Great collaborative learning



Over the past year or so collaborative learning has been an important area of development for both myself and my school. These are my thoughts on what I have done to develop and enhance collaborative learning within my own work.

1. Room environment

Clearly room environment is going to be an essential ingredient to promote high quality collaborative learning. Many of the classrooms in our school, including my own are now set out in groups, so that collaboration between students is now the norm rather than an occasional one-off. Groups of 4 probably work best since they can easily be split into 2 pairs which brings me onto…

2. Shoulder and face partners

Groups of 4 often work best and using a mixture of shoulder and face partners can enable high quality paired work giving students the opportunity to work with a different partner within their group. A recent coaching observation on collaborative learning made me reflect that 3 or 5 is often a less useful number for group work since it is more likely for one person to be left out of high quality discussion work. Is 4 the magic number?

3. Expert groups

Our school has done a lot of work through training time on differentiaton. One of our tactics was the use of expert groups. This can be done in many different ways. For example, using students as ‘student experts’ who have the opportunity to teach their peers and become expert guides in the classroom. This has been successful because the students learn through teachers whilst other students have more people to ask for help and may be more willing to ask for help from their peers. As a History teacher, it is a highly useful way to break up large chunks of information by making different groups responsible for a particular topic or even writing a section of an essay. I’ve used a strategy called jigsaw mind-mapping where expert groups complete their work on small mini whiteboards and then bring them together to form a whole class mind-map.

4. Differentiated groups

I had a coaching observation a few months ago with Year 9 on a lesson on the Holocaust. Here, I used differentiated groups with a different level of challenge for groups; using a mixture of various data to sort the groups. Here I had an expert group who had their own variety of challenges to complete but also were used as experts which were affiliated to other groups. I was unsure on how it would go but the students enjoyed it and were ready to gain support and assistance from their peers. The experts learnt a lot because they had to explain challenging and often emotive questions in History to their peers.

5. Accountability

As David Didau comments in his blog on effective group work Dylan William talks of two key ingredients for collaborative learning. One is shared goals and the other is individual accountability. I think this is key for group work. Too often, when I have done group work in the past there has not been enough accountability and therefore the group work represents the fruits of hardworking (or not) individuals rather than the fruits of all working together which should exceed the capabilities of the individuals working alone. Accountability is key. One of my colleagues in the Geography Department assigns students in a group a different coloured pen to write with so that the work of each individual can be measured easily within the group work. This is an easy and powerful method to assure accountability. Of course, there are many other ideas.

6. Not just for the sake of it.

Too often in education we do things because they are in vogue or it is the latest fad. Of course, group work and collaborative learning is deeper than this. But it is always worth us reflecting as teachers and posing ourselves the question – why are we doing it this way? In this way, group work should be done when it is necessary to enhance the learning and the students need to learn through discussion and sharing of ideas. A favourite starter this year has been using the Only Connect Walls with students. These are challenging but also generate discussion. Giving students 16 historical key words or concepts and giving them the chance to make links between them will enable good learning and revision of prior learning. Whether they reach the answer is immaterial because the high quality debate and discussion will help embed their learning.

7. Modelling

My final favourite tip has been to model high quality group work. I’ve often used strategies like group leader roles, group roles or students as observers to try and improve group work but sometimes this creates artificial situations or leaves students frustrated when they are pigeon holed into a role an sometimes arbitrarily. I now spend some time showing student what I expect in terms of group work and high quality discussions. I often do this by donning their blazer and turning myself into a student and then holding the discussions with them. Once the students see the group work WAGOLL (What a good one looks like) and have it modelled; they are often more able to improve their own group work skills. Of course, tied into this is Practice Practice Practice. Too often in the past I’d given up on group work and collaborative learning because it hadn’t worked well. But then I’d forgotten that when I first rode a bike I couldn’t do it and it was messy. But as I practised I got better. And of course, with practice and using some of these skills, so might your students!

What do you think makes effective collaborative learning?

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