Scaffolded student collaboration using strategic groups

By on February 22, 2013

No wonder many teachers do little or no collaborative work at all. Facilitating collaborative groups effectively is hard. Even some of our very best students take a collaborative grouping as an invitation to talk, but not necessarily about what you want them to talk about. Our on-site substitute once described some of my 9th grade Honors English students as being really good at “pretending to work.” In other classes students may not even pretend and are lazy, disruptive, or defiant. In this situation collaborative work seems like a recipe for disaster.

But we have to do it. Research shows that for students to improve their literacy skills, they must talk about and interact with what they are reading and writing. It’s a teacher responsibility to facilitate a collaborative learning environment.

How can we do that more successfully?

First, begin small. That’s what I mean by scaffolded student collaboration. Begin training students for collaborative work by setting up the room for strategic pairings. After establishing pair-shares—the procedures, the norms, the process—we’ll build on that and shoot for groups of four and even six later.

Using a classroom layout suggested by LiteraryTA, put students side by side in an even number of rows. From available diagnostic testing (formalized or through your own informal assessment), divide your students into three groups by language ability: low, medium, and high. Place students in the room so that partners are side by side, pairing a student with a high designation with a low or two medium students together. Whenever possible, avoid pairing two low students together. This process is what is meant by the term strategic grouping.*

As a lesson begins, set the context and expectations for the interactions. Describe what will happen when you give the signal to collaborate. Give students a picture of a successful interaction. Set a time frame—short at first. In addition, it’s very important to establish a physical signal that you will use to end the collaborative moment and draw students back into whole-class behavior expectations (“Sit quietly; focus on me; please listen.”). Lastly, explain why you want them to collaborate—What are the advantages of using this methodology for learning? This last step is very important to a cognitive approach to all teaching and learning. It answers the student questions: “What’s in it for me? Why should I do this?”

You are now ready for a scaffolded approach to collaboration. You will train students to successfully interact for brief periods of time of less than a minute. Prompts such as “Turn to your neighbor (or elbow partner) and . . .” can be embedded in the lesson. This gets students used to a focused moment when they must interact with another student about an academic topic. Its chief advantage is that it requires no change in the physical space. Desks and their orientation do not have to be moved. Through encouragement from you to “turn to your partner,” students lean in toward each other, interact briefly, and then back into position for the next teacher-led moment.

Tip! Don’t try to do something else in the brief interactions. Immediately start to work the room moving in and about the periphery. Make it clear by your body language you are listening to what students are saying. Getting close in to the student action is probably your best tactic for assuring that students stay on task!

Try this for a couple weeks or three or four. When students are showing success in this sort of collaborative work, they will be better able to move to longer periods of collaboration, and eventually to larger groups.

More on that next time!

*Strategic groupings are never perfect. After arranging students into pairs, you may need to rearrange again based upon the reality of disruptive or unresponsive students. We deal with these classroom realities on a case by case basis, but we never make them an excuse to not do what we know is the right thing to do.

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The Conversation

Mrs. Green-Powell Mrs. Green-Powell 2/26/2013

I have found collaboration to be very beneficial for me and for the students.

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Mrs. Green-Powell Mrs. Green-Powell 2/26/2013

I have also found that in some instances low level pairs work because it allows the teacher to dispell some of the myths they have pertaining to skills and beliefs. This becomes the target skill for these groups.

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Rick Millican Rick Millican 3/2/2013

This is interesting. Tell me more about this. To what myths are you referring? I'd guess that you might mean that sometimes lower-skilled students have very negative attitudes about their own literacy abilities and sometimes, sadly, their ability to learn. If you have time, maybe you could clarify this. Thanks.

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Mr. LeMaster Mr. LeMaster 2/28/2013

Skill grouping is a nice idea. Sometimes we want to target specific gaps in our students' skills or knowledge. Grouping students this way allows us to be more strategic with our scaffolding techniques.

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