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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Student groupings for collaborative work

The latest buzz is collaboration.  If we can get our students to collaborate then both engagement and learning increases.  This is based on a belief that learning is a social construct.  I certainly enjoy learning more when I can talk to others about my learning and hear varying opinions  Group work should not just be about dividing up the work into parts.  It is important in collaboration that the learning of students about the task is enhanced because they work together.  Often teachers complain that collabora tion doesn’t work; they put the kids in group and they made the anchor chart about collaboration – and it was a disaster.  Group work, however, does not equal collaboration nor does collaboration happen just because students are in groups or because you created an anchor chart about collaboration.  Collaboration happens because your students value the task, find it challenging, and recognize that working together enhances their understanding of the task.  It is my experience that collaboration is not a problem is the task is engaging.  Think about the last time you were at a meeting where you were asked to collaborate.  I bet you did if the question engaged you.  I bet you didn’t if the task was not engaging.

Besides ensuring that your task is engaging and challenging (see post Collaboration That Works) how you group your students may influence the success of your collaboration.  As a teacher, the most convenient way to make groups or partners is asking the students to choose.  However, this almost always ends with a few students feeling awkward:

  1. There is always the leftover student because of numbers and not being “chosen”. Not only do you now need to fix the problem but that student does not feel part of the process.

  2. There is almost always the “most popular” student being torn in many directions. That either gives that student a lot of power or makes them feel badly for having to choose.

  3. There is often the student who feels disconnected and immediately avoids all eye contact or just sits until the end. That child’s feelings of unworthiness are confirmed.

  4. There is always the group that gravitates together which is just going to cause you grief in the end and they will end up getting in trouble.

I have always suggested that the teacher form the groups.  You can create groups/partners for weeks at a time to allow students to build relationships and trust.  Or, you can form random groupings by assigning numbers or letters, pulling coloured popsicle sticks, handing out playing cards.  You can also use the content to create groups by having cards that go together (words and definitions, problems and answers, halves of sentences).  There are apps that will make random groups for you.  You do need to do some up front work with students not to roll their eyes or make disparaging comments.  This is a citizenship skill.

However, I have recently come across the work of Peter Liljedahl.  In particular he looks at mathematics but I don’t know why his findings wouldn’t work in other subject areas.  He makes a case for visible random groupings of students and his research finds the following:

  1. students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in

  2. there is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom

  3. mobility of knowledge between students increases

  4. reliance on the teacher for answers decreases

  5. reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers increases

  6. engagement in classroom tasks increase

  7. students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class

I know that when I attend meetings and we are asked to find a partner, it is often awkward.  Sometimes I find my friends but then I already know what their opinions are; it is safe but I don’t learn a lot.  If I know no one, there are those moments of wondering if anyone will be my partner or maybe I should just go to the bathroom.  Sometimes I am already sitting with someone that I’d rather not talk to anymore but they glom on.  Probably our students have the same feelings.

Liljedahl also makes the case for Vertical Non-permanent Writing Surfaces.  He has found that students who stand in their random groups and write on a vertical whiteboard or chalkboard will be more willing to take risks, more engaged, and more likely to work together.  Here is a chart of his research findings:

I wouldn’t have thought that it made a huge difference whether students were sitting or standing but it is worth thinking about.  I do know that I wouldn’t want to be a student who sat for 5 hours every day.  We have found that students are more willing to engage with little whiteboards than with paper and pencil.  Maybe we should put some on the walls.

At the recent OAME conference I heard some high school teachers from Ottawa who have embraced both visible random groupings and vertical non-permanent surfaces. ( They have found the same effects as Liljedahl.  They used laminated chart paper for  the whiteboards on the walls.  Maybe it is worth exploring.  And, spring is a good time to explore new ideas.

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