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An Educator’s Insights on K-12 Collaborative Learning

Collaboration is trending these days, especially in the education industry. In K-12 and higher ed, some educators strive to foster group interactions in class; others prefer a traditional lecture approach. This week, we spoke with middle and high school teacher Mosie Choudhry for her professional, empirical opinion on the subject. Read on to find out how she balances her pedagogy as both “sage on the stage” and collaborative learning facilitator.

SMARTdesks: How do you see classroom dynamics shift when you ask your students to work collaboratively?

MC: It depends a lot on the group and the work. With older students, I find that individuals fall into their “roles” unless I intervene. For example, there’s usually a “can-do” kid who will push the group to be productive and stay on task. This will free other members to under function. Or there will be bickering among two+ “Type A” types. But if I carefully choreograph the groupings AND offer specific roles with job descriptions, it can be very rewarding.
For example, with illuminated poetry [(in which students superimpose poetry onto video and images to reveal their interpretation of the text)], I found that the outcomes were much improved by assigning a content director, an art director, a researcher, and an editor.
SMARTdesks: What kinds of work do you find most conducive to group work?
MC: Projects. My first mentor, back in 2000, used to call group work: “group work, AKA the blind leading the blind.” When the aim is to deliver content, I still prefer the sage on the stage.
But I’m a big proponent of project-based learning.
SMARTdesks: So, in project-based learning, should the goal be defined by the teacher?
MC: For younger students, yes. I’m not 100% comfortable with student-directed learning, but that’s because I’m a control freak. I like to bring my experience in effective management to bear.
SMARTdesks: Is collaborative learning a tremendously different process in middle school than it is in high school?
MC: I don’t have a statistically significant sample to draw from at this point, but I would say that the biggest difference is that in middle school, social concerns press heavily on the kids’ minds to the point where it can be a hindrance to productive group work. I find that pairs work really well. For example, I’ll pair kids to create a research query or review the previous night’s reading. I’ve grouped students for more extensive projects, but it takes a lot of work. The cost/benefit ratio has to be carefully analyzed.
SMARTdesks: Then are you more a proponent of letting the students sort themselves into teams, or because of that cost/benefit ratio, do you think it’s more effective to do that yourself?
MC: I always do it myself. Control freak.
I have never once seen students make wise choices. They want too much to work with their friends.
And by work I mean play. And by friends I mean people who may have similar strengths and deficits so might not be the best people to learn from. Google Docs has elevated my ability to do group work. I can intervene by dropping in on a doc and keep kids on task.  It allows me to allow students to move physically out of the classroom and still manage their work. Kids know there’s a record of their work, too, which takes things up a notch. It’s so rewarding to be in an environment in which kids have grown up on Gdocs. It means they’ve grown up on collaboration. They don’t mind in the least that writing is a very public activity. It brings up the quality.
SMARTdesks: Has specific furniture and technology ever helped or hindered your efforts? How? 
MC: Heavy, clunky furniture is bad. It’s outdated.
Most classroom furniture I’ve encountered is designed for pen and paper. I like lightweight desks that work well with laptops. Since students work comfortably with laptops in their laps, they don’t always need a big heavy desk with an affixed chair.
SMARTdesks: Do you have any tips for teachers looking to diversify the sage on the stage, and get into collaborative classroom methods?
MC: Yes: script the collaboration as much as possible, at least the first time. Prescribe roles with job descriptions. Use Google Docs to enforce accountability. [For some tips, click here.]
SMARTdesks: What would be your vision for optimal collaboration to traditional learning ratio in middle school environments in particular?
MC: It would depend on the material. For social studies, which is really content-driven, the sage on the stage happens about 60-80% of the time. This can take the form of an interactive lecture, but you can’t expect the kids to generate content. For English, I use a lot of group work: reading groups, project groups, and in providing writing feedback. I also did a cool project in social studies in which students in groups of 3-4 studied objects at the Met and presented research onsite at the museum. Again, the roles were heavily micromanaged by me, but the students had a lot of room to overachieve.