Category Archives: collaboration

Teachers change their practice when their students are successful

I’ve been going to a lot of conferences lately, and watching a lot of video clips, about how leaders can influence change in teacher practice.  Mostly they are full of big ideas about collective inquiry, distributed leadership, forming relationships, using evidence-based practices, learning goals and success criteria, etc.  All of these big ideas are true.  But they are big ideas and sometimes big ideas are overwhelming to implement.

So I’ve been thinking what are ways of engaging teachers in changing practice which are not overwhelming but do lead teachers to changes in practice.  In the end, my experience is that teachers are learners and do want to do their very best for their students.  I do not adhere to the notion that we have great numbers of teachers who are resistant to new ideas.  I believe that the great majority of teachers walk in the school doors every day believing that they are teaching the best way they know how.  But I also believe that there are many teachers who are clinging to very traditional practices, probably because they appear to be working.  How does teacher practice change?

Teachers change their practice when they see that their students are successful or more engaged in learning after implementing change in practice.  When a teacher tries something new, and the lesson is successful, the teacher feels good.  The teacher goes home feeling like “this is the profession for me”!

However, often we ask teachers to change practice in ways that are not successful or make no difference.  Without a belief that the change will make a difference for an identified problem, teachers are most likely to simply comply:

  • Asking teachers to change assessment practices without changing pedagogy might mean they rename their quizzes formative assessments.
  • Asking teachers to have lots of anchor charts, without teachers understanding how the anchor chart scaffolds learning, results in lots of pretty anchor charts that rarely change.
  • Asking teachers to post learning goals and success criteria, without teachers actually changing how they plan, results in learning goals and success criteria that are often just the recipe for the day’s lesson.

Compliance is not change.

On the other hand, when teachers feel empowered to identify changes they’d like to make and try new ideas that they have identified as possible solutions, then they are more likely to change their practice.  Now, I don’t suggest that teachers who decide that the solution to a lack of student engagement is to feed them chocolate cake!  However, when teachers work collaboratively, with their principal at the table as an interested learner, identify aspects of their practice they’d like to change, look at some of the research or resources that might support that change, and then have the freedom to try it out, I’ve never never met a teacher who isn’t interested.

These conversations can come out of conversations which begin with:  What do you wish your students could do better?  Most teachers can identify an aspect of their course where students don’t seem to do as well as they’d like.  It might be a curriculum need or a behavioural/attitude need:

  • I wish my students knew their math facts.
  • I wish my students would persevere on challenging tasks.
  • I wish my students would write with more voice.
  • I wish my students thought critically about their reading.
  • I wish my students took more risks in solving problems.

The next step is to assess what the students are actually doing now, usually by looking at student work or by observations and conversations.  And then, teachers need to be empowered to try something new without feeling they are being judged, have timelines, or that there is a “right” way to do this.  But it is key that the teacher feels supported in the implementation of this new practice.  And this is the role of the principal as instructional leader; the principal needs to be interested in what is happening in the classroom, ask how the new practice is going, and be willing to offer suggestions and ideas as an interested co-learner not as a boss.

When teachers “play” with their practice and engage in thinking about what works, what doesn’t and what solves the problems they notice, then they change.  Success breeds success.  We need to be careful that our professional development ideas don’t bog teachers down to the extent that they comply rather than change.  If what teachers are asked to do, doesn’t have a fairly immediate effect on their practice, they aren’t likely to engage.  Who would?  But, when teachers implement ideas that they understand, that they choose, that they believe in, then their students will be successful.  Teachers change their practice when their students are successful.

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We LOVE Google Classroom…but is there anything to be wary about?

In the school I work, the teachers have embraced Google Classroom.  We see lots and lots of benefits:  student engagement, integrated technology, paperless environment and a huge cut in the photocopying budget, and many others.  But my job is to provoke critical thinking (my teachers love it when I do that) and so today I am reflecting upon all the positives I see but also ask some questions that may guide us as we move forward with integrated technology.

Here is a somewhat related example.  A number of years ago the smartboard was the tool to have.  And, smartboards can be very cool, interactive learning tools.  But, some of the research that arose from looking at classrooms with smartboards was that teachers  were moving away from small group instruction and collaboration and back to “sage on the stage” type learning because the smartboard lent itself to that style of teaching.

