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Collaborative Learning

Facilitating Deep Learning With Group Work

A look at how teachers can set up conditions for students to work together to have discussions that contribute to deep learning.

March 24, 2021
teenage boy remote learning at home on laptop
Vertigo3d / iStock

Small groups are integral in facilitating connections, building community, discussing difficult topics, and analyzing subject-specific content through a thoughtful and culturally responsive lens. Collaborative small group work is a strong teaching practice to use in-person or virtually. Whether in person or online, teachers can foster strong social connections and deep learning effectively using small groups.

Incorporating small groups in to facilitate connections and deep learning encourages mindfulness and provides a space for having difficult discussions.

Encouraging Mindfulness and Reflection

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop—using the metaphor of literature acting as a mirror, window, or sliding glass door—championed providing students with educational experiences that open them up to the rich diversity of the world. This notion guides the framework for using small groups as a place to connect in a mindful and reflective way. When students are with a small group of peers, they may feel more comfortable sharing and expressing aspects of their identities. In order to introduce students to mirror experiences, teachers can ask them to reflect on questions that will allow them to share something unique about their identities. Whether you are teaching a diverse group of students, like me, or students who may have a lot in common, it’s important to give them a chance to find common ground with classmates.

Sample mirror questions:

  • Name one aspect of life (food, dance, history) that is special to your own culture?
  • What is one tradition that you do with your family?

Questions that reflect and respect a students’ lived experience can provide them an opportunity to see what they have in common. A window experience allows them to consider a new thought or perspective. This may relate to a current issue in the text we are reading or current domestic or world events.

Sample windows questions:

  • How can our school improve to feel more inclusive?

Finally, sliding glass doors prompt students to think beyond their own lived experiences. Small groups grapple with the implications of a shared class text, instructional content, or media. Since students have interacted with the basis of the question, they’ll be able to analyze and construct possible related actions.

Sample sliding glass door questions:

  • How are people in [place name] advocating for [a social issue like climate justice], and what actions can we take to support this cause?

Having Difficult Conversations

In small groups, students may feel more at ease sharing their thoughts on topics that might be tough to talk about in front of the entire class. Small groups provide an intimate setting that better supports students to be vulnerable.

This strategy can be used to have students work on personal topics that may be difficult to share with the whole class. Small groups can also foster further exploration of topics with the whole class or individually (complex topics often need a small group focus). Some topics may lead to too much teacher talk or lecturing to deconstruct the topic—the small group can instead provide scaffolding and exploration with a difficult topic. Students may have a lot to share and need a smaller group to fully examine and interrogate very abstract or emotionally-triggering themes.

Sample guiding questions for difficult discussions:

  • What do you know about this topic? What have you heard from your family and friends?
  • How does the media portray this?
  • Is this something you think about often?
  • In what ways does this impact your life?
  • How does this make you feel? Why do you feel this way?
  • Is there something you’re confused about or would like to know more about?

When teaching about difficult topics such as systemic oppression, identity, and inequity, make strategic decisions on who to group together in order to ensure all groups have a dynamic that is nurturing and conducive to students opening up.

Leveraging Small Group Discussions

Once small groups have been used to facilitate connections and deep learning, there are two important ways to leverage this type of instruction.

First, use small groups to work together on a project or different parts of the inquiry process. Small groups often provide my English language learners or students who are reading below grade level an opportunity to get extra support and teaching from their peers. In addition, small groups are excellent when embarking on inquiry work. Instead of students brainstorming, investigating, and expressing their learning alone, they can dig deeper with peers providing ideas and knowledge. Inquiry work encompasses so much of what students do across subject levels, including wondering, analyzing, research, constructing meaning, and reflecting. Students can see other perspectives, boost cognition skills, and have rich conversations to draw more thoughtful conclusions as a group.

Second, use small groups for peer review. Peer reviewing in a group allows for more diverse feedback, which in turn can really provide more meaningful next steps for a student. Group peer review allows students to think about a multitude of ways that they can improve their own work and deepen their learning. Some ideas that have worked well in my own classroom include collaborative gallery walks and group-to-group presentations.

In a remote classroom, gallery walks can be executed by presenting group work in breakout rooms or through a shared Google Slide deck or similar tool. This is a great opportunity to add some creativity to peer review and generate rich discussion around students’ work and thoughts.

Small groups are useful for making connections and deepening the learning process. Whether in person or remote, using small groups is a great way to get students engaged and keep them attuned to our diverse world.

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  • Collaborative Learning
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Online Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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