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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Collaborative Learning Does Not Happen Magically’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 26, 2018 23 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the keys to effective student collaborative learning?

Part One featured 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.

Today, Debbie Zacarian, Beate Planche, Lyn Sharratt, Meredith Allen, Nancy Sulla, Bret Gosselin, Dr. Emily Phillips Galloway and Dr. Paola Uccelli share their suggestions.

Response From Debbie Zacarian

Debbie Zacarian (debbie@zacarianconsulting.com) is known for her work in advancing student engagement and achievement. She is an education consultant and the author of many books, including two co-written books from which this response was drawn: Teaching To Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress (ASCD, 2017) and In It Together: How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms (Corwin, 2015):

While collaborative learning is an important practice, it does not happen magically. Here are some ideas to support its success:

1. Continuously use and model positive communication to honor and acknowledge every student’s efforts.

2. Prepare students to work and learn together by assigning each to groups and roles and creating activities that helps everyone see themselves as having something valuable to contribute. An example is a high school teacher who has students rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 as listeners, speakers, readers, writers, and group members. Using this information, he assigns students to specific groups and roles.

3. Ensure the physical environment is set up for students to communicate and is welcoming and embracing of students’ sharing. The physical design is more than grouping desks together or asking students to speak with a ‘shoulder partner.’ It is co-creating a design with students to empower them as collaborators. For example, some groups may wish to work at their desks in the corner of a room, others may prefer to work on the floor, and others may want to stand at the white board. What’s key is co-creating a space where students have a voice in arranging their desks, tables, and chairs and displaying (e.g., on classroom walls or tablemats) their shared ideas, opinions, and concepts to demonstrate a shared ownership of learning.

4. Understand that cooperative learning involves two elements- task and process.

a. The task element involves creating a group assignment that sparks students’ individual and collective interests. Empowering students to make choices is helpful. An example is a high school mathematics teacher whose class is studying null hypothesis. He first suggests some topics that might be of interest to them. He then separates students into six groups of five and says: “Please, discuss some additional topics that you want to explore.” He then puts all of the ideas on the board and says, “We have ten potential hypotheses to explore. One is that there is no significant relationship between the types of mathematics courses that males take and that females take at our high school. Each group should select one topic. Think about how you will co-explore it mathematically and co-create a poster depicting your findings.”

b. The process element requires that students gather, work, and collaborate in a number of cooperative interactions. This includes sharing their beliefs or ideas about what they are learning, deliberating about these collectively, and coming to agreement about them. For example, a second grade teacher asks students to get into their mathematics groups to complete a task. As the teacher walks by one small group she observes that two students dominate all of the talk while their peers don’t participate at all. Just as we want students to learn with and from each other, we need to support them in building the social and emotional language that is needed to collaborate. To do this, we must guide students in how to interact and simultaneously support them to build and strengthen their skills to:

* listen
* be empathetic
* express feelings to their peers and others
* pay attention to their own and their peers’ values, assets and strengths
* mediate their own emotions
* engage in conflict resolution productively

We can strengthen the ways we support students to learn cooperatively when we take time to infuse these elements into our practice.

Response From Beate Planche & Lyn Sharratt

Lyn Sharratt is a researcher, author, professor, and practitioner who consults internationally about System, School and Student Improvement. She is lead author of Realization (Sharratt & Fullan, Corwin, 2009), Putting FACES on the Data (Sharratt & Fullan, Corwin, 2012 - also in Arabic and Spanish), Good to Great to Innovate (Sharratt & Harild, Corwin, 2015), and Leading Collaborative Learning (Sharratt & Planche, 2016).

Beate Planche is a former teacher, principal, and superintendent, now consulting and coaching in schools as well as an assistant professor in graduate education for Western University in Ontario. Beate has written many educational articles and is co-author with Lyn Sharratt of Leading Collaborative Learning (2016) published by Corwin Press. Beate can be reached through www.beateplanche.com, @bmplanche on Twitter and on LinkedIn:

Leaders create the conditions for effective learning. In the classroom, the teacher is the leader supported by school leadership.Teachers effectively become the stewards of collaborative learning once the right conditions are in place.They play a vital role as instructors, guides and facilitators of collaborative learning as well as modelling a co-learning stance. Project-based learning or other inquiry processes are increasingly used as the frame for collaborative learning. What follows are many of the vital steps to consider in the inquiry journey.

Attend to the learning culture - Collaboration needs an underpinning of safety, trust and strong relationships. We also believe strongly in what we call “Parameter No. 1" (Sharratt & Fullan, 2009, 2012) which reinforces that all students can learn given the right time and support. Such a positive belief also students to build a growth mindset. Teachers as co-learners model a curious nature and the assurance it is important to risk-take in learning. It is also important to avoid difficulties by being proactive. Developing working norms for collaborative learning is an important part of the preparation as well as plans to support students who have focusing, learning or behavioral challenges.

