Student Teams: Collaboration That Makes A Difference

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By Dr. Jane Bartley

For 50 years, experts, policy wonks, and education reformers have offered countless interventions, reinventions, and suggestions to improve schooling in America. From scrapping the system to charter schools and privatization of the educational systems in the United States, some of the very best minds have analyzed just about everything regarding teaching and learning—and one thing has become clear:

What happens in the classroom, especially within a teacher’s instructional practice, is the key lever to improve learning.

We now have a fairly clear picture of what constitutes effective classroom practices for 21st-century learners. We need to move away from the typical teacher-centered classroom and give students opportunities to productively engage in learning and discussion as teams. Michael D. Toth, founder and CEO of Learning Sciences International calls these changes in the nature of classroom practice “instructional shifts.”

Moving Past the Old Economy

Schools have operated under an industrial model for 150 years. The model was designed to create, reinforce, and celebrate separation: separate subjects, separate grade levels, separate learning. The primary purpose of schools was to prepare students for a life predicated on “division of labor.” That model, although effective in its design, is no longer relevant.

Change is hard. It’s a disruption of old patterns. Altering the nature of classroom inner workings—an integral shared experience of just about everyone in the United States—is particularly disruptive. It requires abandoning the comfort of the familiar and it’s difficult not only for teachers but also for students and parents.

How can everyone feel assured that something so uncomfortable is the correct course of action?

Growing Support for Productive Teams

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, a metric that compares educational outcomes in 52 countries, recently reported that American teens outperformed international students in a new test of collaborative problem solving, scoring much better than expected based on individual scores in science, reading, and math. Interestingly, students who were not taught explicit protocols and collaborative strategies didn’t score as well.

Cathy N. Davidson of Duke University explains clearly in her book Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (2011) that we as individuals cannot pay attention to everything. There’s just too much to hear, see, read, or understand. The world would be chaos without this natural tendency to filter through the constant barrage of stimuli. To navigate life in the 21st century, it’s essential to filter out much of the information we encounter each day.

Filling the Blind Spots

Each of us selects what has meaning to us based on our view of the world. Davidson contends that with that selection, we unsurprisingly are left with “blind spots” and content bias. Some of the information we’ve filtered out could be needed in the future to solve problems we may encounter.

Fortunately, we have tools and structures like student teams to fill blind spots and add perspective, making our interactions as productive as possible. One-directional thinking often creates a barrier when it comes to tackling complex problems or tasks. Learning the rules of high-functioning teaming and practicing within that structure are skills that students will find relevant and valuable for the rest of their lives.

Supporting Our Teachers

After planning, delivering, assessing, and evaluating student learning day in and day out, teachers go home each night exhausted. Unfortunately, many times the hard work of the day does not produce the learning that teachers anticipated. Moreover, without deep training and coaching, far too many of their lessons involve questioning and student thinking that remain at the level of retrieval and comprehension, doing nothing to prepare students for the rigors of an increasingly complex and fast-paced global workplace.

Teachers are simultaneously feeling the stress of old-economy instruction and the reality of teaching 21st-century kids in the digital age. The anxiety is compounded when they’re evaluated on metrics linked to student achievement on standards that are significantly more difficult—standards that align closely with new-economy concepts, knowledge, and skills.

Clearly, if we want to save everyone’s sanity and meet the challenges of the future, we must change the nature of classroom systems and teacher instruction. Toth simply says it this way:

It makes little sense to teach academic standards developed for a new economy in a classroom learning environment that reflects the old economy.

Now for the Good News

We know how to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress. We have real successes around the country where the instructional shifts are happening—where moving from teacher-centered classrooms to classrooms that develop and use productive student teams has increased student motivation and ownership of learning. We’re building classroom systems that require students to carry more of the cognitive load and behavioral responsibilities to boost learning and motivation. Lessons are centered on team interactions and higher cognitive-level tasks, supporting the instruction needed for success in the new economy.

This is the cornerstone of successful instructional shifts. Teachers need to relinquish control and responsibility for learning to the students; students must develop as autonomous learners. When students and teachers accept these changes, they ignite learning and create student-centered classrooms for rigor.

Hallmarks of a Student-Centered Classroom:

  • Student thinking is visible
  • Tasks are cognitively complex
  • Engagement is high
  • Students actively learn from each other, asking difficult questions and pushing each other’s learning

The key ingredient to shifting the workload from teachers to students is the development of student teams, but not like your grandparents’ Friday afternoon group project rewarding good behavior. It’s a well articulated, clearly communicated, and thoroughly practiced protocol whereby students accept the roles and responsibilities associated with high-functioning teams like those in some of the most successful companies in the world.

The power of student teaming is the notion that together we have more options, skills, and knowledge than we could ever have as individuals. With the teaming structure and the role of the teacher as facilitator, students shift their behaviors from compliance to ownership. They develop a sense of efficacy that’s melded with newly relinquished control over their learning. This dynamic shift requires a new mental model:

  • Collaboration takes the place of isolation
  • A question may have many “correct” answers
  • Student-led analysis and knowledge utilization replace the “sage on the stage”

This high-level group interaction appears to be a strong catalyst for increased focus, motivation, and learning. While the teacher provides guidance and resources, students are the ones who lead and facilitate the learning.

The Time to Change is Now

Research in social science, neuroscience, technology, and instruction practice all indicates that traditional teacher-led, student-compliant classrooms were designed to meet the needs of a society and economy that no longer exists. Sadly, systems as they’re operating now cannot prepare students for the challenges of today, let alone the future.

Let’s face it. Many students today are doing a better job of preparing themselves for the future than we are in transforming our school systems to support them. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We know what we need to do, and we have access to tools and resources to facilitate the much-needed changes.

The first step is simply to acknowledge that once we resolve to leave our comfort zones and truly transfer ownership of the learning, the students themselves will save the day.