Thursday, July 23, 2015

Why Collaborative Work Needs to Occur as Often as Possible

Looking back on my own schooling experiences I cannot clearly identify situations where we worked  together.  I cannot remember my teachers telling us to "turn to the person next to you and share your answer" or coming into the classroom and working in groups.  After talking to a few people who I went to school with I realized that I can't remember it because it rarely happened (except for labs in science class).  Knowing what I know now about the power of collaborative communication, this makes me incredibly sad.  I wonder how my own school struggles would have been diminished had I had the chance to work with others.  I know that for many of us, collaborative work and communication causes fear.  I addressed the ways that I handle this by setting up the classroom for collaboration from day one in a recent post (available here).  What I want to address today is not the HOW of collaboration but the WHY.

Reason one:  It helps to aid with classroom management.  I know, the first thought that goes through the mind is how in the world is it possible that getting them to talk will help with classroom management?  Hear me out, I promise it will make sense.  Teenagers have difficulty sitting still and listening for long periods of time, this is a proven fact.  Just watch your students for a few minutes and see what happens.  They start to shift in their seats, they doodle, they try to sneak a peek at their phone and/or they start talking to the people near them.  By taking collaboration breaks in a lesson such as "turn to your neighbor and work out this problem" or "collaborate with your elbow partners to restate ______________" you are giving them an outlet for that nervous energy.  It helps them to focus on what you are teaching and has the added benefit of identifying misconceptions about what you are teaching if they exist.

Reason two:  Teenagers are social creatures who live in a world where information and communication is literally at their fingertips at all times.  As teachers who desire to meet our students in the ways that they best learn, retain and reference information we have to move outside of our comfort zones and meet our students how they learn best.  Today that means collaboration, communication, sharing of ideas and talking with classmates as often as possible.  Students need to work together to clarify information in their own minds.  I have even seen some "social media" templates that work perfectly to get at the information on the students' levels.

Reason three:  We need to teach our students how to work cohesively with all types of people.    We are preparing these students for the "real world" (I really dislike that term) beyond high school whether it is college, the military or the workforce.  Regardless of what path they take, there will be people that they have to be able to effectively communicate with.  As educators, it is our responsibility and privilege to give them the opportunities to practice and refine these skills.

Reason four:  Studies show that information is retained most effectively when it is shared with others. I saw this graphic online and it stuck itself in my brain.  This is why teachers need to to embrace collaboration.   We teach in a world of high stakes testing, constant competition, and we have to do what it takes to set our students up for success.  The majority of teachers get entrenched (and often trained) in the top part - passive teach methods.  In the past, it worked for the most part.  Looking, however, at the 5% (which yes, may be a little low) of information retained from lecture compared to the 50% for group discussion and the 90% (which yes, might be a little high) from teaching others I'm left with one thought - how can we not try???  If there is even a chance (and research shows there is) that group collaboration can help with retention, learning and connections between concepts we have to try.

Reason five:  If students don't communicate, you have no idea what they know and don't know.  I have had many students in my career who have difficulty showing their knowledge on paper but when you talk to them they can explain it fantastically!  Additionally, by talking to their classmates students will often clarify their own understanding.  In my experience, students can use the same words that you as a teacher use, but it sounds completely different to their classmates and can make a great deal of sense.  

Whatever the reason, I challenge you to try it.  Get your students talking and see what happens, you just might be surprised! :)

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