Education Week - May 17, 2017 - 8
Classroom Collaboration: Seeking the Secret to Success
group work in class
said. "Students can generate new
knowledge and work at a higher
learning level. Instead of trying to
choose whether the high-performing
students will benefit the most or lowperforming students will benefit the
most, if teachers focus on prioritizing
interaction quality, ... both benefit."
Teachers can set the stage for better student discussions by only using
group work for tasks that "are too
cognitively large for any one student
to do on their own," Mercier said,
and by discussing and modeling appropriate talking and listening in a
Partly in response to industry
and higher education recommendations, both the Common Core State
Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation
Science Standards call for students
to develop skills for collaboration
and group problem-solving.
Even assessments are changing
to focus on the skills needed for
group work. In 2015, the Program
for International Student Assessment, or PISA, added interactive
tasks that gauge how well students
can develop shared understanding
of a problem, take action together
to solve it, and maintain a team organization. The first results of that
test are expected this fall.
The nonprofit Partnership for
21st Century Learning, along with
Pearson, this month released a
report breaking down three main
aspects of collaboration that need
to be taught: communicating with
others, resolving conf licts, and
Without a task that requires
multiple perspectives, Lai said, students often simply divvy up different aspects of a task "and then sort
of smoosh it together at the end.
That's not really collaborating."
That's what Emma Mercier, an as-
HOW STUDENTS RESPOND IN GROUP WORK
Primary school students in England (above) debate how to judge the nutrition and environmental
impact of a planned meal. The project is part of ongoing research by the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on how to improve students' collaboration skills.
In another study (below), researchers examined different group configurations
and found that, during group work, students responded more often to ideas
offered by other students than they did to those offered by teachers.
Number of ideas
At its best, collaboration in the
classroom can help students think
more deeply and creatively about
a subject and develop more empathy for others' perspectives. At its
worst, group tasks can deteriorate into awkward silences, arguments-or frustration for the one
child who ends up doing everyone
Now, as the teaching technique
gains new prominence in state
standards, researchers and educators are working to understand
how to help students gain the skills
needed to learn and work in groups.
"Learning through doing is an
important component in this, ... but
by itself, it's not enough," said Emily
Lai, the director of formative assessment and feedback for Pearson, the
educational publishing company.
"Students go into these experiences
with very little understanding of
what they should be working toward-and so students walk away
from these experiences a little jaded.
Collaboration is just like any other
skill; it has to be taught."
The ability to collaborate with
others has become one of the most
sought-after skills in both education and the workplace. A survey
by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that
more than 80 percent of midsize or
larger employers look for collaboration skills in new hires-but fewer
than 40 percent of them considered
new graduates prepared to work in
Photo Courtesy of Emma Mercier
By Sarah D. Sparks
sistant professor of curriculum and
instruction, and graduate researcher
Susan Kelly, both of the University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are
also finding in a large, ongoing series
of studies of middle school students
working in groups.
For one forthcoming study, the
researchers assigned groups of students using electronic "smart" tables to answer questions on the nutrition and energy costs of different
foods, using different data sources.
In the 45 discussions studied, all
the students could identify and repeat data facts, but the groups that
engaged in more discussion of the
data were able to begin to synthesize different sources of information and how they were connected.
Yet none of the groups was able
to synthesize data from several
sources without help from the
Mercier found in a separate study
that regardless of whether middle
schoolers collaborated using paper
and pencil or smart tables to solve
complex math-based "mystery"
problems, the groups in which a
student generated the first idea and
then students responded to each
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 17, 2017 | www.edweek.org
SOURCE: Emma Mercier, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
other produced more ideas for solving problems than those in which
the first idea came from a teacher.
"The elephant in the room when
you have students work in groups
is, if you don't explicitly teach them
how to collaborate, they are not
going to do it. If you just put them
in groups and give them a task,
that's not enough," Kelly said.
Kelly was among several researchers at last month's meeting of the
American Educational Research
Association who are exploring how
collaboration can improve student
The quality of group discussions
can be more important than the individual student's previous knowledge about a subject, according to a
separate series of studies previewed
at the meeting by Joshua Adams,
a science of learning researcher at
Arizona State University. Adams
tracked the growth in understanding of small groups in secondary
school and college, some of which
paired students of roughly similar
background knowledge and some
that had large gaps in knowledge between students on the team. While
that sort of mixed-ability grouping
sometimes prompts concerns that
more-gifted students will be held
back, Adams found students' learning was better predicted by whether
they engaged in substantive conversations than by their previous knowledge. In fact, among high schoolers,
the longer that students of different
abilities participated in engaged
groups, the more the knowledge of
the subject improved for all students.
And just as students' background
knowledge differs from subject to
subject, Mercier found in a separate
study that students' leadership roles
in the groups can vary as well, even
though students who are naturally
more outspoken do tend to be more
likely to be primary leaders. When
the researcher kept the same students in groups for math and history
projects, she found different students
led the group in the two subjects, regardless of who had higher social
"A partner can bring in information that's not in the learning materials ... [such as] procedures they've
used to solve other problems," Adams
Building Strong Discussions
One Ohio State University researcher is piloting a program to
build up students' social skills so
they can better function in group
work. In the program, Collaborative
Social Reasoning, developed by TzuJung Lin, students are separated
into small groups over the course of
a year and receive direct instruction
on providing clear arguments with
evidence, disagreeing with a teammate respectfully, providing substantive feedback, and understanding each person's responsibilities for
Teachers receive training on how
to devise the kinds of tasks that will
spur constructive group work. For
example, the pilot study asked students to analyze the history of Japanese-American internment camps
during World War II and compare
them with modern debates over immigrant and minority groups.
"Through these historical backgrounds, students were able to relate the reading to their personal
experiences," Lin said.
Shufeng Ma, another educational
psychologist at the University of
Illinois, found that students who
participated in group discussions
created longer chains of reasoning
to answer complex essay questions.
Even students who spoke less than
others in a group learned more
when their group engaged in complex conversations.
Ma analyzed the group discussions of 160 students in eight schools
across Illinois who took part in a
six-week reading unit on ecology,
economic, and policy issues related
to wild wolves near a community.
Of more than 3,300 conversational
turns, students engaged in 122 discussions in which one student explained and expanded on another
Once those conversations started,
students were more likely to generate multiple chains of logic together,
she found. "Reasoning is forged in
talk. ... Children adopt the way
other people think and talk, so conceptual relationships and the words
to represent those become more accessible to children in a group discussion," she said.
Coverage of learning mindsets
and skills is supported in part by
a grant from the Raikes Foundation,
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