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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Teachers Must Encourage Students to ‘Make Meaning Together’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 27, 2018 17 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Debbie Zacarian, Beate Planche, Lyn Sharratt, Meredith Allen, Nancy Sulla, Bret Gosselin, Dr. Emily Phillips Galloway, and Dr. Paola Uccelli shared their suggestions.

In today’s final post in the series, Paul Vermette, Cindy Kline, Jennifer Fredricks, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Andrew Miller, and Tamara Fyke contribute their ideas.

Response From Paul Vermette & Cindy Kline

Dr. Paul Vermette, an award-winning Professor of Education at Niagara University since 1985, secondary educator and author of several books and dozens of articles, has given hundreds of workshops on the topics of Constructivism, Cooperative Learning, and instructional planning. His work with Cynthia Kline on “Group Work that Works” brings his knowledge and experience into practical and research-supported suggestions for contemporary educators. Paul looks forward to contact at pjv@niagara.edu.

Cynthia Kline is a career educator currently serving as systems curriculum manager for Bryant & Stratton College at their systems office in Getzville, N.Y. As teacher, parent, researcher, educational consultant and author, she has committed herself to improving education through bridging classroom experience with essential skills for 21st century career and life success. Cynthia welcomes contact at clkline@bryantstratton.edu:

We have recently published a detailed answer to this question in our book Group Work That Works and offer a brief response here. These 7 suggestions will maximize the effectiveness of collaboration across all classrooms.

  1. Maintain clear purpose

Creating thoughtful, informed problem-solvers and critical thinkers who can (a) communicate across diverse populations, (b) be productive democratic citizens committed to the common good, and (c) show integrity are three key goals for collaborative work. The commonly-associated measures of academic achievement (test scores) are measures of associated ends, not educational goals per se.

  1. Commit to knowing your students as individuals

Teachers must know their students well to differentiate and personalize learning experiences. As teachers spend time observing students working in small groups, this knowledge becomes far richer and enables powerful feedback to occur.

  1. Realize learners are in control of their own learning

“I can’t think with your brain,” an often-heard statement from the authors to their students captures the essence of who really controls the learning experience. In practice, teachers must recognize that learning comes from the thinking that students do. (Willingham, 2009). It is essential for students to interact, work, think, share, create, falter, and make meaning together, through action and conversation. Immediate teacher feedback keeps the process on track.

  1. Build the teams yourself

As in sports and the work world, the leader decides who works with whom based on the task; be prepared to tell students the criteria used. Left alone, students will pick “friend teams”, ignore low status classmates, stay single-gendered and ignore the idea that diversity can be good for them. Keeping team size to 3 or 4 maximizes interactions.

  1. Have students work on complex tasks

Tasks that can be easily done alone are not well suited for group collaboration and limit the inherent benefits of diverse interaction. Make activities complex so that they require diverse strengths, and attend to group interaction as students work. This “positive interdependence” (Johnson and Johnson, 1987) can be accomplished in numerous ways, including the use of a combination of group and individual contributions when grading.

  1. Provide feedback as they work

As students engage in their work, the teacher should “work the room” (Konkoski-Bates & Vermette, 2004), reviewing progress, challenging thinking, expanding on student articulations, etc. Students soon realize these interventions are valid and valued. This process enables positive governance and deepens understanding, as it provides rich opportunities for discussion with those who are ready, or support for those more reticent. The skillful teacher uses these to drive and shape student analyses and reactions. Moreover, the use of exit-slip assessment can provide written insight about student perceptions and inform subsequent teaching.

  1. Have high expectations for community

Frequently remind students about the purposes of working in collaborative structures and use an affective framework to highlight expectations. There are many such taxonomies of competence, including those published by C.A.S.E.L, and an excellent version from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Discuss expectations at the outset of the course and develop rubrics for group interactions, employing both self and group assessment to guide developing collaboration skills.

Effective student collaboration teaches curricular content, cognitive skills, and broadens affective capacities which prepare students for contemporary life beyond the classroom.


Johnson, D.W. & Johnson, R.W. (l987). Learning together and alone. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Konkoski-Bates, E. & Vermette, P.J. (2004). Working the room: The key to cooperative learning success, at G.L.A.C.I.E., Toronto, Ontario, Ca.

Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Response From Jennifer Fredricks

Jennifer Fredricks is the dean of academic departments and programs and professor of psychology at Union College. She is also a student at the Center Distinguished Fellow with Jobs of the Future, and author of the 2014 book Eight Myths of Student Disengagement: Creating Classrooms of Deep Learning (Corwin Press):

How can we structure collaborative groups so that all students’ can gain the social, motivation, and cognitive benefits of working with their peers? Learning is an inherently social act. Working with others exposes individuals to different viewpoints, which in turn, can encourage them to evaluate and potentially restructure their own views. Research shows that students have higher engagement, more positive attitudes toward school, greater acceptance of others, stronger conceptual understanding, and higher achievement when they work collaboratively with their peers to solve problems, complete tasks, and create meaningful products. However, it is important to remember that different subpopulations of students, by race, gender, socioeconomic status, and ability, can experience and benefit from collaborative grouping differently.

It is naive to assume that just putting students together in groups will lead to positive outcomes. For effective group work, students need to be able to get to know and trust their peers, communicate effectively, accept and support other students, and resolve conflicts constructively. The reality is that some group members may exert less effort because they rely on the other members to do the work. Students can also easily get off task; have difficulty collaborating and interacting effectively with their peers, especially those who are different than them; and can be unclear about what they need to do to be successful in group work, especially with more open-ended and ambiguous tasks.

Although there are many challenges with group work, existing research points to several strategies that teachers can use to make collaborative grouping more productive. It is important for teachers to set clear instructional objectives and criteria for success, and explicitly outline the social skills and behaviors that students will need to be successful in group work. Second, teachers need to model effective interactions, how to resolve disagreements, and the type of talk they expect to hear from their students. The design of tasks is also critical to productive group work. Too often, teachers give a task where students just divide the assignment and don’t have a mechanism to come back to talk about the ideas. Teachers need to design tasks so that every member is critical to completing the task and structured in a way that students need to interact. This is more likely to occur with open-ended tasks that require problem solving and several possible solutions.

Another challenge is making sure all students, especially those who have been traditionally underserved in our classrooms, feels included and a valued member of the group. Assigning students different roles in the group is one way to increase the likelihood that all students make a contribution. Ongoing monitoring, scaffolding, and assessment are critical to the success of collaborative groups. Teachers should evaluate students’ academic progress and use of interpersonal skills and intervene and make adjustments as necessary. Finally, an accountability system that includes assessments for both individuals and for the group will increase students’ incentives to participate and to work together.

Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at University of Cambridge. She served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer and has been honored by the U.S. White House for her contributions to education. One of Dr. Rankin’s books is titled Engaging & Challenging Gifted Students: Tips for Supporting Extraordinary Minds in Your Classroom (ASCD Arias):

I write about effective collaborative learning in my book Engaging & Challenging Gifted Students because there are special considerations needed to ensure all students benefit. The need for all students to contribute gets tricky when one student in a group is more academically advanced than the rest (this student is often pressured - or even volunteers - to do most of the work).

To keep the workload fair, divide the work equally, with each student responsible for a particular aspect of the project, and grade or assess students individually. For example, when I tasked my Language Arts students with a group poster project modeled after the game Clue to develop plot points, I gave each student his or her own set of tasks to complete on the project through the perspective of whichever game character the student selected. Each student attached a particular color of paper slips to the poster, so I could easily assess who did what and students remained aware they were responsible for their own contributions.

When placing students in groups or partnerships, it usually works best to pre-plan parings. Use pre-lesson data related to the upcoming lesson. For example, at the end of the previous day’s class, you can ask students three multiple-choice questions they drop in a tray upon leaving the classroom (automatically scoring software like Lightening Grader or GradeCam makes this easy), and you can always opt for open-ended questions. This will tell you how well students know the concept with which they will be working. By adding tutorial information to the questions, this also helps to ease students into the next day’s content. You can then use this readiness data, along with your understanding of students’ needs and how they work with one another, to help you preplan groups for the following day.