Attend to learning processes - Teachers need to be skilled in both understanding collaborative learning processes and in assessing the impact of their teaching on student learning. Attending to learning processes means that teachers have considered the scaffolds and supports students will need to be successful.The need for personalization and differentiation are realities to be integrated. Teachers who understand the importance of creating deeper learning conditions prepare students to work together so that they can:

  • engage in research or inquiry about topics that interest them;
  • involve student voice and choice in decision making about learning;
  • zero in on a specific question of inquiry with a clear focus and co-constructed criteria of success;
  • engage in frequent dialogue as a part of investigating authentic, real-world problems;
  • think critically about what they are learning and why;
  • consider different perspectives in what they are reading, researching and discussing;
  • engage in peer- and self-feedback and assessment as a part of collaborative work; and,
  • present their work to an authentic audience.

Attend to learning skills - Teachers need to be attentive to and keen observers of the need for large group instruction and “just in time” teaching for individuals as needed. As students work through the collaborative inquiry process, they will need to learn the specific skills in conducting a collaborative inquiry, such as:

  • distinguishing between credible and non-credible research sources;
  • recognizing bias and separating fact from opinions;
  • selecting relevant source materials;
  • learning particular skills, such as analyzing, paraphrasing, inferring and summarizing;
  • learning how to represent their learning using a variety of approaches and in a variety of ways; and,
  • learning how to demonstrate their learning to an authentic audience, such as: other peers, parents or community members.

Attend to on-going assessment - Assessment is an ongoing process in collaborative learning - including how students will work together to how evidence of learning will be gathered and analyzed. Effective group work will involve opportunities to assess learning products as well as learning processes such as organization, self-regulation and initiative. Most assessment evidence will be on-going formative information which can impact teaching and learning today and tomorrow. Data today is instruction tomorrow, what we call “assessment-in-action” (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). At defined times, summative information based on the most consistent performance can be evaluated. Student led-conferencing is a very valuable assessment tool in classrooms where collaborative learning is well embedded as students take ownership of their own progress and assess it against co-constructed Success Criteria.

Response From Meredith Allen

Meredith Allen (@msmeredithallen) is an educator and an international presenter. She currently works as an instructional technology consultant, education ambassador and account manager for Soundtrap. Meredith taught instrumental music, K-7 technology and virtual reality at a rural school in Iowa. She has a Master’s of Science in Technology for Education and Training:

“Even though you know what something deserves to be, take someone else’s good idea too. Have fresh ears involved. Get it there” Spoken by musician Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor, professionally known as Lorde. She is referring to the importance of collaboration during the songwriting process. As an educator, I believe this could be easily applied to most classrooms.

Effective collaboration in the classroom is so absolutely important to preparing students for their future by challenging them to work cooperatively. Throughout my experiences as a classroom teacher and consultant, I have witness four key factors keep popping up in rockstar collab situations. They are:

  • Educator and learners have a clear goal central throughout the entire project with an authentic audience.

    This might look like a collaborative podcast in 6th grade on a topic of their choice to be broadcast on the school PA system in the mornings as students are arriving to school. This would fulfill the English Language Arts Common Core Speaking & Listening Standard: engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussion with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  • Prepare students on how to work collaboratively. So many times we assign groups, give them a task and set them on their merry way only to be frustrated when Beth can’t work with Joey because of such and such. Bruce E. Tuckman’s 4 stages of team development talk about the importance of purposeful forming, storming, norming & performing

    when establishing collaborative groups (notice I didn’t say “assigning collaborative groups” ;-)

  • Build in opportunities for discussion, reflection & redesign

    . The discussions that occur during collaboration time build academic skills and uber important social skills, both of which are important for the student’s continued success. Defending my ideas through evidence & reasoning, negotiating terms, and constructive arguing has often been at the forefront of my life (professionally and personally). Why wouldn’t we want our students to practice those skills in the classroom?

  • Choose resources, tools, & platforms in which there is a low floor & high ceiling. The groups will be comprised of many different learners, bring lots of differing strengths and struggles. Teachers should be providing resources (digital or non) that everyone at the group table can have access to in a successful way without feeling limited. If Beth struggles with reading full sentences and Joey is reading at college level, we want them working on open-ended tools so they both can be equally successful and empowered. Some of my favorites are Soundtrap for audio creation, WeVideo for video creation and the GSuite for productivity.

