Monthly Archives: September 2014

Collaboration in the Classroom that works…7 ideas.

Collaboration sounds like a good idea.  You are keen.  You have watched the video.  Your desks are in groups.  And…it isn’t going as well as you’d hoped.  Your students are not acting like the kids in the video.  What are some of the factors that you need to consider once you have decided to try collaboration?

  • The Task. The task you ask the students to do needs to be meaningful and challenging.  There is no need to collaborate if the answer is apparent.  There is no desire to collaborate if the problem is irrelevant.
  • Summarizing or gathering information is not collaboration. A few years ago I was taking a course on line and we were supposed to collaborate in a wikispace.  The problem was that usually the task was to summarize the chapter.  Philip, another participant, always did that first.  After he had done it there was really nothing more to say.  There are lots of reasons for students to share summaries or compare summaries or write a summary together but that is not collaboration and you need to recognize that.  The same goes for dividing up the work load to gather information.  It is sometimes a good practice but it is not collaboration.
  • Collaboration needs to be knowledge building. A great structure for building collaboration in your classroom is to use knowledge building circles.  If students are working towards collectively answering a collective question (e.g. Should the tar sands be developed?/ How can we best protect the swamp habitats?/ What is the best design for a paper airplane?) then having them share their learning as they go creates a collaborative culture.  In a knowledge building circle, students react to each other and not the teacher.  While the teacher may begin the conversation with a question, the student who contributes first then chooses the next person to contribute.  If you have never tried this, the following link will get you started:
  • Background knowledge and curiosity are key. It is hard to collaborate and work with others if no one has any background knowledge about the topic.  If my girlfriends and I were asked to collaborate about fixing a car engine, I suspect that we would get off topic fairly quickly.  Students also need to be curious about the topic if they are going to proceed with the inquiry.  If I am in a group that is discussing a topic in which I have no interest, I probably will not collaborate.  Check out this article for more information:
  • Organize your group members carefully. Depending on the topic you may want heterogeneous or homogenous groupings.  Groups that don’t collaborate well, however, often have a member with considerably more knowledge or interest than the others.  Groups with similar interests or similar skill sets may work better at collaborating.  I rarely let kids choose their own groups.  It is not that some kids won’t choose a group that works well; it is that some kids will never be chosen to be in a group and you have already lost if members of the group are feeling unwanted.
  • You are still the teacher. Collaboration doesn’t mean that kids will figure everything out on their own.  You are there to guide, facilitate, ask questions, fill in the tricky bits, lend a hand, suggest an alternative, listen, summarize, find the teachable moment, join in, model.  There are still times when you will need to stop the whole class and do some direct teaching.  Collaboration is not a replacement for good teaching.  It is a pedagogical tool that supports and scaffolds learning for students.
  • Relax. Groups are social.  When you go to a meeting, are you always on task?  Does your group get off track or make jokes?  Of course you do.  Do we need to have higher standards for students than we do for ourselves?  Kids are kids.  Kids have been trained through years of schooling to NOT talk to each other.  If you are introducing collaboration after years of individual silent work, you will have to teach them about collaboration.  It might not go well at first.  But, take a deep breath, regroup and try it again.  If your expectation in the classroom is that this is how we do things, it will work.


Filed under collaboration, inquiry, Literature Circles, student behaviour, Uncategorized

Six reasons you want your students to collaborate

Collaboration is the new buzz word.  Sometimes it is hard to keep track of them all.  Why do we want our students to collaborate and work in groups?

  • Learning is a social construct. We learn best when we need to articulate our thinking.  It does not happen in isolation.  We learn when we connect the dots, ask questions and synthesize new learning with previous knowledge.  It is hard to do all of that all by yourself.
  • More heads are better than one. When the task is problematic and challenging (and this is key to collaboration), more heads are better than one.  Each student brings his or her own background knowledge to the table to solve the problem or complete the task.  And because learning is a social construct, students can learn from one another.
  • It provides immediate and effective feedback. When you work in a group you receive constant feedback about your ideas.  As heads nod, people smile and listen to your ideas, you know that you are on the right track and explaining yourself well.  When eyes scrunch and brows furl, you know that you are not being clear.  When you present your idea and someone else presents a contrary idea, the feedback is that there may be a hole in your thinking.
  • It creates empathy. As students learn to work with others, they learn that other people may have different ideas and ways of looking at the world.  Learning to listen to and respect others’ ideas is at the heart of empathy.
  • It scaffolds learning. It is really, really hard to learn something new or to apply a concept to a new problem.  When students can work together in developing new knowledge, they are supported in their learning.  Teachers are the same—when you try a new teaching idea, it is best when you can walk across the hall and work through it with a teaching partner.  When we try new things on our own, without any support, we are more likely to give up in despair.
  • Collaboration is pleasurable. Of course we have all had the experience of working in a dysfunctional group.  But, usually human beings find groups to be enjoyable.  If learning is fun you are more likely to stick with it. (And, if you are worried that your students sometimes get off topic, think about the last meeting you went to where you collaborated—you probably made jokes, went off topic and did some socializing as you did the work).

