Getting students to talk with their peers about the content being learned, using academic language, problem-solving, and negotiating ideas has been a priority for teachers for many years. Tremendous progress has been made since the days of transmission schooling in which teachers talked and students listened. It is now widely accepted that students need opportunities to interact with their peers and the content. Teachers have worked hard to support students in completing complex tasks that require many minds. The need for student-to-student interaction did not change because of the pandemic and widespread distance learning.
The question is, how can we implement collaborative structures using the technology we now have at our disposal? As a note, we recognize that some students are reluctant to turn cameras on. We did find that students are more likely to turn their cameras on when they are with a small group compared with the whole class. To answer our question, we observed teachers and students engaged in collaborative learning during October and November. We came away with 7 factors useful in facilitating student collaboration from a distance.
Factor 1 – Complexity and clarity of task:
- The task is a novel application of a grade-level appropriate concept and is designed so that the outcome is not guaranteed (a chance for productive failure exists).
- The task aligns with the learning intentions and allows students an opportunity to use a variety of resources to creatively apply their knowledge of what was modeled.
- Students understand the task before moving to collaborative groups.
Factor 2 – Accountability via a product:
- The task requires individual contributions and there is a product that students create as part of their interaction. This can be as simple as using Google slides and having students contribute in an assigned color. Or it can be more sophisticated such as having students take notes as their peers share their thinking and then sending a photo of their notes to the teacher.
- The teacher needs to see the product following the collaboration and the product needs to include contributions from each member of the group.
Factor 3 – Argumentation not arguing:
- Student use accountable talk to persuade, provide evidence, ask questions of one another, and disagree without being disagreeable. Students reach a better understanding or consensus based on evidence and opinions provided by others.
- Students hold each member of the group accountable by using questioning strategies and evidence to persuade or disagree.
- The conversation is respectful and courteous.
Factor 4 – Language support:
- Written, verbal, teacher, and peer supports are available to boost academic language usage.
- Sentence frames are differentiated based on students’ proficiency and need.
- A wide range of frames are available for students and students use the frames independently in academic language and writing.
- Teacher modeling includes the use of frames as well as academic vocabulary and high expectations for language production.
Factor 5 – Grouping:
- Small groups of 2-5 students are purposefully constructed to maximize individual strengths without magnifying areas of needs (heterogeneous grouping).
- Groups are flexible and change based on students’ proficiency, academic need, and/or content area.
- Productive group work occurs throughout the day
Factor 6 – Time:
- Generally speaking, collaboration in distance learning is 10 minutes per session or less.
- When tasks require more time than that, the teacher returns the students to a main room for a debrief or the next set of instructions before inviting them back into breakout rooms.
Factor 7 – Ask for help.
- The students understand the procedure to ask for help, whether that be for content, process, or because there is meanness in the room. In some cases, the students knew to turn the background of their shared slide to red so that the teacher could see it. In other cases, they knew to push the “ask for help” button which alerted the teacher but did not disclose to the peers in the room who asked for assistance.
Let’s consider a few examples.
Example 1. The students in their kindergarten class have been asked to find something blue in their house. Most arrive following their break with an item, but a few need a reminder.
- The teacher modeled sharing a blue item from her home and used words but did not let the class see the item. As she reminded them, “Remember, we’re doing to try and draw from our minds once we have a chance to ask questions of our partner.”
- She assigned students to either Partner A or Partner B. In fact, she has added an “A” or “B” to their names using the rename feature. She says to them, “Partner A, please describe your blue item to Partner B. Partner B, remember this because you might share what you heard.”
- The students go to breakout rooms for three minutes. When they return, the teacher uses www.wheelofnames.com to select groups to share.
- She then says, “Okay, Partner B it is your turn. Please describe your blue item to Partner A. Partner A, remember this because you might share what you heard.” And the process is repeated.
- The next round, students are encouraged to ask questions.
- Finally, students are asked to draw an image and write some words to describe the item that their partner has. The whole lesson lasts 30 minutes and students have engaged in multiple collaborative conversations using academic language.
Example 2. A fifth-grade class used the five-word summary strategy to engage in a collaborative conversation.
- The students read a short informational text, some via the screen shared by their teachers and others on their own devices.
- As they did, they identified five words that served as summary ideas.
- Following their reading time in the main room, the teacher created breakout rooms of two students each. Their task was to negotiate with a partner and agree on a shared set of five words. In doing so, they talked a lot about the text. They had fie minutes to do so.
- The teacher combined groups to create sets of four. For example, the two students in room 2 were moved to room 1. The 2 students in room 4 were moved to room 3, and so on.
- Now their task was to again negotiate an agreed upon set of five words. Each partnership had their five and they needed to make some decisions, again using their understanding of the text.
- As they did so, they were to create a summary statement of the text that included all five words which they placed in the chat when they returned.
Example 3. And finally, a group of high school students were engaged in reciprocal teaching in which students had specific roles (predictor, summarizer, questioner, and clarifier). They understood the roles having participated in several fishbowls in which they observed their peers engage in this process. And their teacher had modeled the ways in which each role worked and provided sample sentence frames for each in the learning management system.
- The teacher identified stopping places in the text and told her students that they would read the first two sections in their first breakout room before returning to talk with the class.
- Following that mid-read debrief, they returned to their breakout rooms, changed roles, and completed the reading.
- The students used a shared document to record their thoughts in a font color that they selected. The text was fairly complex, and the conversations allowed them to access the text that they might not have been able to read independently.
When these seven factors are in place, collaborative learning is more likely to be productive. The pandemic has interrupted many aspects of learning and life, but we hope that student-to-student interaction survives and thrives because students need to interact with their peers to build academic language, clarify their understanding, and practice social skills. If we maintain these practices, it will be that much easier when we return to school in the future.