How to Turn Your Classroom into a Collaborative Environment
If you have been following my work, you know I spent 7 years a K-12 teacher and 7 years as a university professor, eventually becoming the dean of a school of education. As a teacher, I was passionate about helping students reach their academic potential and become productive citizens. As a professor and education dean, I was devoted to developing the next generation of teachers and education administrators. For the last two and a half years, I have been an education entrepreneur, launching an education company, Lynch Educational Consulting, which also manages the following web properties: The Edvocate, The Tech Edvocate, and Edupedia.
However, I often miss being in the classroom, and when I do, I usually channel this energy in an article, resource, or project that will benefit educators everywhere. This time I decided to create a series of case studies that are meant to help pre-service teachers get a glimpse into the problems and issues that they will encounter in the field. These case studies will also give them a chance to reflect on how they can use each scenario to inform their own practice. Let’s get started.
One of the hardest things for teachers to do is to facilitate successful collaboration among their students. For some teachers, this comes naturally, and others must work at it. To give you an idea of how the process of building a collaborative classroom plays out, read the case study below, entitled “Sunil’s Observation.” Afterward, reflect on the questions below, using your thoughts to shape your own practice.
- What did Sunil lack when he started teaching?
- What qualities does Sunil possess that are crucial for a good teacher?
- Why did Sunil’s attempts at group work fail?
- What could Sunil have done differently in order to engage groups during cooperative learning activities?
Sunil began teaching at a small rural school 4 years ago. He had no formal training in education. Passionate about helping his community and dedicated to his students, during his first year he began to attend workshops and education courses offered by a local college. He is working toward completing the requirements for teacher certification.
As part of the training, Sunil agreed to have his classes observed and analyzed on a monthly basis. On his first observation, some 6 months into his teaching career, all of his students were sitting in rows facing the whiteboard. They were not allowed to talk with each other during the majority of the lesson, because Sunil believed that every student needed to learn in a distraction-free environment in order to process information. Students who talked during these times were given a warning. On the second offense, they were asked to leave the classroom so as not to distract the other, hard-working students.
Because he had been taught that cooperative groups were important, Sunil made a conscious effort to include them in his class. He assigned problems and asked his students to get into groups and rearrange their tables to facilitate group work. He asked each group to choose a team name, and write this, along with their names, on the top of the page.
Each student was then asked to hand in their activity, in the form of a one-page written solution to their task. The students were told that they would be given a group grade, and that extra points would be given for exemplary group work and interaction.
The observer noted that, despite his efforts to encourage students to work together, cooperative learning in his class consisted mostly of busy work and there was little or no cooperation among the learners in each group. Students took a long time to get into groups, and were overly excited to be working with their friends and by the change in the seating arrangements. In most cases, the group pressured one student to write (often the one who was considered the “cleverest”), and this student ended up doing all the work, while the other students talked and laughed among themselves.
When Sunil noticed what was happening, he took one of two actions. He gave some of the students who were not involved with the task a warning, and on the second offense, sent them out of the classroom. When students protested, he sometimes let them off and didn’t send them out until the third or fourth offense. He threatened to deduct points from groups that were underperforming. After a set amount of time, Sunil collected the assignment and realigned the desks for another period of individual work.
Sunil’s attempts at group collaboration were well intended, but they failed. He delivered lectures with clarity and enthusiasm, and he enforced a strict code of discipline; but groups didn’t collaborate as teams, and the channels of discipline that Sunil applied didn’t improve their level of interaction or behavior.
Since then, Sunil has learned new cooperative learning methods. He has learned how to assign different roles to the group members, and to engage them as a group using different types of assignments. For example, he assigned an activity centered on performance arts, in which each group member was a character or had a different task. By using these various methods, all of the students are engaged on some level, and students have the opportunity to interact with each other. Sunil also experiments with various seating arrangements for the bulk of the classroom, and he uses group work more frequently. He is finally getting the hang of it.