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Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, inquiry

Rethinking diagnostic assessment as entry points

It being September, I had quite a few good conversations about diagnostic assessments this week.  Quite a few years ago, the practice with diagnostic assessments was to give students a task that was similar (or exact) to the summative assessment.  The reasoning behind this was that you could then demonstrate growth for each student.  You were sure that you were teaching them something.  You were able to measure academic achievement.  And while these are all good teaching practices (you want to teach them something and you want to be sure that you have) there were problems with this type of diagnostic assessment:

  • Teachers said that they already knew the kids didn`t know X because they hadn`t taught it yet. This is certainly true for some subjects such as teaching Pythagorean Theorem for the first time or the War of 1812.  Why would we really expect most of our students to already know that?
  • Students hated these assessments because they usually didn’t do well. I wouldn’t want to do something that made me feel dumb no matter how many reassuring things the teacher said.
  • Teachers didn’t really use these assessments. It told them something they already knew.  They felt they were doing a lot of marking for no increase in understanding about their students.

The purpose of diagnostic assessment is to discover the entry points for students.  We do want to know what knowledge the students are bringing to the table when we embark upon a new unit/learning cycle.  It is important to realize that all students bring some knowledge with them.  Good teachers identify this knowledge and understand how it fits into the content they are about to teach.

We were talking this week about teaching integers in grade 8.  There is no reason to expect that very many of our students already know how to multiply and divide integers.  The few that may already know this will identify themselves early on.  However, it is useful for the teacher to know what the students do remember about integers.  Therefore, the diagnostic assessment will help the teacher to identify how many students remember how to place integers on a number line, how many remember how to add and subtract integers, and most importantly for multiplication and division, how many remember how to create zero pairs (and now all you non-math people are thinking you should go back to grade 8).

Let’s suppose I was teaching grade 2 math and know that I need to teach students to add and subtract two digit numbers with and without regrouping.  Some of my students may have already been taught the formal algorithm by their parents.  Most won’t.  Giving a test on this is only going to tell me that most students can’t do it.  But, I do want to know other things:  who has one-to-one correspondence, who knows their facts, or has strategies to figure them out, to 20, which kinds of manipulatives are the students comfortable with (block ten, open number line, hundreds boards), who is able to represent numbers in tens and ones).  Once I know those things I am in a better position to move students forward.  I cannot assume that all students are bringing the same mathematical knowledge to the table, but all of them are bringing something.

Diagnostic assessment needs to be fair and get you the information you need.  Look carefully at the assessment tool you are using and make sure that it is designed so that students will be successful if they can.  For example, we were looking at a commerical reading assessment and recognized that on one question most students could probably answer it but that the terminology was not familiar.  So, we rewrote the question and changed the wording.  On another question, rewriting it with a graphic organizer would allow more students to be successful.  Diagnostic assessment is worthless if the student knew the answer but the question was unclear.  As the teacher you may then think that the student doesn`t know something that he or she really does.

So if you rethink the concept of diagnostic assessment as determining the entry points for learning, you may find it a more useful exercise.  Many times it doesn’t even need to be a formal assessment.  In writing, just ask the students to write something.  In science you could have the students do an experiment and see how they go about organizing themselves to complete it—you now have some information on their approach to the scientific method.  In math, you may simply wish to have students solve some problems on the little whiteboards and show you their answers.

The goal of diagnostic assessment is to inform your teaching.  In order to help students make connections between what they already know and what you hope to teach next, you need to know their starting points.  And you have to start at their starting points.  Once I have determined the entry points for my students in writing, that is going to determine which mini-lessons I can do as a whole group (most of my students will benefit), but more importantly, which lessons I will need to do with specific small groups of students.

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Filed under assessment, Authentic Tasks, pedagogy, small group instruction