Here’s what I see happening in our classrooms that I love about google classroom:

  • Organization-yours and theirs. In the classrooms that are moving towards “paperless” kids don’t lose their notes and can access their work from any device. Teachers are able to see who has done what, in real time, and keep track of complete and incomplete work.
  • There is no doubt that our students are tech-savvy. They enjoy using the chromebooks to find assignments, interact with the internet, complete online dissections, access texts and materials.  It makes sense to them to use the technology.
  • Timely and immediate feedback. We are learning the value of being able to peek in on a student as they are working, or in the evenings and find out where they are. We can conference the next day, plan a minilesson or even chat back to the student online.
  • Differentiated Instruction. Within the google classroom teachers can upload a number of resources that may meet a variety of student needs. Those students who need the read and write feature can do so seamlessly.
  • Shy students may feel more comfortable. Students who may not enjoy speaking in groups often feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion. They may feel more comfortable submitting work to you for feedback online.

Here are some cautions that might be causes for concern… or not:

  • Would there be a temptation to return to the worksheet or booklet type of teaching because it is so easy to upload the instructions and the task?
  • Might we move away from the real time collaboration because our students are so engaged on line? Is there a need for both?  Do we get different results from different kinds of collaboration?
  • Are we creating too much work for ourselves in trying to give timely feedback to every student, every day? How do we organize it so that we are checking in but it is manageable?
  • Does google classroom lend itself to more individual work? How do we create that balance between collaboration and individual work?
  • While it is great to provide online feedback, is there still a need for face-to-face feedback and/or small group instruction? How do we decide when to do each?

If I invited you to our senior elementary school you would see students using technology in a seamless manner in every class.  We experiment with  iPads, chrome books and personal devices.  Technology is not an “event” but a part of how we do school.   Google classroom is successful in our school and we continue to find new ways every day for it to enhance student learning.  But embracing new ideas is about reflecting critically as well—as we go forward on this journey, are there other cautions?  Are my cautions needless worrying by a 20th century educator?  How will we refine our use of Google Classroom to provide the best educational experience for our 21st century learners?


Filed under collaboration, pedagogy, technology

Grouping students for maximum success and comfort

Sometimes I go to a workshop and the presenter hands out a piece of paper and then tells you to find a partner (or a group of 3) to discuss it with.  Even as a grown-up, there is often that moment of dread.  Who will I talk to?  What if no one wants to be my partner?  I don’t know these people! Oh, it looks like everyone has a partner now; what should I do?  Maybe I will go to the washroom!

Another presenter will do the same activity but randomly number or colour code the papers.  The instruction will be to find the partner with the same colour or number and talk about the paper.  I don’t mind these nearly as much.  I know I will have a partner.  There is no looking, no trying to catch someone’s eye, no having to approach someone.  I enjoy these kinds of interactions.

As a teacher I often wanted my students to work in partners or in groups.  But, I will admit, I didn’t often think about how I would achieve the groupings.  And if I hadn’t planned that part then I resorted to “find a partner or a group of 3”.  It was easy for me, as the teacher, to give that instruction.  Invariably there would be a few kids leftover at the end and I would put them together.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I have been thinking about it more recently.

A new student came to my office this week.  She is struggling to fit in.  She told me she had no friends.  She said she hated it when the teacher asked everyone to find a partner and no one chose her.  I remembered how I felt at meetings, even meetings where I know people.

These days I observe classes more than I teach them and I see things I never saw when I was teaching.  When I am in classes where students are told to find a partner, inevitably students start to make eye contact.  Some students keep their heads down.  One or two students are always swarmed by a number of students and have the luxury of choosing their partner.  There are always one or two students that quickly bop around to numerous students trying to find someone who will say yes.  Some students grab onto another student’s arm and won’t let go, staking out their partner early.  And then, there are always some students left at the end.  Frequently when these students are paired up there is eye rolling or faces.

Now when I teach, even adults, I never say “choose a partner” unless I am totally disorganized.  And then, invariably, I regret it.  Here are some things to think about when grouping students in order to create maximum learning and maximum comfort for your students:

  1. Do you want students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups?  If it matters, and sometimes it does, you need to make the groups ahead of time.  I suggest a variety of groupings so that the same students aren’t always paired together.
  2. Is there value in having students work with the same partner or group over time? I think so.  I think that trust builds over time and students are more likely to feel comfortable and take risks.
  3. Peter Liljedahl has done research on Visible Random Groupings where students are randomly assigned different working partners as they enter the room ( He finds that this type of grouping works better than any other type of grouping and that teachers who try it also stick with it and do not go back to letting students pick their own partners.  You can assign numbers, group kids by colour, birthday, height, favourite songs etc.  It doesn’t appear to matter just that students see that all groupings are random and the expectation is that they will learn to work with their group.

Do consider the power we give to some students and the angst we cause other students simply by saying “choose your partner”.  Try random groupings.  Try working partners for the month.  See what works best for you.

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The Third Teacher: Change up your classroom environment

It is good to stay current with the lingo.  The literature now refers the classroom environment as the “third teacher”.  Many teachers are examining how their classroom environment might invite different kinds of learning.

