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Collaborative Learning

Using Student-Led Collaborative Learning to Empower Math Students

By slightly modifying the gradual release of responsibility strategy, teachers can boost students’ engagement and learning.

April 13, 2021
Elementary aged girl does math problem on whiteboard
StockPlanets / iStock

Years ago, the middle school where I was teaching held a night of parent-teacher conferences where students showcased what they’d been learning. I was especially looking forward to one student’s showcase. This student had straight As in my class. She took impeccable notes, did all of her classwork and homework, was always responsive to feedback I provided, and of course was well behaved.

Her showcase was going well until her parents asked her, “Why did you decide to do that?” pointing to a specific step in a multistep equation she had solved. Before responding to her parents, she looked at me and then back at her parents, starting her response with, “Well, Mr. Manfre told us,” followed by step-by-step procedural instructions.

I was dejected. Here was one of my bright-spot students referencing me and listing steps she had copied verbatim from my direct instruction as her explanation. Where was her ownership of her work? How was I empowering her as a learner? Fact is, I wasn’t. In my class, I was the facilitator of learning; everything came from and flowed through me as the teacher. This was wrong. My job was not just to facilitate and deliver content to students but to empower students as leaders and critical thinkers in their own learning.

Moving From Teacher Led to Student Led

In searching for how to empower students, I looked at the “I do, we do, you do” gradual release of responsibility that I used when providing direct instruction, specifically the “we do.” During that section, I would stand at the board and solicit responses from students, saying, “And what should we do next?” until arriving at the solution.

Instead of facilitating the “we do,” I started calling up student facilitators to lead this section at the board. To ensure that the student facilitator incorporated input from the class, I instructed them to write down as a scribe only what the class told them and not go rogue and write down things for others to copy. The students in the class subsequently wrote on their papers what was written on the board so as to not be spectators but active participants. I also challenged the student facilitators to maintain equity of voice by calling on as many students as possible to complete the task.

However, even if a student did a great job facilitating, they would still call upon only about six to eight students maximum throughout a problem, which would often be fewer than half of the students in the class. To solve this situation, I placed students into five small groups of four to six students, and provided each group with an upright whiteboard easel for the group’s facilitator to use. With the facilitator maintaining equity of voice in these small groups and scribing responses from their group members, every student in the class was engaged in every single problem.

I now call this the “scribe protocol”:

  • There are small groups of four to six students with an upright whiteboard that all (group and teacher) can visually reference.
  • One student stands at the upright whiteboard as the scribe.
  • The scribe can write down only what their group tells them.
  • Each member of their group must write on their papers whatever the scribe writes on the board.
  • Scribes rotate after each problem to ensure that all serve as the scribe.

Benefits for Learners and Educators

For students, this protocol generates access to discourse, as the only way a task can get completed is with communication of the small group to the student facilitator who is the scribe. It’s empowering, as it allows any student, regardless of ability level, to serve as the facilitator since their responsibilities are to (1) direct talking traffic in their group and (2) write down what their group tells them to. This is not just a student-centered environment—it is a student-led environment.

Scribe protocol also allows for both verbal and visual representations of learning.

  • For students, the multiple representations lead to greater content retention, not just for our general education population but also for our disadvantaged students, specifically English language learners.
  • For classroom teachers, this allows for a more formative-instructional approach. The upright whiteboards allow the teacher to assess without intervention. The teacher can see each group’s learning conceptions on their whiteboards, while also providing space to not interrupt the organic student-centered collaborative learning. Then, if a group is presenting misconceptions, the teacher can intervene immediately with specific and targeted support.

Scribe protocol also allows for the teacher to support productive struggle. Through scribe protocol, the teacher orchestrates the safe space to challenge their students with more rigorous tasks and either (1) watch their students demonstrate resilience and persevere through collaborative problem solving of rigorous content or (2) immediately address misconceptions, normalizing them as teachable moments.

As a result of scribe protocol, I watched my students become less dependent on me for their understanding and more dialogic with each other in clarifying concepts and consolidating understandings. I spoke less during student work time, and my insights became more useful. Instead of front-loading information, I provided information as a response to student-learning needs. When it came to assessment, students led demonstrations of learning to show and explain what they had learned when working in their groups, a far cry from “Well, Mr. Manfre told us....”

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Filed Under

  • Collaborative Learning
  • Math
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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