Monday, November 30, 2015

Cooperative groups, accountable talk

Even when you manage to figure out the best ways to group your students, there is always the matter of encouraging them to talk. There are a number of factors that contribute to the ways students work and talk in groups and in the classroom.

You might start by watching this video of a 9th grade teacher who varies the way she groups her students based on what she needs and hopes they will be able to accomplish:

Fisher and Frey write in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching (2013) that there are five features of cooperative learning: 1) Positive interdependence; 2) Face-to-face interaction; 3) Individual and group accountability; 4) Interpersonal and small-group skills; and 5) Group processing (p. 69-70). They go on to point out some of the distinctions between collaborative groups and cooperative groups, finer points that I think most teachers don't know or overlook as they focusing on grouping and helping their kids find ways to learn. I think most teachers tend to use the terms synonymously because the finer points are just too fine.

For those of you curious to know, one point is that collaborative grouping does not "insist on face-to-face interaction" (Fisher & Frey, 2013, p. 70). The other is that collaborative grouping expects academic language. I think the first point is less valid with blended, flipped, and tipped learning; I think the second point is irrelevant because I think students should use academic language. Period. Moving on.

The upshot for most students is that grouping might mean that some students do less than their fair share of work. How do you fix that?

First, establish norms for group work. Even better, have your students establish norms for group work. You can revisit the norms periodically, especially as you determine if what ways your students' group behavior changes. I've been in some classrooms in which groups are allowed to "fire" a group member for not working with the group, and the classroom norms were that that student then had to work alone. That might be extreme for some teachers and some classes, but you have to make decisions about what works for your classroom and the students with whom you are working. And keep in mind you might need slightly or somewhat different strategies next year with a whole new group of students.

Second, make sure group work make sense for the task or for parts of the task.

Third, make sure the way you group students make sense for the task or the part of the task. Perhaps you'll have them work in pairs, then in threes, then back to pairs, then whole group. Just do what makes sense, as my friend Molly Funk likes to say.

Fourth, have a selection of strategies you can use to mix up the group work and the accountable talk work.

Let's talk about strategies now. I'm going to offer a few that may be familiar to you. In another post, I'll share some others.

I know a lot of teachers who already use this strategy. Basically you arrange students in groups. The size of the group is dependent on your class, but, as a general rule, no group is larger than 4. Each group member gets his or her own part of the task: paragraph to read, an article to read, a video to review, a web site to examine, listen to a podcast. Keep this in mind but it almost demands that you have a four-part task; however, there are ways to manage the task distribution when you end up with irregular groups. Then group members with like task parts get together to do the reading, listening, viewing, etc. and, as assigned, share ideas, do additional research, etc. They become a group of experts on that part of the task. You should facilitate those conversations to try to be sure they don't wander off task and/or they don't follow something that's confusing or inaccurate. Then they return to their original groups to share the collective learning of their group of experts. For more information, you can go here.

This is one of my favorites and it can be used a number of ways. I've seen it used for synthesis as well as summary; I've also seen it used for a fun creative writing activity. In fact, I've used it for the latter.

There are a few ways to do this. You can provide students with sentence starter options or one sentence starter, or you can let students come up with their own starting sentence. The first time you use writearound, I recommend giving students sentence starters so they don't lose time coming up with that introduction. Now your students can be in groups or, depending on the size of your class and/or how much time you want to allocate, you can do this whole group. And you can have students write a sentence at a time or you can use a timed version. Again, the first time you do this--depending on the grade range and capabilities of your students--you might have them write at least one sentence without a time limit.

Let's say you have your students in groups and decide to use a time limit. You give students time to review and think about the sentence starter(s). When you say "Go," each student selects a sentence starter--or you can have them all use the same sentence starter--and start writing. Give them one or two minutes, whatever makes the most sense for your grade level. You want to make sure the students who are processors have time to process. Then have students pass their papers to the right. They read the paper they received and then start adding to their classmate's work. If you started with one minute, you should allow at least two minutes for the second round to give students time to read, process, and write at least one sentence. This isn't about quantity and no one should be penalized for writing only one sentence. When you call time, students pass their papers again to read, process, and write at least one sentence.

You can do as many rounds as you like, but watch for student restlessness. They may get bored with too many rounds. You should announce the last round so the last students know they need to try to wrap up. You might want to allow a bit more time for the last round.

Students can compare their stories and their works, why they took the approach they did, what they liked best, which one they want to use to represent their group. The nice thing about choosing one to represent their group is that everyone should have contributed to it.

Before you start the writearound, you should decide if spelling and grammar matter for this draft writing experience. If not, then part of what the group can do for their selected final version is edit it to make sure grammar and mechanics are correct.

You can use this strategy for nearly every content area, and you can see there are plenty of opportunities for a range of collaborative and cooperative skills in reading, writing, and communication as well as the refinement of knowledge and understanding of the content area.

Numbered Heads
I've seen many variations of this strategy, but the fundamentals are straightforward. Students begin in groups of no more than 4. You pose a task or question. The students work together to determine the answer. You allow them however much time depending on the complexity of the task and if they have to do any research in their print or digital texts or elsewhere. When you call time, you can then call a number and each student with that number in his or her group stands up. Each student with that number answers the question.

Or, you can give students a task or pose a question. Perhaps you've asked them to do some reading, view or listen to something, etc. they might discuss in general in their groups. Then you pose a question that is sufficiently high level that students have to engage in critical thinking and listening as they determine how they might answer that question. You should circulate around the room to listen to discussions. They don't have to agree with their colleagues though you may want some consensus. It all depends on the learning targets and why you are using this strategy. For most teachers it is to get students to engage in rich conversation, but also to learn how to support their thinking with evidence.

When you call time, you call a number and each student with that number stands up. In this variation, the students don't know what question you might ask. You should have some questions prepared and then select your question based on the conversations you've heard as you circulated around the room. This is where it can get really interesting. Let's say you call on all of the 2s to stand up. One of the 2s gives a great answer; you call on one or two other of the 2s for their responses as well. You don't have to have every 2 answer the question. Then you ask the 3s to stand up and ask them to paraphrase what they've just heard. As you listen carefully to their responses, you ask them to sit and then ask the 1s to stand up. You ask them a follow-up question to the original question or a completely different question. Then before you go to the 4s, maybe you go back to the 2s or 3s to ask them to share any synthesis between prior answers and this one.

The order of the numbers should be random so make sure you don't fall into a pattern but you also need to be sure you try to get all members of the groups participating. On the other hand, it's okay if you don't have all members of every group speaking every time.

You can also offer your students a couple of lifelines. One lifeline is to confer with their groups for some set time before offering an answer. Keep that time short: no more than 30 seconds. Another lifeline is to pass on the answer but each group can have only one pass for the whole activity--not per round--so they must be judicious.

I have seen this strategy used in upper elementary school as well as middle and high school. I've seen simpler variations used in primary grades when the task and the answers are more direct and the evidence much simpler to provide. But don't be surprised if even your younger students give you some unexpectedly profound answers because this can really get them thinking!

These are a few strategies you might implement in your classroom, though you might already use some variation of these. If so, I hope you share your versions and the content area and grade levels in which they've been successful!

You can find a podcast of this post at

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