The Collaborative Classroom: It’s a Juggling Act

I learned to juggle during my PE methods class in college when we were required to develop a physical education unit to teach to a group of fifth graders. I had long ago accepted my complete lack of any measurable sport skill, but my own personal acknowledgement of this fact didn’t seem to hold much hope of getting me out of the project. So, I decided to go against the norm. Instead of teaching a unit on dribbling a basketball or throwing a perfect pitch, I’d teach the students to juggle. We had to turn in our project proposals at the beginning of the semester and I was proud of my quirky choice. However, I quickly came upon many problems with my decision, the main one being that I didn’t know how to juggle.

It’s always something…

Undaunted, I found a book and video and began to practice, first with scarves, then with bean bags. I quickly learned that in order to juggle, I needed to develop a flow that made each step of the process come together. If I concentrated too much on any one part or forgot a piece of the process, the whole thing would quickly fall apart. So what does juggling have to do with building a collaborative classroom?

Just like the art of juggling, there are several skills that need to be balanced and constantly monitored in a collaborative classroom to make it all come together:

Trying to juggle students in groups is probably the most challenging part of collaborative learning for me. Homogenous or heterogeneous grouping? Student choice or teacher choice for group members? I tend to group students differently depending on the task at hand. For some tasks, I group them by ability, especially if I’m worried that weaker learners might be overwhelmed by their peers. Usually, though I use mixed ability grouping. Often, I teach students to identify their strengths and use these to help determine groups. Here are a couple of strategies that I’ve used to form groups:
You pick, I pick. Students pick one partner, I pick another pair to join them.
Pitch and Pick. Individuals pitch multiple ideas for topics, then all students decide which of the ideas they’d like to join in on, I pick which of those go forward.
What do you have, what do you need? Students define the skills needed for a project and decide which skills they excel at and which they need assistance with. I pair students for a balance of skills within each group.

Teacher role
Another skill I have to continually juggle is my own role with collaborative work. I want students to work independently, but know I can’t usually leave them completely to their own devices. I use a method with groups that I like to call butterfly management where I move between groups, observing and listening to their work and only alighting into a team when I see they are either moving off task or are getting bogged down on a concept.

Student role
Students need to learn to juggle their own personal needs with the needs of their group, which can be tough at first. I try to mix individual responsibility for learning with group accountability whenever I can using strategies such as the DRI method I talked about in a reply at Establishing a Collaborative Culture. (Note: the reply I mention here is pasted into a comment below for those who are not part of the NJPLP group) Two other ideas for helping students work in a group are by having students constantly rotate tasks within a group or by using a daily reflection for feedback. This year, we’ve begun to use Google Forms to create self-evaluation rubrics such as this one for our Design classes and this one for our Directed Studies students.

What are the things you juggle in order to make collaboration work for you? How do you keep all the balls in the air so that your learning outcomes are met?

Picture courtesy Mark Stosberg, Flickr Creative Commons pool.


milobo on February 24, 2009 at 4:25 pm.

A question from a member of the NJPLP group asked about how to deal with collaboration when one member either takes over the project or doesn’t do their fair share. My reply to the question follows:

A book I read several years back called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz shared 4 thoughts that I take with me into every collaboration. It helped me to come to an understanding that while I can work on being present and aware for others, everyone has a different perception of their interactions and can’t read my thoughts. The Four Agreements he shares are:
• Be impeccable with your word.
• Don’t take it personally.
• Don’t make assumptions.
• Always do your best.
In fact, these four thoughts are ones that I usually share with students when we first begin working in groups because they so simply define how to build trust, acceptance, and awareness.

You know what’s funny about your statement “I find more often than not that there’s always one student who feels that she’s doing the bulk of the work” is that it’s the same thing I hear from teachers who work with every grade level from Kindergarten through high school! There are many ways to break this kind of cycle and we’ll explore them more in depth in another discussion, but let me share one that has worked for me.

When I begin a cooperative project with students, I give them time first to go over the task together, make a list of items that need to be completed and have them assign a DRI (designated responsible individual) for each segment of the work. Every individual in the group must be a DRI for at least one portion of the project. Depending on the project at hand, it might be that their roles will come sequentially or that every DRI will be working on a separate part of the project concurrently. However, the twist is that the DRI cannot do all the work they are responsible for themselves – instead they have to manage the input and request contributions from other team members for their piece.

So, it sets up an automatic give-take relationship where students want to get their DRI piece finished, but must agree to help others so that those students in turn will help them. When I grade, there are usually three parts – the final project in its entirety, the individual contributions they made, and their productivity as a DRI. I usually do this for a few projects early on until I think students have gotten the rhythm of working together and I often find they continue this way of working even after it’s not mandated.

I’d love to hear other ideas that have worked for getting all students to contribute equally!


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