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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Maximizing Student Learning Gained Through Collaboration’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 27, 2019 15 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:

How can teachers maximize student learning gained by group work?

Part One‘s contributors were Karen Goeller, Jill Kester, Rachael Williams, Kara Pranikoff, and Cheryl Mizerny. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Karen, Jill, and Rachael on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Katrina Hankins, Dawn Mitchell, Andrew Miller, Andrea Keith, and Michael D. Toth share their ideas.

Response From Katrina Hankins & Dawn Mitchell

Katrina Hankins is the literacy coach at Roebuck Elementary in Spartanburg, SC. Katrina also serves as a summer reading-camp teacher in schools across Spartanburg District 6.

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in Spartanburg District 6, where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project- based learning. Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

Group Work That Actually Works: Maximizing Student Learning Gained Through Collaboration

At Roebuck Elementary School in Spartanburg School District 6 in South Carolina, cooperative learning is an essential component to every major learning structure we implement. Whether it is reading and writing workshop, STEAM challenges, or project-based-learning units of study, our students benefit from learning together. All too often in public education, group work has a stigma, where one person gets stuck with the majority of the work while others use it as an opportunity to slack off. We want our students to have formative experiences with group work that provide opportunities for them to understand that collaboration is a tool for learning and a benefit that expands their thinking, not a hindrance.

1. Autonomy - In Ms. Wilkins’ kindergarten research workshop, student choice is an integral part of her cooperative-learning groups. She has learned the importance of providing students with individual choices within a larger cooperative group project. In her recent animal-inquiry unit, Ms. Wilkins provided students with structured inquiry under the topic of animal habitats. Each student chose their own animal to research, and then their group was formed based on their shared habitat. As students learned about the symbiotic nature of the animal relationships within their shared habitat, they also learned the importance of effective and respectful cooperative learning in their own small habitats. Ms. Wilkins reflected,"The experience allowed students to share as they were learning during their research. Then they came up with a final product—a mural that they were all proud of.”

Animal Mural by Ms. Wilkins’ students

Photo by Dawn Mitchell

2. Accountability - In Mrs. Wright’s 3rd grade class, students become experts in the field as they study landforms. Wright empowers them with layers of information and experiences as well as choice in the role that they take on. Then they run with it. Students feel a sense of ownership as they delve into the specific details to teach their group all that they need to know as well as contribute to the group’s production of a 3D map. Elliott and Maleah agreed as they shared their love for the landform-learning experience. “We had to collect a lot of facts about our specific landforms and share them with our group. After talking about all that, we learned it was easier to write about it and create our product together.”

3D Landform Map From Mrs. Wright’s class

Photo by Dawn Mitchell

3. Authenticity - In Ms. Neumann’s 5th grade class, students have a wide variety of interests, needs, and abilities, and support for collaborative work is an essential component for her STEAM projects. In her recent project-based-learning unit of study, students worked together to build water-filtration systems in small groups. Ms. Neumann wanted to provide students with a purpose for this challenge and a relevant context and structured the STEAM group pbl within a larger whole-class novel study of Linda Sue Park’s groundbreaking novel, Long Walk to Water, based on the true story of Salva Dut and her program Water for Sudan. During their whole-class novel study, students learned the issues of water scarcity in places like Sudan and across the world, which gave their STEAM pbl projects a purpose beyond the build. Students learned not only the importance of engineering and design process but also the benefit of collaborating with peers to make a difference and to use skills and resources for a purpose beyond yourself. Taylor shared her reasons why group work worked for her. “Working with other people is helpful because not everyone always has the same idea. Someone else in the class might have an idea that is better than your own or improves on something you already thought of.”

Walter-filtration system by Ms. Neumann’s students

Photo by Dawn Mitchell

4. Application - In Ms. Cameron’s 4th grade class, instead of ending the school year worn out and watching movies, students end the year with an action-based research project on the theme of kindness and empathy, with the driving purpose of enacting positive change in their classroom and in their community. Ms. Cameron explained, “I wanted to give students the opportunity to see themselves in good books but to also see people who are different from them around the world in order to deepen their empathy. At the end of the year, I know students know the reading and writing skills I have taught, and I want to give them the opportunity to actually apply what they are learning through book clubs.”

Students chose their book-club book from a text set curated by Ms. Cameron including El Deafo, Brown Girl Dreaming, Esperanza Rising, Crossover, 165 Days of Wonder, and Crenshaw. The driving questions of each book club were:How has the book changed you, and What do you plan to do about it? Students were given the opportunity to consider their individual ideas independently before they shared their ideas with the group in order to provide students with time to originate and develop their ideas. For example, the group that read Esperanza Rising came up with the idea to create a bulletin board that provided encouragement to others.

Bulletin Board by Ms. Cameron’s students

Photo by Dawn Mitchell

One of our favorite collaboration mantras is by David Weinberger. He wrote, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” In each grade level, we want our students to experience how we are better, together.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

Design of group work is critical, but it’s important to refer to it as collaborative learning. Remember, the purpose first and foremost is to learn together, not simply work and get the job done. When we focus on tasks, students become task-oriented, rather than learning-oriented. It may seem like a small change, but it does reframe and refocus the purpose on learning together.

Once we understand the purpose of learning together, we need to focus on what that learning will look like. Collaborative learning shouldn’t simply be a task that can be done independently that is then transformed through mechanical change where the tasks now require students to work together. If the task can be completed independently, then why do students need to do it together? Instead, design the task so that students must learn from each other to complete it. Jigsaws are a clear example of this. Each student knows something and can contribute to the whole. Similarly, long-term projects where students have defined roles gives each student a meaningful purpose to help each other and demonstrate their learning. Make the collaborative task a challenge, where students must learn and demonstrate more than what they had known yesterday. Collaborative learning should build upon knowledge gain and work toward mastery.