Response From Nancy Sulla

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. She is the author of three books on the subject of student-driven classrooms: Students Taking Charge: Inside the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom; It’s Not What You Teach But How: Making the CCSS Work for You and Build; and Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement. You can follow Nancy’s blogand find out more about her company at www.idecorp.com:

Collaboration is not the same as “divide and conquer;" it is a thoughtful joining together of active minds toward creating a joint product or decision. Collaboration is not the same as one student teaching another; it is a process whereby all involved add to the discussion and learning. Teach students four key competencies:

  • Identifying independent from group activity

Even when presented with a collaborative project, students need to recognize when to work together and when to work independently. A good rule of thumb is that mastering content and preparing to meet are individual activities; brainstorming, planning, generating questions, discussing ideas, and testing solutions are collaborative activities.

  • Active listening

The power of collaboration lies in not having your idea “win.” When a group devises a solution that no one person contributed in total, they’ve experienced successful collaboration. This requires listening to what others’ say and ensuring you understand their ideas by asking clarifying questions. It means then taking others’ statements into account when continuing in your own thought process and comments. Graphic organizers are useful for building this skill.

  • Effective idea and thought communication

Students must learn to use words and visuals that are clear and descriptive when sharing ideas and thoughts. Teach students the power of words. For example, “hard” could mean difficult or solid. Words like good, bad, interesting, and poor don’t provide enough description. Using words that present a more clear meaning promotes understanding.

  • Consensus building

The most difficult aspect of collaboration is realizing that the goal is to have each member contribute to and be pleased with the outcome. Rather than voting to resolve differences, the group should discuss and weigh in as to whether each likes, dislikes, or can live with a decision. As long as all members like or can live with a decision, the group can move on. Otherwise, they must continue to explore their differences. Edward de Bono has two great critical thinking tools for building consensus. Six Thinking Hats has students discuss an idea through six different lenses using a colored hat as a lead in. You’ll hear students say to one another, “take off your black hat and put on your yellow hat for a minute and tell us something you like about this,” which allows for discussion that does not feel like a personal attack as much as a collective use of six hats for a discussion. PMI (Plus, Minus, Interesting) has students consider a decision and, within three to five minutes, write down exactly two reasons it is a good decision, two potential pitfalls, and two other interesting ideas or related questions. Group members then each share their pluses, then their minuses, and then their interesting comments. It is often in the interesting category that the final idea emerges.

A final tip: Have students all sign the final product indicating they each agree it was a successful collaborative effort.

Response From Bret Gosselin

Bret Gosselin teaches writing to his high school ELLs in North Texas. In his 11 years in education, he has been a teacher, an instructional specialist and sheltered instruction trainer. He believes all students can write well and makes sure his have the opportunity to do so every day:

If you were to do a basic google search of the professional skills needed for the 21st century, every page you opened would have collaboration highlighted. Thoughtful Learning, in particular, lists it as one of the needed learning skills for the 21st century, implying that (1) adults are still expected to learn and (2) that they are expected to do so in a community. That being the case, it is critical that our students are provided environments that foster a collective focus on learning over performance, strategies for effective communication, and goals to work toward as a team. These structures are thus a matter of culture more than lesson activities, and need to be deeply embedded in our classrooms if they are to create lasting skills in our students.

The issue of class culture is probably the most important in developing authentic collaboration for learning. When educators think of collaboration, many times they imagine activities like class discussion or partner talk and fail to see it as a valid medium of discovery or empiricism. We must cast the vision among our students that learning is to be shared and that they are together each other’s best teachers. As a class, students need to see that their efforts are working toward something good and meaningful, and that by engaging in it as a whole, they benefit all the more.

For this to be most effective, the topic of grades and performance should come second to the goals of authentic learning. While competition can be healthy in certain contexts, it can greatly hinder a collaborative culture if students feel that their grades are a measure of achievement and not a reflection of mastering the learning goals. If we can help our students to see learning as valuable in and of itself, we would better be able to create the kind of empathetic environments where students want to see their peers be successful and work collectively toward bringing each other to that level. Again, there are times when we want our students to set themselves apart, but we must also teach them to recognize the power of community and their vital role within it.

In practice, this can be fostered in many ways. Above all else, the teacher needs to set clear expectations for how to communicate for this purpose and provide their students with the time and space to do it. This will in turn require standards for conversation by which students are held accountable for courteous and effective dialogue. For any student, sentence stems using academic language would be largely beneficial in establishing a more professional tone for discourse. These would provide guidance on how to contribute ideas effectively as well as how to dispute and disagree with both conviction and respect (See this link for more tools and resources on academic conversations).

It also helps to have a solid platform by which to collaborate within. Anything in the G Suite is designed to not only allow students to work simultaneously, but to create a quality product as well. More dynamic applications include flipgrid for video conversations or padlet for content curation. The point with any platform, however, is not so much the tool itself but how the students use it to learn. With technology, we can have multiple students participating at a time, but fail to elicit true collaboration. Thus, the purpose in choosing any platform must remain for students to contribute to, and enhance each other’s understanding, not merely use an app.