It has been said that today’s physical classroom doesn’t look that much different from one in the 1880s.  Sure, the blackboard has been replaced by a whiteboard, the overhead is now a document camera, and there aren’t too many wooden desks floating around.  But, basically many classrooms looks the same as they always have.  But society doesn’t; and we have been thinking that maybe, in some significant ways, learning shouldn’t either.

Many business organizations are also changing the work environment in favour of an environment that they hope will inspire more collaboration, more creativity, more interaction between employees, more access to technology.  If we want our students to have voice and choice, collaborate, use technology in meaningful ways, expand their thinking, work respectfully with many different students, work both independently and in groups, and move about, does our classroom environment promote that?

Once again, this is a good time of year to explore different ways you might wish to reorganize your classroom space and see what happens.  After all, no one will die (except perhaps from the heat if your school is not air-conditioned!!).  Here are some ideas to try out:

  • Do you need your teacher desk and/or space? Could it be pushed into a corner if you need it?  Do you need it in a prominent position for classroom control?  What would happen if you didn’t have it at all?
  • We often ask kids to collaborate at a table with chart paper. A teacher at our school has put up laminated chart paper on the walls.  She’s noticed that the kids move and talk as they work; they can all see the paper; she can see everyone’s paper easily.  What happens if you get your kids standing up to collaborate?  Could you let some groups work at the whiteboard in your room while others used chart paper?  Do you notice any differences?  See the last post about collaborative groupings for more information.
  • Do your kids need to move? Your first reaction to letting kids sit on an exercise ball may be panic, but try it out.  The novelty wears off and then those kids who need them tend to use them.  What about making some desks higher so that students can stand while they work?  If you are in Ontario, the very large and cumbersome SEA tables work well for that.
  • There are lots of interesting ways to configure your desks for group work. Wander around your own school one day and see some of the interesting configurations that people have adopted.  Or google it!  Try U shapes, or pinwheels, or staggering the desks.
  • How easy is it for your students to move their chairs into a circle for knowledge building circles? Does the desk configuration aid in that or make it difficult?
  • How do you group your students? What would happen if every day or every few days, they were randomly grouped in a different way?
  • Do students have a choice of places to work that support both group work and independent work? Do you have both groups of tables and some single desks?

If nothing else, changing things up will keep your students engaged during the month of June, and you will be energized, too, with the possibilities for September.

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Student groupings for collaborative work

The latest buzz is collaboration.  If we can get our students to collaborate then both engagement and learning increases.  This is based on a belief that learning is a social construct.  I certainly enjoy learning more when I can talk to others about my learning and hear varying opinions  Group work should not just be about dividing up the work into parts.  It is important in collaboration that the learning of students about the task is enhanced because they work together.  Often teachers complain that collabora tion doesn’t work; they put the kids in group and they made the anchor chart about collaboration – and it was a disaster.  Group work, however, does not equal collaboration nor does collaboration happen just because students are in groups or because you created an anchor chart about collaboration.  Collaboration happens because your students value the task, find it challenging, and recognize that working together enhances their understanding of the task.  It is my experience that collaboration is not a problem is the task is engaging.  Think about the last time you were at a meeting where you were asked to collaborate.  I bet you did if the question engaged you.  I bet you didn’t if the task was not engaging.

Besides ensuring that your task is engaging and challenging (see post Collaboration That Works) how you group your students may influence the success of your collaboration.  As a teacher, the most convenient way to make groups or partners is asking the students to choose.  However, this almost always ends with a few students feeling awkward:

  • There is always the leftover student because of numbers and not being “chosen”. Not only do you now need to fix the problem but that student does not feel part of the process.
  • There is almost always the “most popular” student being torn in many directions. That either gives that student a lot of power or makes them feel badly for having to choose.
  • There is often the student who feels disconnected and immediately avoids all eye contact or just sits until the end. That child’s feelings of unworthiness are confirmed.
  • There is always the group that gravitates together which is just going to cause you grief in the end and they will end up getting in trouble.

I have always suggested that the teacher form the groups.  You can create groups/partners for weeks at a time to allow students to build relationships and trust.  Or, you can form random groupings by assigning numbers or letters, pulling coloured popsicle sticks, handing out playing cards.  You can also use the content to create groups by having cards that go together (words and definitions, problems and answers, halves of sentences).  There are apps that will make random groups for you.  You do need to do some up front work with students not to roll their eyes or make disparaging comments.  This is a citizenship skill.