Lastly, ensure that the collaborative-learning task requires students to discuss and talk to each other. Yes, silent chalk talks are an excellent activity, but collaborative learning should also be a space where students can practice using academic vocabulary as well as collaboration skills. As teachers design group work, they need to focus on learning, ensure the task goes beyond what was initially taught, and requires students to discuss and collaborate in meaningful ways.

Response From Andrea Keith

Andrea Keith is the vice president of customer success at EdgeMakers, where she has developed and presented dynamic, engaging professional development used by educators in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico to build their own and their students’ capacity for innovation. Andrea started her career in education over 25 years ago after graduating from California State University, Fresno. Teaching in California, Colorado, and Illinois gave her strong experience in pedagogy, assessment, and curriculum in varied school environments with diverse student populations. Follow Andrea on Twitter @andreakeith:

“You’ll be working in small groups” usually generates groans and complaints, not just from kids. I think every one of us remembers difficult experiences with students, at least one person who didn’t pull their weight, maybe someone else who dominated every conversation. Because of these negative memories, collaboration is often seen as a necessary evil rather than an opportunity, but we know it will be critical to our students’ future. Providing lots of practice collaborating is important, and there are some simple strategies to help students get the most out of their experiences.

  1. Have your class determine a set of behavioral expectations to create the culture of trust that allows group work to be effective and talk specifically about character strengths and communication. If your school has a character program, group work will be a great place to reinforce it. This should be an agreement to listen with curiosity, see all ideas as valid and withhold judgement, and other important concepts that will allow students to feel safe and encouraged to share.

  2. Acknowledge that working with others isn’t always easy or comfortable. Have a discussion with your students about the idea of their comfort zone and how learning takes place outside of it. A quick search on YouTube will give you dozens of videos from successful people you can use to inspire your students.

  3. Vary how you create groups for different lessons or projects. In the real world, we don’t often get to choose whom we work with, and learning to recognize your own strengths and style as well as others’ only comes with exposure and practice.

  4. Build self-reflection prompts into the group process. Encourage students to think about how they felt and how their words and actions affected the group dynamic. The concept of words and behaviors being either obstacles or enablers encourages them to empathize with others and provides powerful language for their reflection. Use a composition book, a Google doc, or an online portfolio to demonstrate the growth in their confidence and skills. While you’re at it, you might want to do your own reflecting in the collaborative situations you find yourself in.

  5. Specifically, teach and discuss how to give and receive feedback. Techniques like the “wow and wonder protocol” and using “I” statements work well for giving feedback. A simple “thank you for your input” is a powerful phrase to reduce defensiveness. If your students are familiar with design thinking, help them make that connection. Make sure you model effective feedback yourself. You’ll know the students have internalized good practice when they call you out for a mistake!

Many of the wicked problems in the world are a result of, or at least exacerbated by, the inability to work together, so we must ensure our students have the needed skills. We need our next generation’s reaction to working in groups to be excitement about the possibility that is open before them.

Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book, Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of The Power of Student Teams (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI’s Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Group Work vs. Team Tasks

The key to maximizing student learning is not through group work but through team tasks. There is an enormous difference between student grouping and collaborative student teaming.

Most of us have experienced group projects in school, and often those experiences were negative: A few kids did all the work while others coasted, and everyone got equal credit. Some common issues with traditional student groups include unclear goals, no established norms, a lack of roles or roles which are poorly defined and not practiced, and not enough time to form team bonds.

The Benefits of Academic Teaming

Student academic teams lift all students to a level of rigorous learning rarely seen in most classrooms. Immense benefits come with student academic teaming, including how teams transform ELL learning, how teams embed daily peer coaching, and how teams build resilience in students.

These academic, social, and emotional learning benefits cannot be fully realized unless core instruction moves from teacher-centered (according to our national data most classrooms are, in some form, teacher-centered) to team-centered instruction.

The Enabling Conditions for Successful Teams

Teachers should focus on creating the enabling conditions for high-performing student teams and then release the learning to students while continuing to monitor the teams’ progress toward specific learning goals. While the necessary enabling conditions are too intricate to adequately explore in a few paragraphs, some examples are:

  1. Intentionally forming small student teams for diversity.
  2. Giving students specific roles and establishing clear norms and expectations.
  3. Designing team tasks with interdependence and accountability as priorities.
  4. Knowing when and how to step in to coach teams.

The Neuroscience Behind Student Learning in Teams

The teaming structure maximizes student learning because in team tasks, students are not simply learning at the retrieval and comprehension level of the cognitive taxonomy, as they would in the traditional classroom where lecture and memorization are common; in a team-centered classroom, students instead push their learning to the analysis- and knowledge-utilization levels.

Cognitive neuroscience tells us that in the teaching-learning process, the brain doing the work is the brain that learns. PET scans confirm the difference in brain activity between a person who is listening to an explanation and the person who is doing the explaining—the explainer has increased brain activity.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher is the explainer; he or she talks through ideas, thinks critically about how to clarify concepts, and answers student questions. But when the classroom culture is team-centered, the student has the opportunity to become the explainer, discussing his or her learning and strengthening understanding.

Cooperative Learning or Collaborative Learning?

While cooperative learning in student groups can offer students more opportunities to deepen their learning, in our experience student groups fail to reach the level of cognitive complexity that collaborative learning in student teams achieves. Putting academic student-teaming structures in place with clear enabling conditions elevates core instruction above traditional group work and truly maximizes student learning.

Thanks to Katrina, Dawn, Andrew, Andrea, and Michael for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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