Tag 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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Filed under collaboration, pedagogy, school culture, school improvement plannig, Uncategorized

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 (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups-June-20-2013.pdf). 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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Filed under classroom environment, collaboration, pedagogy

Using Drama and Narrative to Teach Concepts

Here are just a few things that I have seen lately that use drama or movement to help kids understand tricky concepts.  Students like to be up and moving and working with their peers.  Plus, drama can give them a concrete visual that may not be apparent to them on paper.

  • Pat (and probably others but I ran into his class—literally as they were in the hall) had his students pick a pivotal scene from the novel to act out. When students do this they have to do a number of things: figure out the difference between dialogue and narrative; figure out the personalities of the characters; figure out which scenes are pivotal.  They also practice their lines so they end up doing a lot of repeated reading which we know is good for fluency.  Drama in language arts doesn’t have to be a full length play.  Think about how students can turn what they are already reading into drama.  Think about using some plays as reader’s theatre.  Think about assigning students different characters to play and having them have a quick conversation about an event in the story.  Think about having a student be the main character in the read aloud who sits beside you; every once in a while stop and ask the “character” how she or he is feeling.
  • Ruth took over the foyer and had her students being soldiers and superwomen in a growing pattern. Kids were predicting and noticing how the pattern grew. You could give kids a pattern like AABCC and ask them to act it out.  What about acting out x + 3?  Student who can transfer skills from one modality to another have a deeper understanding.  Asking students to act out a math problem before they start will increase their understanding of the problem.  Often students begin to solve a math problem before they really understand what is being asked.  Students may often be stumped by simple algorithms (5 – 0; 33/33; 27 x 1) but when you ask them to tell a story about that algorithm in cookies, then it all makes sense–or sometimes you have to translate the algorithm into a cookie story and then they get it.
  • Cam and Marina (and maybe others) have been working on telling the “narrative “of history. History is often a vague and confusing subject of Acts and Treaties and Wars. Students don’t really understand that all that happened because of real human events.  A simple dramatization of the event increases understanding immensely.  You don’t need props or a script, just place some students, give them a role and have them act out the story you tell.  Get audience participation by asking what the different groups might be thinking or feeling.  Cam has had success by breaking the narrative in to “chapters” so that each set of events is a chapter in the historical narrative.  Students can refer back to an event by looking at the synopsis of that chapter-who was involved and what happened.   I heard through the grapevine that Ken was doing the narrative of particle theory but I didn’t get a chance to see it.  Apparently the solids slow dance like grade 6s and the gas molecules run around like grade 3s playing soccer.

There is actual research that suggests that students learn best through narrative due to our human cultural interest in story.  When you have a confusing or difficult concept then tell a story.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, pedagogy, Readers' Theatre

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. (http://slamdunkmath.blogspot.ca/2014/08/vertical-non-permanent-surfaces-and.html) 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

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:  http://www.naturalcuriosity.ca/pdf/NaturalCuriosityManual.pdf
  • 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:  http://goo.gl/TECxKu
  • 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