrite their story and choose new paths of rebellion embracing student voice, change, and community activism. By examining local and community concerns, systemic racism, and issues of social justice using Epic Theatre (Brecht, 1964), my students could impart their knowledge of history from Brecht’s personal experiences and writings and apply that knowledge to what was occurring in their hometowns. Through reading, writing, debating, acting, and activism, we could create a new form of non-violent rebellion.

In our first semester together, I worked with students on private journaling to exercise the muscles it takes to write on a regular basis. We did not share what we wrote, not right away, but focused instead on filling pages and writing with ease. From here, we incorporated simple and non-invasive, non-physical theatre games that allowed us to laugh with each other instead of at each other. We conducted writing circles using collaborative games, then moved into poetry writing poetry and sharing our work during lunch time poetry slams in my classroom.

Students worked on their own narratives, by now having built trust and friendships with their classmates to share facets of their work with each other. We would hold readings and performances of their work, aiming to collaborate and rewrite their darkened stories and performances to affect change.

Using Forum Theatre and writing (Boal, 1985; Howard, 2004), students could write about their personal and violent experiences, but also re-write those experiences to change their outcome. With this ability, students began to see themselves as something beyond what society mapped out for them. They saw themselves as something more than a field worker, or living past the age of 18 and leaving behind their affiliations to have a family, get a job, earn a degree, and so much more.

The power of their imagination and collaboration allowed them to transform their current state and see beyond the social and educational barriers set against them.

Five keys to effective student collaboration for gang-affiliated youth:

  1. Don’t rush it.
  2. Build relationships through fun, non-physical, non-threatening activities.
  3. Connect core content to their lives through art and writing.
  4. Allow students to express their experiences and aspirations; collaboration exists when students can identify with each other.
  5. Encourage students to support one another; these opportunities provide pathways for students to learn together as one.


Boal, A. (1985). Theatre of the oppressed. New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group.

Brecht, B. (1964). The street scene: a basic model for an epic theatre. Brecht on theatre: The development of an aesthetic, 121-129.

Howard, L. A. (2004). Speaking theatre/doing pedagogy: Re‐visiting theatre of the oppressed. Communication Education, 53(3), 217-233.

Response From Ivannia Soto

Dr. Ivannia Soto is associate professor of Education at Whittier College, where she specializes in second language acquisition, systemic reform for English language learners (ELLs), and urban education. She has written a variety of books on ELLs, including ELL as a Catalyst for Change, which together tell a story of how to systemically close achievement gaps with this student population. Soto is also Executive Director of the Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching (ICLRT) at Whittier College, whose mission it is to promote relevant research and develop academic resources for ELLs and Standard English Learners (SELs) via linguistically and culturally responsive teaching practices:

Oftentimes when I ask adult learners if they enjoyed collaborative learning while they were students, they oftentimes say no. As you are reading this, you are probably reflecting on your own collaborative learning experiences. Perhaps you were the student who did all of the work during group activities, so that was why you didn’t like collaborative learning? Or maybe, you were the kind of student who liked to hide out during group activities? Both of these experiences are not products of effective or productive group work, and not all group work is effective.

According to Gibbons (2002), eight characteristics of productive group work must be taught explicitly for group work to be effective and that can then elicit more academic talk in the classroom setting:

  1. Clear and explicit instructions are provided. Students, especially ELLs, must know what is expected of them before they are expected to complete a task. From classroom noise levels, to assignment details and time limits--all of these expectations must be made clear and modeled in order for students to be successful in the classroom. This means that teachers must have thought through each of these details before a group work structure is utilized. For example, if a teacher is going to have a group of four for a group work structure, how will she keep each student on task and accountable? How long will it take to complete the task? How will each student role be assessed? Will there be both group and individual accountability?

  2. Talk is necessary for the task. When educators place students in groups, they must require student talk. The kind of talk--academic in nature--must be carefully designed, but we should not put students into groups and then expect them to be silent. In fact, the assignments within those groups should organize the talking task so that it is both academic in nature and productive. Again, planning for necessary talk that is both structured and productive is essential to group work tasks. Each student in the group should be held responsible for academic talk with a specific task and accountability for language. This can be done by providing language stems that can be used with each specific group role.

  3. There is a clear outcome. ELLs must know that they will be held accountable for group work tasks. This means that each student should have a specific role that is appropriately tailored to the standards and objectives associated with the assignment. Additionally, the task should be linguistically and cognitively appropriate, so that student progress can be monitored. For example, if a student is a beginning level English speaker, they should be provided with additional language and content scaffolds in order to be successful with the assignment. This may mean providing the student with both language stems for academic language practice, as well as a word wall for vocabulary development within the content area. ELLs at higher levels of English language development may need more sophisticated language stems that demonstrate how to have academic conversations, as well as vocabulary word walls to be successful with academic vocabulary. Determining each ELLs specific language need is helpful with this process.

  4. The task is cognitively appropriate. Group work tasks should not be too simple or too difficult to be completed within a group setting. This notion fits well with Vygotsky’s (1986). The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) or the gap between what a learner can do with or without additional assistance or scaffolding. A student should work in groups when a particular task is just too difficult to be completed on one’s own. That is, there should be cognitive challenge associated with the talk. Additionally, group work can be assigned when the teacher determines that a particular skill or concept takes multiple repetitions to fully internalize.

