I love Thanksgiving food. At my family’s Thanksgiving, we had seven pies, two cheesecakes, two dessert breads, and four kinds of cookies -- totalling fifteen different desserts. (There were 22 of us). It took us three days to eat most of that sweetness!
I made two pies for my contribution. I really like to bake but I really only bake things during the holidays. I enjoy it and all, but it doesn’t seem to be worth the mess and the empty calories unless it’s part of the holiday festivities. I don’t feel like all that measuring and mixing and cooking work for, say, a random Tuesday in January.
I know a lot of folks who feel that way about having students collaborate. We enjoy it when it’s done right, but sometimes, it’s not worth the hassle of the mess and the work and the empty learning calories (Get it? Learning that doesn’t stick with you? Like calories that make you hungry in an hour?)
In the past month or two, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms observing rates of engagement. That means, every five minutes I wrote down how many students were engaged out of a total number of students in the room (for example, 19 out of 21 were doing bellwork)
Do you know what I discovered? Other than the fact that rates of engagement drop after twenty minutes in ANY activity, I discovered something I knew, but I didn’t really know.
Groupwork sucks for engagement.
No, wait, hear me out.
Most teacher’s rates of engagement seemed to be at a rough average of 75-80%. At any moment, 75-80% of the kids were engaged in the activities. When teachers switched to groupwork, those numbers dropped below 40%, sometimes, down to 25%. I
During groupwork, kids slacked off. They talked about their social lives or Snapchat or reading class. They did their math homework. They flirted. They divided the work and did individual parts.
What many teachers know is true, by my observations in probably 20 classes, is that groupwork sucks for engagement. It’s the dessert -- the sweet, empty calories of activities -- fun but not (ful)filling.
BUT -- I discovered a huge BUT (not a huge “butt”, although that is a common discovery right after Thanksgiving)
BUT -- when teachers do collaborative structures INSTEAD of groupwork, that engagement level stays the same OR EVEN RISES!
Trace, what’s the difference between groupwork and collaborative structures?
It’s the structure of the collaborative structure.
That’s like asking what’s the difference between letting my four year old go crazy with some random ingredients and baking a pie according to a recipe.
The outcomes will be pretty different. One will be a odd-tasting mess and the other (hopefully) will be a tasty pie.
What I mean is, when you let kids do “groupwork” (i.e. unstructured collaboration) you are letting them add any old ingredients in any old quantities and you will get a product that is not really what you meant. It might not be identifiable. It might even be safe. It certainly doesn’t add up to a delicious pie (or a neat, tasty piece of learning).
When you give them structure to their collaborative structure, you’re giving kids a recipe. You’re telling them how much of each ingredient and when to stir and when to use the mixer and how to grease the pan and how long to bake at what temperature. When you give the kids a good recipe for collaboration, you are much more likely to get a delicious pie. Or, a neat, tasty piece of learning.
Tons of research has been done on the benefits of collaborative structures. (http://tep.uoregon.edu/resources/librarylinks/articles/benefits.html)
- Kids learn more.
- The learning sticks with the kids longer.
- The learning is more meaningful.
- It is student-created learning.
- It’s more engaging.
- It helps kids learn to get along with different kinds of kids.
- It helps ESE and ELL students.
- It helps higher-level students when they explain to others.
- It promotes positive attitudes toward the content.
On and on and on. The benefits of collaborative structures are many and are powerful.
But those benefits don’t apply to groupwork. They ONLY apply to collaborative structures.
Some quick tips for turning your groupwork into collaborative structures.
- Time everything. Give kids two minutes to turn and talk or ten minutes to read and summarize. Make sure kids know how much time they have allotted for each activity.
- Give everyone a job. I don’t care if they’re necessary or not. If every kid in each group has a separate job, he or she will perform better and be held accountable.
- Be very clear on your behavior expectations (this is the hardest part) I’ve shared my “O Group” Rules before, but if it helps, here they are again
On your seat
Only your group (talk to)
Ok volume (level 1)
- Monitor, monitor, monitor. Don’t sit down, don’t exhale, don’t take attendance. Circulate again and again and again until your kids learn that contrary to Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so down the hall, who does groupwork, you do collaborative structures and you mean business. Prove to them that you care if they’re learning or off task. Prove to them that you care if they are on or off topic. Stay on their case the whole time.
Can you do it? Can you increase your classroom engagement rates with collaborative structures instead of groupwork? Have you noticed your students engagement drop off during groupwork? Are you ready to try collaborative structures instead?
As always, I live to hear from you! And happy belated Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoyed your pie(s).-Tracy