However, I have recently come across the work of Peter Liljedahl.  In particular he looks at mathematics but I don’t know why his findings wouldn’t work in other subject areas.  He makes a case for visible random groupings of students and his research finds the following:

  • students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in
  • there is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom
  • mobility of knowledge between students increases
  • reliance on the teacher for answers decreases
  • reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers increases
  • engagement in classroom tasks increase
  • students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class


I know that when I attend meetings and we are asked to find a partner, it is often awkward.  Sometimes I find my friends but then I already know what their opinions are; it is safe but I don’t learn a lot.  If I know no one, there are those moments of wondering if anyone will be my partner or maybe I should just go to the bathroom.  Sometimes I am already sitting with someone that I’d rather not talk to anymore but they glom on.  Probably our students have the same feelings.

Liljedahl also makes the case for Vertical Non-permanent Writing Surfaces.  He has found that students who stand in their random groups and write on a vertical whiteboard or chalkboard will be more willing to take risks, more engaged, and more likely to work together.  Here is a chart of his research findings:

I wouldn’t have thought that it made a huge difference whether students were sitting or standing but it is worth thinking about.  I do know that I wouldn’t want to be a student who sat for 5 hours every day.  We have found that students are more willing to engage with little whiteboards than with paper and pencil.  Maybe we should put some on the walls.

At the recent OAME conference I heard some high school teachers from Ottawa who have embraced both visible random groupings and vertical non-permanent surfaces. ( They have found the same effects as Liljedahl.  They used laminated chart paper for  the whiteboards on the walls.  Maybe it is worth exploring.  And, spring is a good time to explore new ideas.



Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Assessment in a collaborative inquiry model

Of course good things (like having kids collaborate in groups) often cause us to rethink a whole bunch of other things (like assessment).  In traditional teaching models assessment was pretty straight-forward.  I taught and each kid wrote their own test, did their own essay or project, and then I marked it.  Check, done.  I knew what each kid knew.

Now we are having kids collaborate to inquire, research and create.  How do we assess these final products?  What is the role of peer and self assessment?  How do we help kids to be effective listeners during group presentations?  We know that the grade we put on the report card needs to be a reflection of what an individual student can do independently.  How do we figure that out if students have worked collaboratively on the final product?  Let’s look at one possible example:

Students are working together to create an iMovie as a final assessment to demonstrate understanding of the topic covered in class.  You have co-created a rubric so that they know what determines a successful iMovie.

As the students are working on their iMovie your observations and individual conversations of how each student is participating and understanding the process of creating the iMovie can provide you with some summative assessment data.

Before submitting the iMovie or the final showing, each group could show their iMovie to another group and receive feedback on their movie, using the rubric as a starting point for the conversation.  This peer assessment is used for students to be able to make changes to their iMovie before it is finished.  The peer assessment is not part of the final grade.  This process of looking at another movie may also help students to make revisions to their own movie.

As the group of students submits their final product, each individual student could mark the rubric for their iMovie and provide specific reasons or examples from the film as evidence for how they rated the film.  You could use this as part of your summative assessment to see how well individual students understood their product in relation to the rubric.  You cannot use the self-assessment of the rubric only—it is the individual student’s ability to provide specific rationale for their rating that provides you information about their understanding.

The iMovie can be shown to the entire class or handed in to the teacher.  Only the teacher can mark the rubric for iMovie and return it to the group of students.  However, this mark CANNOT be used as part of each individual’s mark as you cannot be certain who contributed what.  However, students do need feedback on how well they collectively completed the task.  It is important to recognize that individual group members may have varying degrees of understanding about the final product.

If the iMovie is shown to the entire class, you could ask each individual student to fill in a graphic organizer as they watch that would demonstrate their understanding of the media piece.  Perhaps the GO asks students to identify effective angle shots or how music was used to enhance the iMovie.  Perhaps the GO asks students to determine what the overall message or theme was.  Perhaps the GO asks students to identify key concepts included in the iMovie.  This could be used for your summative assessment as students are providing you with their understanding of the media presentations.  It is not a peer assessment.  It is not an assessment of their iMovie.  It is however an assessment of their understanding of the process of creating the final task.

You do need to have individual students explain about the making of their iMovie to demonstrate their understanding of the process, and content.  This could be written or through a conference.  This will be the main part of your individual assessment for this final task.  Students should know ahead of time that this will be part of the assessment.  These questions allow you to know that each individual student had an understanding of the process and the final product. Perhaps you ask questions such as

  • How did your group decide which scenes to include?
  • Which scene in your iMovie is the most important to your overall theme?
  • What were the key concepts about the topic that your group decided to include? Which concepts did you decide NOT to include?
  • How did your group decide to choose the music?
  • Give examples of three different angle shots in your iMovie and explain why they are effective.

We want students to collaborate and work in groups.  We know this is engaging and deepens student understanding.  The trick is determining, at the end, the individual understanding of each student.  In all collaborative endeavours we need to understand that collaboration is a tool FOR learning or FOR doing.  At some point students must demonstrate their individual understanding of the content, concepts and skills.

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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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