by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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Collaboration is one of the buzziest words in modern educational settings. It is seen as a key aspect of student learning and is even listed as one of four key 21st Century skills, which are deemed necessary for professional success. While collaboration is paraded around as a new construct in educational circles, students have been working together in their learning for many generations. Back then we just called it group work, but I must admit that I struggled with the concept throughout my life due to a bad experience all the way back in 2nd grade.
For this group project, I was partnered up with a friend from class on a project on Abraham Lincoln outside of class time. Our plan was to build Lincoln’s childhood log cabin home using my set of Lincoln Logs. My mom and I had all of the materials set up for our Saturday work day, but my friend showed up with only board games and toys. You can imagine how the rest of the day went, with my partner playing all day while I built the log cabin and wrote out our short report. I soon found every group project, whether in or out of class, to follow a similar pattern - a huge disparity in the amount of work done by group members and I despised these projects.
My story of group work, or collaboration as we call it today, is not unlike the experiences of many students. There is no doubt that learning to collaborate is very important, as there are very few professions where you work in solitary fashion. The problem is that teachers cannot just do collaborative projects because they are supposed to, but rather they must make these experiences meaningful for students. Over the years I have observed student collaborative projects looking for best practices that will invigorate collaboration. Three best practices stand out:
1. Different Groups for Each Project: The common strategy is for students to pick their own groups (they will always pick their friends), to work with the person sitting next to them, or to number off as you go around the room. Each of these strategies will often have the same people working together in most projects. Instead teachers should be constantly changing the groups so that students are always working with different classmates in each new collaborative project. Try assigning groups randomly by having students pick objects out of a hat (e.g. colored marbles, colored pieces of paper), or picking the groups yourself before class begins and keeping track of who works with who so you can make sure they don’t work in the same group again.
2. Assign Roles for Group Members: By assigning individual roles for students in groups, the teacher ensures that all students will have to take part in the project to fulfill their role. The key is figuring out what the key roles should be and then having students fill these roles. For example, in one STEM collaborative project I saw, the teacher had four student roles – Engineer, Materials Manager, Builder, and Reporter. The teacher even made 3x5 laminated role cards that explained what the role entailed. Once again, to make this even more effective, track the roles students take in a group and then have them take a new role the next time so that they are not always stuck in the same role.
3. Students Self-Assess Their Group: The common way to grade group projects is to give a single grade for all students in the group regardless of how much work they did individually. A great way to get kids to participate is to provide small cards at the end of the project with a set of rating questions about the group. Do not have them give a grade to other students or to comment on individual students, but rather focus the questions on how well the group worked together, how well did everyone participate equally, and whether it was an effective collaboration. By having students rate their group work, they will begin to understand what good collaboration looks and feels like. Of course, this should be prefaced by the teacher talking about what effective collaboration looks like, and to get the kids to explain effectiveness in their own words and discuss things that go well and don’t go well in groups they have worked in previously.
While these best practices are not foolproof, as there will always be students who check out or fool around, they can provide the impetus for meaningful student collaboration, which will make a difference in students’ ability to collaborate successfully in the real world. Group projects based on these strategies might have even helped me to like group work as a child!