Also consider students’ home languages when planning collaborative pairs or groups. A student who was originally an English language learner (ELL) but has become redesignated as fluent English proficient (RFEP) can be a highly supportive partner for a student with the same primary language who is still ELL. This is not the kind of support that detracts from the lesson (e.g., the RFEP student is not doing the work of the ELL). Rather, the RFEP student can boost the ELL’s involvement by providing translations as needed and raising the ELL’s comfort level.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller started his teaching career at a traditional high school in the areas of English and Social studies. After successfully implementing numerous projects across grades 6-12 he took the opportunity to become a full-time faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education, where we he traveled internationally to work with teachers to implement PBL across all grade levels. He is also a consultant with ASCD and writes regularly for Edutopia. Currently, Andrew is back in the day-to-day work of education at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China where he serves as an instructional coach:

There are many keys to structuring effective collaborative learning. One crucial component is to have an authentic reason to come together. It’s not just about doing work in a team, but about learning from each other. One example might be a jigsaw, where each student reads something different and then comes together to have a discussion roundtable to each share the keys components of what they individual learned with the group. This makes every member of the team valuable and critical to learning. Similarly, each student might have a different role or area of expertise, and then come together for an authentic task.

A collaborative learning task should be authentic, novel, and a new challenge in learning. Perhaps students are applying what they learn in a new context, or extending their learning to the next level. These might be extended projects, poster activities, extension assignments, design challenges or presentations. If we put students in a team to do the same thing they just did independently, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are bored. They are just doing the same task, this time in a team. Simply changing the number of people doing the learning does not make it better learning. Instead, teachers should think about how the collaborative task is a progression of learning, a new and valuable experience that allows students to learn from each in a way that is really engaging. We also know that regardless of the tasks, students need the tools to be able to work together. They need to be taught and assessed along with the content. Consider using collaboration rubrics and other assessment tools for feedback and reflection, as well as fishbowl activities and models on how to collaborate effectively.

Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke (@entrprenurgirl) is a creative entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities, and is the creator/author and brand manager for Love In A Big World with Abingdon Press. She received her master’s degree in education from Peabody at Vanderbilt. Tamara lives in Nashville with her three amazing children she adopted. She has worked for over 20 years in the field of social & emotional learning with Love In A Big World—to learn about the Love In A Big World curriculum, with character development and social and emotional learning at its core, visit www.loveinabigworld.com:

Collaborative learning provides a hands-on laboratory for social & emotional learning (SEL). According to the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the five competencies of SEL are: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness. When students are required to work together on a project, they are given the opportunity to practice these competencies. However, it is not enough to assign students to a group, give them a task and expect them to thrive socially and emotionally. They need direct instruction about how to work together. This is SEL. Providing a common language by offering kid-friendly definitions and specific examples of appropriate behaviors crystallizes the often nebulous social and emotional ideals. It is essential that these values are taught before group work begins and then reinforced as group work progresses. For example, Respect is a key trait related to Social Awareness.

Say: “Respect is valuing yourself and others.”

Ask: “How can you show Respect for others in your group?”

Listen: Student voice is important.

Summarize: Repeat their responses and connect them.

Most likely, when asked about Respect students will say “listening when someone is talking.” Again, provide explicit instruction: “Yes, listening when someone is talking is a way to be respectful. Respect is valuing yourself and others.”

It is not enough for us to assume that students understand what we mean when we use words like Respect, Responsibility, and Self-Control. We must make these abstract concepts concrete by being intentional with clear definitions and real-world examples. Then we are helping our students be successful. When we observe them in groups, we can then praise them or redirect them according to the common language measure. “I like how you are listening when your group member is sharing her ideas. You are being so respectful.” Or “Are you choosing to be respectful right now?”

When a conflict arises between students, as it may, students and teacher can refer back to the common language established. Believe it or not, conflict is a teaching moment. It provides a low-risk opportunity for students to practice their Relationship Skills. When there is tension between students, they can learn how to process an offense or misunderstanding. Forgiveness is putting another’s wrongs behind; letting go of anger because of a wrong. You can lead them through these steps:

The one who was hurt/offended: “You (name the offense), and it made me feel (name the feeling).”

The one who caused the hurt/offense: “I’m sorry for (name the offense). I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

The one who was hurt/offended: I forgive you.

Those three words are powerful! It is not okay to say, “Aww...that’s all right.” It’s not acceptable that someone hurt someone else. However, the pain and anger can be released. That is forgiveness.

Once the students have worked things out, they do not need to bring it up again. Instead, remind them to focus on the task at hand.

Again, collaborative learning provides a real-life laboratory for practicing SEL. Our students are kids... they are learning. Do not expect them to be perfect collaborators. Instead, ask them to be willing experimenters.

Thanks to Paul, Cindy, Jennifer, Jenny, Andrew, and Tamara for their contributions!

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