  5. The task is integrated with a broader topic. Group work tasks should integrate academic and linguistic objectives. That is, group work structures that promote academic language should not be taught outside of the content. For example, after students read already required text selections, they can complete reciprocal teaching roles, in order to keep them on task and accountable. This sort of exercise combines both group work and content. It also allows educators to amplify the academic oral language development oftentimes taken out of the curriculum. By having students talk about, and not merely just read texts, they will make deeper meaning around the content and also practice language.

  6. All students are involved. Each ELL should be held accountable for both academic oral language development in groups, and an individual academic task, so that comprehension can be monitored. If each student in a group does not have a task or role, he or she is less likely to practice language and benefit from the group work interaction. Additionally, each student should be given multiple academic oral language development stems, so that he or she understands how to participate in academic discourse.

  7. Students have enough time. ELLs should be given enough time to complete tasks. If students are given too much time, they are off-task. If they have too little time, they are more likely to get frustrated. When teachers plan for a particular assignment or activity, they should estimate the amount of time students need to complete tasks. Teachers can then use timers to monitor student activity, as well as to ensure that they are not losing precious instructional time. I typically start students off with an initial amount of time--somewhere between ten and twenty minutes, depending on the task--and then adjust the time depending on how students are progressing. It is also essential that the teacher monitor group work by walking around the room, in order to determine how much additional time students may need to be successful with a task or assignment.

  8. Students know how to work in groups. It is important for educators to utilize the gradual release of responsibility to independent practice, in order for students to be successful with group work. That is, teachers should never expect students to be able to complete a task on their own without ample modeling. One way to do this is to use the fishbowl approach, whereby a pair or group of students comes to the front of the classroom, and they model what effective pair-share or group conversations look like. The teacher should work with students who will model ahead of time, in order to ensure that appropriate modeling is provided. Providing this level of scaffolding will allow students to be successful with group work.

Response From Nell K. Duke

Nell K. Duke, Ed.D., is a professor in literacy, language, and culture and in the combined program in education and psychology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Duke’s award-winning research focuses on early literacy development. Dr. Duke is the author and coauthor of numerous journal articles and book chapters as well as coeditor of the Handbook of Effective Literacy Instruction: Research-Based Practice K-8 (Guilford), coauthor of Beyond Bedtime Stories: A Parent’s Guide to Promoting Reading, Writing, and Other Literacy Skills from Birth to 5, second edition (Scholastic), and author of Inside Information: Developing Powerful Readers and Writers of Informational Text Through Project-Based Instruction (Scholastic) and Information in Action: Reading, Writing, and Researching with Informational Text (Scholastic):

Think back to a time when you experienced what felt like a genuine, productive collaboration. Chances are you were engaged in an intellectually invigorating project that inspired collaboration. Our best circumstance for fostering effective collaboration in the classroom is likely to occur when students feel a strong sense of purpose around the task at hand.

For example, consider a project-based unit that a team of researchers, educators, and I designed in which second-grade students develop a proposal to a local city government official outlining specific improvements to a park or other public space. In this quest to make their community a better place, students are highly invested, sparking impressive collaboration.

In a project-based unit designed for fifth grade, students study a threat to a local ecosystem and work to persuade the community to enact one or more solutions to circumvent the threat. During the unit, students collaborate in a variety of ways, from discussing content to providing feedback on one another’s work and presenting to the community. Students’ shared passion and purpose facilitates their work together, and rather than ‘sweating the small stuff,’ they are genuinely eager to collaborate and achieve a collective goal.

I am not arguing that a compelling cause is the only element needed for effective collaboration. Within that context, the gradual release of responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) can further support effective collaboration. Our 2011 iteration of the model (Duke, Pearson, Strachan, & Billman, 2011) has five components which, as applied to fostering collaboration, might look like this:

  • Explicit description:

    We are explicit about the characteristics of effective collaboration: staying focused on the task, seeking first to understand, maintaining a positive tone, and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.

  • Modeling:

    A fishbowl arrangement allows students to observe while a pair of teachers or a small group of students engages in collaborative work. I find that it is often powerful to provide an anti-model as well, which shows an example of what ineffective collaboration looks like. We model what it looks like for one person to dominate, for another to distract the group from the task at hand, and so on.

  • Collaborative and guided practice:

    At this point, students are working on the task at hand and the teacher is circulating, at first being highly involved in facilitating students’ collaboration, but gradually providing only periodic feedback and prompts. For example, “I notice that Jamal made sure that each person had a chance to share their opinion,” or “There are a lot of different parts of the poster. How can you plan together to make sure they all get done?”

  • Independence: Over time, students may need less support in order to collaborate productively in many circumstances. However, as new challenges arise, you may need to cycle back through all stages of the gradual release. For example, students who are collaborating well in many contexts may encounter difficulty during engineering design projects in which they have different views about the direction to go. At that point, you might explicitly remind students of what effective collaboration looks like (model) and what it does not look like (anti-model) for the task.

A powerful purpose for students’ collaboration, together with thoughtfully designed instructional support, propels effective collaboration.


Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Strachan, S. L., & Billman, A. K. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. In S. J. Samuels & A. E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (4th ed.) (pp. 51-93). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Available from: http://scienceandliteracy.org/sites/scienceandliteracy.org/files/biblio/pdpearson/DukePearsonStrachanBillman_prepub_Comprehension_WRST_032311.pdf

Pearson, P. D., & Gallagher, M. C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3), 317-344. Available from: //www.researchgate.net/publication/49176503_The_Instruction_of_Reading_Comprehension

Thanks to Michael, Robin, Ivannia, and Nell for their contributions!

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