There are great benefits to facilitating a classroom with collaborative learning structures where students lead their learning rather than being passive learners. In their book The Power of Student Teams: Achieving Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Learning in Every Classroom Through Academic Teaming, Michael D. Toth and David A. Sousa discuss how to create a classroom where students work in “academic teams.”
Students engage in rigorous standards-based tasks while having deep discussions, participating in peer coaching, and working to assess themselves individually and as peers. Toth and Sousa say, “The brain that does the work is the brain that learns.” Collaborative learning yields more work out of the student because they’re engaging with the content rather than just receiving it. This article highlights work that my students and I have done and will continue to do to motivate each other. It has taken a lot of shifts in paradigms on my part to really facilitate collaborative learning.
Student Buy-in Is Key for Group Work
Many of us who are high school teachers have struggled with getting student buy-in for collaboration. In the past, I was worried about my “classroom being too loud” when I released responsibility to students. Now, I have to be creative in getting certain students to engage in group work. Some students simply aren’t interested in working in a group, or they might feel anxiety about having to speak to someone in person. There are also times in groups when students struggle with focus because of their electronics.
Despite these reasons, I had success with collaborative structures in my classroom. I hope to have more this coming year—it’s a work in progress. Students’ ease with participation in groups was the result of my working with them on understanding the learning structures, being more autonomous in their learning through meaningful roles, and focusing attention on the tasks and others in their teams.
We need to be intentional about how we set up our classrooms. It’s not just about students being compliant; it’s about their being motivated. Putting students in a group and saying, “Hey, go do this,” isn’t going to work. Spending time working with students to plan the groups, learn norms and routines, and understand what it means to be part of the classroom culture is key.
Building Relationships Builds Teams
To have success with collaborative teams, it’s important to understand that relationships hold them together (among the students as well as with me as the teacher). Last year, I did a one-word campaign where I asked students to choose one motivational word to work toward throughout the year. It was a great way for me to learn about my students. This year, we’ll be writing a four-word mantra. This is a four-word sentence that they’ll use for self-encouragement. Additionally, students will work together to build a team mantra.
In my experience, I’ve learned that learning about each other’s working styles is helpful. This year, I’m initiating a compass survey with my students in order for them to learn about each other’s strengths, and together we’ll form the teams that they’ll be working in together. Taking the survey and discussing it in teams will get students motivated to start having natural conversations. Then, we will create our norms with social contracts.
Additionally, students appreciate finding things in common with each other. This summer, I learned about hexagonal thinking for relationship building and understanding commonalities. Students will use this thinking process to answer questions about themselves and then discuss the similarities and the differences. These discussions can create organic connections.
Spend Time Directly Teaching Collaborative Learning Structures
My colleagues and I discovered that students just needed to get comfortable in the learning structures. Last year, we had student teams participate in short debates on topics in pop culture and others they found interesting. This activity lowered anxiety for most students and taught them how to have discussions in teams. Afterward, we held debrief sessions in a whole class setting to talk about the experience and how to improve discussions.
As we got better with conversations, we needed to improve group routines. Students became responsible for reading learning targets to the class and explaining them to each other, and they learned to get into their teams when necessary and quickly find their roles and tasks. They also had to get comfortable with self- and peer assessment.
Modeling is important when implementing a new learning structure. I sometimes used a quick pop culture reference or thought-provoking question to demonstrate what I expected a conversation to look like. Eventually, I got to a point where I would say “Back to Back, Face to Face,” “Fish Bowl,” or “World Cafe,” and students knew what I meant.
When I saw that I needed to do more to support students in teams with understanding the scaffolds provided, I bought color-coded Jenga games. The colors on the Jenga pieces matched up with the colors of the language scaffolds I had in place for a team discussion. I posed a question for debate, and every time a student answered the question, they had to put a colored corresponding piece on the language scaffold I had in place for them. The discussions became more engaged and thought-provoking.
Provide Impactful Roles
All collaborative learning has to have meaningful roles. Keep the roles and their descriptions simple, straightforward, and aligned to the task. Make sure that roles are student selected. I hand the descriptions to students and invite them to select their roles. If a group is struggling, I coach them by asking them, “What role do you think is best for you? What skills do you have for this role?”
Roles need to be adaptable not only for working styles and students’ personalities, but also for the product that students are creating. If the activity doesn’t require research, don’t include a “researcher” role. If the task doesn’t require a drawing, don’t include an “artist” role. For students who chose not to talk as much as others, I created the “scribe” role, where they worked as a note taker.
When we set up our classrooms this school year, it’s critical that we put student needs, standards-based tasks, and classroom community at the forefront when considering collaborative group learning. Understand that it takes a lot of work to make this successful in the classroom, and don’t give up if things don’t go well the first time. It’s a worthwhile journey for you as the teacher, as well as for your students.