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Building practices for great equity: Careful engagement in Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning and collaboration are terms we use loosely in education and yet they represent complex concepts. We want students to work together well but we cannot make the assumption that all group work or partner work is truly collaborative.

To begin, we must distinguish between collaborative seating, grouping and collaborative learning (Smith, Frey, Pumpian & Fisher, 2017). As these authors suggest, pushing four desks together does not necessarily result in the kind of learning we envision, nor does placing students in on-line “breakout rooms”. Be cautious as well about assigning a task to a group, seeing the group break the task up and then watching them work on their own. Jig-sawing work, for example, can be collaborative but the parameters of this kind of work require preparation and follow-up. How we define collaborative learning makes a difference. A collaborative learning task must be challenging in a way that students require each other’s help and insights to be truly collaborative. Not all students possess strong oral language skills as they begin this kind of work but the experience of strong collaborative learning helps to develop both social emotional confidence as well as language skills. Smith et al. suggest that striving for 50% of instructional class time be positioned as time for collaborative learning. That may appear rather high in percentage for many teachers. I see this as something to work towards and that competency in collaborative work can develop over time as students mature. There are some precursors or scaffolds to this work that are important for planning purposes:

  • The collaborative tasks assigned must accurately reflect the purposes assigned. Establish purpose clearly in the preparation for collaborative work. Asking students to repeat the purpose for learning can be reinforced before, during and after collaborative learning experiences. Purpose and assessment will need to be closely aligned.

  • Students are encouraged to use collaborative strategies and skills that have been modelled for them through the use of mini-lessons prior to the expectation of working together.

  • The task is challenging but not overly so. Productive struggle can be a part of a rich collaboration. Frustration, though, can disrupt the collaboration in negative ways.

  • Task complexity can be increased with experience and increased in increments to develop confidence.

  • To begin groups of 2-5 students are purposefully constructed to maximize strengths without magnifying areas of lesser strength.

  • Thinking about how students who may need more support can make contributions is important as well. Is there any entry point for each student to feel a part of the group both socially and academically?

  • Students are instructed through a process where they learn the language of “accountable talk” prior to a collaborating experience. During collaboration, a teacher uses a coaching stance to help students integrate the skills of how to persuade, question one another, and disagree respectfully and to support ideas with evidence.

  • During collaborative learning experiences, the teacher’s ability to employ prompts, cues and questions moves thinking strategies along, engages students who might sit on the fringes of the work and increases understanding.

The teacher’s role during collaborative learning periods is an active one – moving from group to group – reinforcing aspects of collaborative work and modelling aspects of productive talk strategies which allow everyone to participate. Listening to students discuss aspects of the work is vital as is the teacher modelling their own thinking in “think alouds” about aspects of the task at hand. Teacher modelling extends opportunities for focused learning. Seeing patterns in what students do well or areas of struggle will reinforce for the teacher what needs to be reinforced through mini-lessons and what needs to be clarified. As well, by moving from group to group, the teacher can see whose voice is not included fully and consider this in group design and begin with opportunities to work with students in smaller and more supportive groups. Distinguish between discomfort in participation and real struggle with the task at hand. Both are important but may warrant a different response. The teacher also gleans important information through noticing what students are doing and in asking individual students to share their thinking with the group or in asking the group strategic questions to probe understanding. Sensitivity to the strengths that learners bring to the table would include language which recognizes partial understanding as a positive thing or “not knowing yet”. In debriefing with a group, the teacher is able to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make a contribution to the understanding that is building through the work. The teacher must display confidence that all students can be successful even though learners will have their own time frame for demonstrating this. For learners who are shy or hesitant, opportunities to debrief with the teacher on a one-to-one basis will illuminate areas that need further instruction.

Similar to the role that leaders have in coaching teacher learning, the teacher’s role as coach and facilitator cannot be understated in this work (Sharratt & Planche, 2018). We know that conversation and observations are an important part of the assessment process. Collaborative learning experiences offer opportunity to apply skills introduced through instruction and offer much information for future instruction and reinforcement. It is in unpacking ‘how we work together with students’ that we gain truly valuable information and feedback for teaching purposes. It is the intentionality and teaching behaviour that is demonstrated as a part of the process that will help every student feel they can make positive contributions in their collaborative learning experiences. Greater equity is possible when we engage students with thoughtful planning, positive experience and purposeful learning opportunities.

Smith, D.; Frey, N.; Pumpian, I. & Fisher, D. (2017). Building equity: Policies and practices to empower all learners. ASCD.

Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. ( February, 2018). A symphony of skills: Here’s what it takes to learn in concert with others. 39 (1) The Learning Professional: The Learning Forward Journal. Learning Forward.

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