Have you ever been in a class where you had to work in a group and you did all of the work? Have you assigned group work and seen students letting others do the work for them? Collaborative groups sound like a good idea, but we all know that things can go south pretty fast if students don’t or won’t work effectively in teams. It turns out that Mastery Learning classrooms are ideally suited for students working together effectively.
When done well, collaborative groups can be magical and amazing. In this article, we will learn how to ensure that your students work well together and how some inherent aspects of Mastery Learning make groups more effective.
This article is one in a series where we will discuss how you can make mastery learning a reality. In this series, I am sharing how I, and thousands of other teachers, have transformed classrooms into a place where every student succeeds. In my previous articles, I gave an overview of Mastery Learning, then we learned that you don’t have to lecture to the whole class at the same time ever again, how to create a flexible pace for other students, Extreme Differentiation that Doesn’t Drive You Crazy, and Purposeful Teacher-Student Interactions Every Day – Really! If you haven’t yet read the other articles, I encourage you to go back so you can see the progression of how to do Mastery Learning well.
Creating a Collaborative Culture
In 2013 Katherine Bielaczyc, a researcher at Clark University identified four key characteristics of an effective collaborative group:
- Diversity of expertise in the group
- A shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills
- An emphasis on learning how to learn
- Mechanisms for sharing what is learned
By design, a Mastery Learning classroom starts with shared objectives. In my class, I create specific targets for students to attain in order to demonstrate mastery. It becomes a team effort where students naturally work together. Instead of a student vs teacher mentality that often arises in many classrooms, it is the students and the teacher working together to achieve mastery. This may seem subtle, but don’t miss this point. When I taught traditionally, students would complain about my tests or my class. They might say, “have you taken Bergmann’s test.” Now they see that I am here to coach them along the path of learning and we are ALL in this together. When I introduced Mastery Learning to my students this fall, I encouraged them to think of me not as their teacher, but rather as their science coach. We are here to work together to learn the necessary skills and curriculum.
Creating a culture of learning where students take ownership of their learning is job one every year. To the degree that I am successful in creating this culture, collaborative groups will be effective. I encourage you all to make this one of your top priorities when starting your class regardless of what teaching style you use.
Another aspect of Bielaczyc’s research is that there needs to be “an emphasis on learning how to learn.” Again, Mastery Learning is ideally suited for this aspect of effective groups. During the first two weeks of school, the most important thing I teach students is how to learn in a Mastery Learning environment. I am careful to look over their work and train them in my expectations. Each interaction with students is about teaching them to learn with me. I know that the norms I set at the beginning of the year will carry over. As I write this, I realize that I need to even be more vigilant because this is a growth area for me.
Once you have shared goals and have taught students how to learn, what next. Below are a few tips to keep a collaborative culture alive in your classroom.
- Ample Whiteboard Space — At the end of the last school year I found an old whiteboard on wheels. I put it in my room and it is a magnet for students working together. Right now my students are working on a particularly difficult topic and as they help each other, I see them just grabbing markers and working at the board. More recently, my school purchased “Think Boards” for my room which are affixed to student desks. This transforms every desk into a whiteboard. I have also purchased some liquid chalk for students to mark up the black lab tables in my classroom. I remember being in a school where my teachers told me not to write on my desk. In my class, writing on the desks is encouraged.
- Clumping Students — I spend the bulk of my class time roaming around helping students. As I roam I invariably find students who are struggling with the same concept. I then tell them to meet me at one of the whiteboard spaces and they become an instant group. I give them some brief instructions and let them work together. Recently, I noticed four students struggling with the same concept. They were working in different peer groups, but I told them all to meet me over at a table. I handed them each a marker and then did a small group tutorial. I went over how to solve this specific type of problem and then gave them a problem to work through as a group. They used the provided markers and worked out the problem together. As they were solving the problem I left them and worked with other students. I did this on purpose because I wanted to see if they could work the problem without my assistance. Then I went back to check on how they were progressing. I found one small error and corrected it. I then asked the group of students to work on another problem independently. The interesting thing about this group is that prior to me making them a group, they were not necessarily friends. But their shared struggle brought them together and now not only do they work together in class, but they have become friends.
- Students Teaching Students — What invariably happens in my classroom is that when a student learns something new and their friend is struggling, they just jump in and help. We all know that we really learned something when we were required to teach it. The same is true of our students. If they help their peers, then it will solidify their learning. One caution: I wouldn’t make this a requirement as I don’t want to pile extra work onto those students who get ahead. But for those that are willing to help, by all means, let them.
Social Learning for the Win
Research has shown that in most instances, we learn better when we learn socially. Having a social structure enhances learning. Students who learn together, learn better. Designing a classroom where collaboration is built-in will change the entire dynamic in your classroom. I have found that the Flipped-Mastery classroom is ideally suited for collaborative learning. I would love to hear how you develop and foster collaborative learning in your classroom. What are your pro-tips?
I also encourage you to listen or watch my Mastery Learning Podcast, Making Mastery Learning a Reality.
Bielaczyc, Katherine. “Learning Communities in Classrooms: A Reconceptualization of Educational Practice.” Instructional -Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, by Charles M Routledge, II, Routledge, 2013, pp. 269–292.