Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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How to Build Effective Collaborative Groups

ssin action_groupworkFor many educators, the resolutions that really matter are the ones they make in August in anticipation of the new school year. Maybe you’ve resolved to integrate more technology resources into your instruction. Maybe you’re determined to tackle some classroom management issues. For the sake of this post, let’s say that you’ve decided to make your lessons more student-centered.

So, how does the sage exit the stage? Create conditions in which students build skill and knowledge while you assess progress and maintain an organized and productive classroom. Take a look at “Groups, Projects ,and Presentations,” a component of Social Studies in Action: A Teaching Practice Library, K-12. Although the series centers on teaching Social Studies, the practices illustrated and explained in the “Groups, Projects, and Presentations” video are relevant to all academic subjects and grade levels.

In the K-12 classrooms presented in the video, the spotlight is on the students as they work collaboratively toward common goals that require problem solving and decision making. Their teachers encourage students’ active involvement in their own learning in ways that reinforce and personalize knowledge.

The video points out key factors in planning and implementing students’ collaborative creation of projects and presentations:

Creating Group Structure: What teacher hasn’t planned a terrific group project to see it go horribly awry (one student shoulders all the work or nothing gets done at all) because the group dynamic wasn’t right?  5th grade teacher Kathleen Waffle (5:06) starts her planning by assessing which of her students are natural leaders and makes sure one of those students is in each small group. Her groups are heterogeneous, not only because students who have learning challenges benefit from group support, but also because all students benefit from learning to value the different skills group members can contribute to the project as personal strengths emerge. She remixes groups every four to six weeks so that students learn to work with different personalities, just as they would in the real world.

Setting a Purpose: Setting clear, purposeful goals that keep the students focused is a key factor in the success of groups projects. Teacher Rob Cuddi (12:45) creates a set of essential questions. These anchor students’ research and discussion as they work in small groups. Cuddi also uses the questions and student responses as an assessment tool. The students respond to the questions in their journals at the beginning of the project and again at the end.

Rubrics, often student-created, also help provide purpose.

Determining Team and Individual Roles: When students work in collaborative groups, they all share responsibility for a successful outcome. It’s also important that students take individual responsibility for their learning. High school teacher Tim Rocky (19:04) gives individual team members specific roles: reader, recorder, facilitator or process keeper. Most importantly, he doesn’t assume that students know how to work effectively in small groups. He asks a “fish bowl” group to model the process while he provides feedback and guidance.

Creating Assessments: Assessments (21:19) like scoring guides or rubrics not only provide purpose and focus; they also make assessment or grading less arbitrary. They give teachers concrete evidence of student progress or point to areas in need of improvement. You can also assess by listening to group discussion. You might hear something that signals a group’s need for your input on its process or for additional resources. Students may use rubrics to evaluate each other and to understand how their own work will be evaluated.

When you invite students to take a collaborative approach to group projects and presentations, you are giving them a stage on which they actively seek knowledge and own and share their learning. One of Osvaldo Rubio’s fourth graders (16:22) says it best of working with his peers: “They tell me what they know, I tell them what I know, and we put that all together and it makes a lot of difference…”

These teachers provide lots of practice for the kinds of collaborative interactions the students will encounter throughout their lives.

What kinds of collaborative experiences will you offer your students in the coming school year? We would love to hear your ideas for projects.