CFF 2007
Ralph’s Notes on Collaborative Learning

One of the mistakes that I believe inexperienced teachers make is that they assume students already have the skills necessary for collaborative work. Cooperative skills, like other skills, must be learned.

Groups that function efficiently demonstrate mastery of the following skills:

1) Communication Members communicate well and have the ability to both articulate their ideas and to listen to the ideas of others.

2) Trust. Members send and receive two trust messages: “I trust that when I express my opinion, you will listen and critique appropriately, not confusing the person with the idea.” Likewise, “I hope you understand that when you make a contribution, I will consider and critique the idea and not you.”

3) Shared leadership. No one student dominates the group, and everyone participates in brainstorming and developing ideas.

4) Creative problem solving. Students bring their own talents to a project and resolve collaborative issues.

Groups are chosen by the teacher.

Too often teaches allow students to choose groups. Students frequently choose their friends, and consequently much useful time is lost on maintaining those friendships instead of remaining on task. Also, friends develop internal cliques within groups that often undermine successful group functioning. When students complain about not choosing their own groups, offer the following:
1) In real life people do not often have the opportunity to work with their friends. An employer expects the newly hired employee to get along with co-workers. This learned skill (to get along with others in problem solving enterprises) is extremely important in the adult world, and this is why schools must teach this skill.
2) Often it is not easy to tell a friend to stop gossiping or playing and get back on task.

Choose groups usually by your appraisal of their abilities and work ethics. I usually assign the top students in a class, say the top six students, to six different groups. Then I assign the six most inexperienced students to those same groups. I continue this process until the entire class is assigned.
Alternatively you can assign students based on their talents/interests (visual, verbal, etc.), but be careful not to make the same student the illustrator all the time. The visual student will also have to write and act and perform. Our task as educators is not primarily to indulge their interests, but to expand them.

Time is an Issue
I learned collaborative time management from my father who was a supervisor overseeing a crew of workers. If he gave them three days to complete a project, most of them would not start really working until halfway through the second day. He did not mind because the time allotted was decided by his boss, and, as long as his crew was done on time and the job was satisfactory completed, my father was content. Students are less experienced about time management.
If you give students three days to complete a project, they might not start working until the third day in the last fifteen minutes and then complain they need more time.
If I know a project, completed satisfactorily, necessitates three days, I give the class two days to complete the assignment. There should be enough work so that at the beginning they seem overwhelmed. If they have been working steadily and everyone in the group is on task, I can always extend the collaborative time a day or even more. “Well, I have my own schedule to maintain, but you all seem to be working hard and on task, so, okay, I will extend it another day.” Not only do you keep them on task, but you become the kindly authority figure!

The Power of the Clipboard
Early in my teaching career, one of my colleagues, whose preferred method of “teaching” was to sit behind her desk and pontificate to her class, told me that “Collaborative learning is a lot of bunk. I know a teacher who broke the kids into groups and then went outside to have a cigarette.” I do not know of any instance where this has occurred, and I certainly have never lit up while my students were working in groups, but there is a point here. When the students are working, especially in the early stages of a document, be visible. Walk around the room. Stop at each group and ask about the progress. For me, these times were some of the most satisfying teaching experiences. I got to sit with small groups of students and work with them.
When I felt that some students were off task I made a point of walking around the room with a clipboard under my arm. I would stop at an offender’s desk and make some notes on a chart. Sometimes there was actually a chart!
Another strategy I have employed is to address not the offender who is off task, but his/her fellow group members. Looking straight at them (almost ignoring the student who is off task), I admonish, “Do you know that his/her being off task is costing you points?” Make the off task behavior their problem. In the adult work world, it is our problem when a colleague shirks responsibility.
Especially if students know that they are in a sink and swim situation, that any student’s off task behavior diminishes them all, making myself proximate to the groups often makes them return to the task at hand. For certain projects and for certain reasons at certain times of the year (particularly at the beginning of the school year in order to establish climate), I do grade individual contributions to group work.

If you would like to discuss collaborative skills and their assessment, please feel free to contact me.