7 Steps to Stronger Student Collaborators in Your Classroom
What’s All the Hubbub?
Why is collaboration such a big deal all of a sudden? Everybody wants to collaborate: songwriters, businesses, school districts, teachers, and now students. What is it, and what, if anything, is its importance?
Well, as it turns out, collaboration boosts creativity and thinking. Teamwork works for big jobs and also for small jobs. According to P21.org, “The ability to work in teams is one of the most sought-after skills among new hires, yet research suggests that students may not be graduating with the level of skills needed to succeed on the job.”
That’s reason enough for me to start incorporating collaboration into my classes to allow my students the opportunity to practice and attain those skills.
For two years, I encouraged collaboration in all of the classes with which I worked. After a while, I started to wonder whether all the work to set up collaboration was really that important. Then I was present for a presentation by Anthony Kim of Ed Elements. In that presentation, Kim shared some data with us from John Hattie’s Visible Learning. What caught my attention and subsequent dedication to collaboration is the graphic below. In it, Hattie shows that 0.40 is the effect size for one year’s growth. The highest growth effect comes as a result of … you guessed it, peer collaboration and discussion coming in at a whopping 0.82!
That means that, according to Hattie, peer collaboration and discussion results in students learning more than twice what they would learn in a traditional classroom with a traditional teacher. Even more than differentiation and immediate feedback. That’s worth restating. Peer collaboration results in students learning twice what they would learn in a normal year’s growth.
Whoa! That’s amazing! With growth like that, we should all be collaborating and discussing all day long, right?
How Can We Fail Forward?
Well, my teachers and I worked on collaboration in our classrooms. We learned about, planned out, tried out, and reflected on blended learning station rotation that required a collaboration station. The results were very telling.
At our end-of-the-year meeting, we reported out our findings. Of our group, 95% said that the collaboration station was the least successful. Upon reflection, here’s what we surmised: students don’t need just the opportunity to collaborate; they need to be taught how to collaborate well.
How Can We Improve Collaboration?
All summer I thought about why we failed and how we could succeed. I knew there had to be a way to teach students how to collaborate well, and I processed and researched and finally put together this infographic called “7 Steps to Building Student Collaborators” for teachers to follow as a scaffold for building strong collaborators. As everything else in education, this is a work in progress, so please try it out and send me some feedback to improve it for all who might happen upon it and try it out. Here is a detailed description to help you get started. As it is a progression, feel free to jump in wherever makes the most sense for your students.
Step 1 Start in Google Classroom: Begin with open-ended discussion questions for the students to process their thoughts. Google Classroom is a great tool for this because the answers to Classroom discussion questions are hidden until after a student submits his/her answer. No copying, folks. What you see is what you get. Set the settings to allow students to respond. (This allows them to see other’s answers). However, you must go into the Student section and change the rights to “Only teachers can post or comment.” (see graphic) You want this because in step 2 you have to teach your students how to write an appropriate response to a post.
Step 2 What Makes a Quality Comment?: Teach students what makes an appropriate, well-written response to a post. To do this, share How-To videos 1 and 2 above and charts like this accountable talk chart that demonstrate well-written responses, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe your students could be empowered to create their own video, blog, vlog, or infographic for others to use.
Step 3 Introduce and Practice Accountable Talk: Give students the opportunity to practice using accountable talk (found here and here), and practice responding as a whole group to one another’s posts in Google Classroom. As a modeling exercise, the teacher will type the responses as the students formulate them together. You can start out whole group and move toward small groups formulating responses as one entity.
There are plenty of apps to assist you. Socrative allows students to post their answers and then vote on the best one. Google Classroom allows teachers to post a discussion question for group responses with only one person per group submitting a response. A shared Google Doc with a table can be used to share out the final group responses. A shared Google Drawing can be used with post-it note style text boxes for each group to claim and fill.
Please know that once is not enough. Students need the opportunity to practice, practice, practice. Once you are confident that students know how to write group responses, change the Google Classroom settings to “Students can post and comment.” This will open up discussion questions for peer response. Once you feel confident that students understand the phraseology in writing, you need to transition to verbal responses.
Step 4 Socratic Seminar with Sentence Starters: Move to an on-the-spot, think-fast, response system that requires accountable talk or sentence starters. Socratic seminars are just the activity for this. If you are not familiar with Socratic seminars, they are basically student-led discussions with the requirement that everyone has to contribute something to the discussion. The teacher is responsible for formulating questions that are open-ended and draw out student interpretations that should then be supported by text or some other data. Great Book, Junior Great Book Shared Inquiry discussions, and Fishbowl discussions are similar to a Socratic seminar. It doesn’t matter what system you use as long as students have to piggyback on one another’s responses. This is where the accountable talk comes in. It gives students the phraseology to have civil agreement and disagreement. It also encourages deeper inquiry instead of superficial analysis of a topic.
Step 5 Small Group Socratic Practice: Now that students are becoming comfortable with more academic phrases and sentence starters as a whole group with teacher monitoring, it is time to set them into small groups to monitor themselves. Create simultaneous small groups each with the same task: run your own Socratic seminar or Great Books discussion for shared inquiry. Formulate starter questions as a whole group or as small groups, and then share out before beginning the activity. Formulating questions is a skill that our students could practice more. Scaffold here as needed. Recording the dialog might be helpful for self-analysis and debriefing.
After the activity, debrief and give students time to reflect on what went well and what could be improved. Practice these small group synchronous discussions a few more times until you and they feel confident that they could monitor themselves completely during a station rotation class period. It’s now time to move toward asynchronous collaboration.
Step 6 Unsupervised Collaboration Station: Today is the big day! Your students should be better prepared to rotate into a collaborative station without needing your help. This is a huge accomplishment and should be celebrated by you and your students! Your job is to create 3 or more stations: Independent, Collaborative, Teacher Directed. If you are not familiar with Blended Learning Station Rotation, check out Blended Learning Universe through the Christensen Institute.
Step 7 Reflect and Debrief: Finally, take time to allow students to reflect on the experience. Debrief with them to get their feedback, so together you can build a better station rotation each time.
Reflection tools to consider: journal, blogs, Google Classroom, Google Forms, Think-Pair-Share, ClassKick, Nearpod, Seesaw, Vocaroo, audio recorder, video recorder, Screencastify.
The Power of Feedback
If you are ready to try collaboration with your students, please try out this scaffold and send me some feedback. I’d love to hear about your successes as well as your recommendations for how, together, we can make this process better. It’s all about the collaboration, right?
Eileen Fernandez-Parker is an Innovation and Digital Learning Coach in Charleston County School District, SC. She has over 28 years experience in public education spanning grades 4 through graduate level classes. She has a BA in English and Secondary Ed, an Elementary Certificate, and a Master’s in Educational Technology. Eileen has been a technology mentor and technology specialist for 20 years, and she is passionate about helping revolutionize education through personalization, engagement, and empowerment. Recently, Eileen has been a presenter for local and state conferences including SC ED Tech and EdTechTeam Summits. You can connect with Eileen on Twitter at @EFPTech.