With this in mind, we need to evaluate whether the work our students engage in is leading toward meaningful products that demonstrate true understanding of our content. When enlisting our students in the act of content production rather than content absorption, we immediately open up our classrooms to greater opportunities for learning. This is also when we will see the elements of true collaboration emerge, especially if the expectation is such that their work will be published and learned from by an audience beyond the classroom.

A classroom that is designed with collaboration at its core is a place of true learning. If provided such an environment, it is likely that we would find students who recognize the importance of what they do and work actively toward mastering real skills. We can no longer ignore the deficit between the competencies our students need, and what they are actually exposed to in our schools. If as adults, our students will be expected to collaborate with meaning and purpose, it stands to reason that our classrooms should be the root of that skill. As educators, this is our responsibility, and there are some very bright futures that may never come to be if we choose not to accept it.

Response From Dr. Emily Phillips Galloway & Dr. Paola Uccelli

Emily Phillips Galloway is assistant professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School of Education. Phillips Galloway’s research, which includes quantitative and qualitative studies, explores the relationships between academic language development and reading skill in adolescents with a focus on English Learners and has been featured in Reading Research Quarterly, Applied Psycholinguistics and Reading and Writing. The fundamentals and lessons learned from this work are featured in a recent book entitled, Advanced Literacy Instruction in Linguistically Diverse Settings: A Guide for School Leaders, co-authored with Nonie Lesaux and Sky Marietta.

Paola Uccelli is Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research in educational linguistics examines language and literacy development in monolingual and bilingual learners—in the U.S. and abroad—and informs research-based pedagogies that seek to empower all learners’ voices. Uccelli’s research is featured in scholarly journals, such as Journal of Child Language, Applied Psycholinguistics, Reading Research Quarterly and Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy:

See their earlier Ed Week article on a similar topic, Good Communication Doesn’t Come Naturally. We Have To Teach It.

Teachers who focus on teaching talk as a component of collaborative learning intuitively know what research tells us: language is a formidable tool for reconciling diverse perspectives and opinions, and as a central component of learning from and with peers. Language allows us to step back and explain to others what we think and feel, and--when we listen--gives us a window into how others understand complex and abstract issues.

Creating classrooms where language is a support for collaborative learning hinges on recognizing the language skills that students bring to the classroom and on identifying those that are necessary to teach. Over the last six years, we’ve conducted a series of studies examining the language skills of nearly 7,000 students in grades 4-8 attending U.S. public schools. This research reveals that the vast majority of middle-school students--regardless of whether English is the primary language spoken at home or not--are still developing the types of ‘school’ language skills needed to discuss tough issues with nuance, to disagree respectfully, and to make their thinking visible to peers in the classroom. Many students who are skilled and persuasive communicators outside of school have not yet learned language for clarifying connections between ideas, such as ‘as a result’ and ‘however,’ or phrases helpful for disagreeing respectfully with the ideas of others, such as ‘some think...but, I believe.’

This language isn’t ‘window dressing.’ Instead, it serves the function of helping us to say what we mean more precisely and clearly, hopefully reducing miscommunication. Drawing from our own research, our message to educators is a simple one: fostering this language is something that teachers must do if they wish to turn collaborative learning into a powerful learning opportunity in which students come to better understand themselves and others.

Certainly, there are still many unanswered questions about how best to promote language learning in classrooms. Here we draw on research conducted in collaboration with our colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) and Boston University to share just a few pointers for educators hoping to engage students in discussing political issues. To make this instruction successful, teachers should introduce just a few words or phrases at a time, and revisit these pieces of language as they’re acquired. It’s not just about the language that educators choose to teach; it’s about how they motivate students to use this language. Learners wanting to be heard and understood are more apt to try out new language, but this means that educators have to give them something worth talking about -- e.g., a meaningful question or engaging problem to solve. Educators, whose voices direct daily teaching and learning in classrooms, are recast as listeners and facilitators. After all, students learn to employ language to discuss complex ideas when caring adults listen attentively and help them sharpen their own meanings. The result is that the teacher often talks less and students talk more.

This doesn’t mean that teachers take a backseat. In fact, it is teachers who must model and support respectful dissention by rephrasing student comments, reiterating important ideas, and by pushing students to explain their thinking. A helpful practice is having students agree on a few norms for discussion during collaborative work at the start. In classrooms where we have observed frequent opportunities for students to discuss and solve problems together, the results have been inspiring. In these moments, we marvel at our students, who demonstrate the capacity to disagree respectfully and to see the perspectives of their group members. So, let’s remember the power of language as a central element of collaborative learning.

Thanks to Beate, Lyn, Debbie, Meredith, Nancy, Bret, Emily, and Paola for their contributions!

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