Group Work: Coaching into Collaboration

This series is called “Just Like Starting Over” because there are points throughout the semester (breaks, starting new units, abandoning disaster situations, etc.) in which we are given the opportunity to start over. In this series I’ll be asking a few important questions of myself, and in turn, of you, dear reader: what if you could–blank slate–start over as a teacher? What would you keep? What would you change? Which lessons and systems would you, as Marie Kondo suggests, hold in your hands and thank for their service to you before sending them away?

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

If someone explains something to me, it doesn’t guarantee that I’ll learn it. Some of John Hattie’s work indicates that we need to see something new at least three to five times before there’s even a good chance that it’ll stick.

In this series of posts on cooperative learning, I’ve been describing ways we can teach students to be more effective when working with others. The thing is, as Hattie might point out, teaching does not automatically deliver learning. Moreover, learning does not automatically deliver application of what is learned.

On top of all that, will students transfer learning to new and novel situations? Will they try different strategies when situations demand something they weren’t prepared for?

A teacher’s work is never done!

Feedback to Reinforce or Reteach

One of my favorite strategies to teach to transfer is to sit in on a group (or use an app, such as Equity Maps -Thanks @TeacherHattie for the tip!), and just write down everything I hear students say as they collaborate. Then, I read the transcript back to students, and ask, “What do you notice about how you are collaborating?”

From there, I can reinforce what they are doing well and talk to students about how they can level up their collaborations.

It’s really impressive what students notice about themselves when I read their conversations back to them. Many say things like, “We’re doing a good job building on each others’ ideas,” “I’m probably not talking enough,” and “We aren’t spending enough time on each person’s–we jump from topic to topic.”

One of my most common lessons from these discussions was a reteach of the ideas discussed here…where I coach students on asking questions to build their discussions.

So, in a nutshell, by sitting in on conversations and providing feedback, you can create a sort of verbal formative assessment, and you can following it up with immediate and usable feedback!

At the end of class, whether students are in reading or writing groups, we debrief with “Shout-outs.” The idea of a Shout-out debrief is quite simple: ask students to give a shout-out to anyone in the group who used a talking strategy effectively–or did something else that group members appreciated. Not only do we end up talking about how people used the day’s group work strategy, but we also add to our positive sense of community, which is crucial to students working together.

Feedback on Giving Feedback

Nobody likes it when they’re hoping for a listening ear, and someone jumps into giving unsolicited advice; nor does anyone like being given a mere listening ear when they were hoping for feedback. Yet, this is quite often exactly what happens, and for students, it can cause them to lose trust in the peer review process. One solution is to teach students how to ask for the feedback they want, and teach student-listeners how to effectively raise their points when they see a writer has a blind spot.

In my classroom, we are constantly working on short cycle research projects, and this year, I’m having students check in once to twice a week with small groups to share progress, seek advice, and get feedback. Before each group meeting, I coach students to manage their time so everyone will get to share, and then, I remind them, “Don’t forget, when you share, let your group members know whether you want advice, admiration, or feedback.”

In a separate lesson, I taught students what to do when they notice a classmate is needs advice they didn’t ask for. There are lots of ways to do this, but we focused on raising your concern in the form of a question. As in, “Have you already considered…?”, “Are you going to look into…?”, or “In our directions, it says to_________, and I couldn’t see where it was happening. Did I just miss it?”

And then, as you might predict at this point, I sat in on groups, and coached students to make sure they use the strategies. Sometimes, I record and read back a transcript of the group’s conversation to see what they notice? Other times, I might use a freeze frame approach, saying something like, “Okay, freeze! Which strategy might we use here to get Janice the feedback she needs?”

Sometimes, I name what a group is doing effectively, and other times, I have to remind them of a strategy they might use.

This is why they call it a loop right? It doesn’t ever really end. I’m constantly listening in on groups to get feedback on whether my teaching is as effective as I had hoped, and I’m constantly (receiving and) providing feedback to help students move to the next step.

In the end, we don’t have to keep fighting the same battles with the same ineffective weapons when it comes to group work. We can teach into it–but it can’t end there. We also have to re-teach, follow-up, and actively participate in the feedback loop that we all require to grow as learners.

I would love to hear about how you teach into group work. What strategies do you use to help students learn to be better collaborators? How do you provide effective feedback when it comes to social-emotional learning?

Please leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter: @MrWteach!

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