Wednesday, December 9, 2009

eSN Special Report: Small-group collaboration

eSN Special Report: Small-group collaboration

We teach the value of constructivist approaches and collaborative work in educational psychology, but as this article points out the reality of today's world requires that students be able to work with others both face-to-face and in a global digital context. Collaboration is "authentic learning," Hobson said, and it is "transformational in that kids see their work is valued beyond the teacher. We're so very connected now, it's critical that kids have the ability to collaborate even when they're not in the same physical space."

Though the article focuses on using technology tools to support group work, those of us with limited technology in the classroom can still use its ideas - along with some creative thinking - to create a rich learning environment that encorporates a variety of learning styles...

'Plano's curriculum stresses multitasking in classrooms, which means some students might be working in groups, while others are working individually or listening to the teacher. "To get the most personalized learning," Hirsch said, "everyone shouldn't be working on the same thing at the same time." He believes mini-projectors could be a "key component of multitasking in the classroom."'

Interesting Pilot using Mini-Projectors
"No one person can cover nearly as much information or get as many views and opinions as a group working together to develop a common understanding," said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services in Plano, Texas... interested in using promote collaborative learning and is planning to pilot them with eighth-graders...[his] idea is to have four or five students, already equipped with netbooks, collaborating on an assignment, with all of them able to view projected images—a web site, data from a spreadsheet, or other material—on a classroom wall without having to disrupt the rest of the class...

A Case for Small Group Collaboration
In a traditional classroom arrangement—with the teacher lecturing at the front of the class—"the group becomes homogenized," Silverman says. The teacher targets the instruction to the middle, ignoring the passive, inattentive students in the back and the more advanced students who might be bored because they already know the material.
The teacher might ask two to four students to come to the front of the room to solve a problem, but the rest are "educational voyeurs," he says.

But when groups of students collaborate together on a project simultaneously, in different parts of the room, "the level of interactivity goes up exponentially," Silverman says. "It's harder for a student to be silent; there is more pressure to participate."

Small Group Collaboration
Download the report as it appeared in eSchool News as s PDF.
Students can still work collaboratively in groups with a pencil and paper, but "students have electronic expectations now," Silverman says. Working on paper, they would have to pass their work around. But when their work is displayed on a projector and the whole group can see it easily, he says, "they are truly working as a group."'

Collaboration and 21st-century skills: Roles for the Teacher and Student
Collaborative projects not only help teach content, but also can help students develop 21st-century skills such as communication, time management, teamwork, and facilitation, Silverman said. With this approach, "the teacher is seen less like an evaluator and more as a coach, facilitator, and mentor. Teachers today need to know how to mix and match those different roles to maximize learning."

Communication and collaboration are among the key skills necessary for succeeding in school and life, as identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, along with such skills as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, flexibility, and media literacy.

The partnership defines collaboration as the ability to work effectively and respectfully with diverse teams, the willingness to compromise to accomplish a common goal, and the ability to share responsibility for collaborative work and to value the individual contributions made by each team member.
...research by David Johnson and Roger Johnson found "students who work together cooperatively show dramatic increases in academic achievement, self-esteem, and positive social skill

Suggestions for Effective Group Work
Though most educators buy-in to the importance of collaborative learning, many students - including the ones I teach in college - speak negatively about their experiences working on group projects. I'm convinced that the problem resides with we educators. Often we assume that students know how to work effectively together and dont take the time to dialogue with students about what good collaborative work looks like and why it is important. I also believe that evaluation should include a peer evaluation component to help encourage individuals to do their share of the work. The article suggests that for effective collaboration:

...each group have a student identified as a facilitator, recorder, and possibly, reflector, with those positions changing from project to project. After a group completes its work, the students can use the projector to share what they've learned with the whole class.

Benefits of Collaborative Learning

  • Effective groups assume ownership of a process and its results when individuals are encouraged to work together toward a common goal.
  • Students' critical thinking skills improve, along with their retention of information and interest in the subject matter.
  • Collaborative learning allows the assignment of more challenging tasks without making the workload unreasonable.
  • It provides weaker students with extensive one-on-one tutoring, while stronger students gain the deeper understanding that comes only from teaching others.
  • Students are less likely to consider teachers the sole sources of knowledge and understanding.

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