Sunday, February 3, 2013

Jump-starting collaboration

This year, about 3 years into flipping my math class, one thought that has consumed me is - What would a student miss out on by not coming to my class? What advantage is there to meeting with me and the other students everyday, why not just watch the recorded lessons, do the assigned work, write the tests, collect the mark, and be on their way? The answer has to be more than just that they would miss out on getting help. True. But there are kids who would do fine even without that. And I want there to be more of an advantage to coming to class than the individual tutoring.

This week, as a result of becoming part of the infamous CoFlipCollaborative at the Flipped Learning Journal, one answer has come to me loud and clear. Collaboration! I have been reading and hearing so much about how teachers planning their lessons together gives much better results than any one person could have achieved alone. I haven't yet collaborated like that, but I at least wanted my students to.

But you can't get people to collaborate just by telling them to. I know this for a fact, because I've tried to get my kids to do it. There are too many obstacles to it happening that way: shyness, lack of confidence, overconfidence, mismatched abilities, to name just a few. But in my case, it was also poorly chosen, ill-defined tasks. (Eg "Hey kids, in your groups, write down everything you can about....) I think this week I finally found a good balance between introducing a task, setting the stage, and letting them run with the ball, so that my students would be inclined AND able to learn and create something together.

Now then, people:

There will be math in this post  WAIT COME BACK, IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MATH I PROMISE!! I want to show you the collaboration, conversation, socializing, evolution, and discovery that happened, and all without me being involved! These are things that I think any teacher can appreciate. But if you'd really rather not hear the math part, then ok, geez, it's a shame, but skip the video and go straight to the slideshow. Math people, just so you know, they had already spent a couple of weeks getting familiar with logarithms:

Introducing the task: A hint-troduction:
I really think this was the clincher. It was just enough math info and just enough of the big ideas so that everyone would have a place to jump in once they were in their groups:

I didn't actually tell them what they'd be doing, not a word about that, until after this gentle hint-troduction. I liken this to giving someone a running start when they're learning to ride a bicycle - here you go, wheeee, isn't this easy - never mind where you're going, just keep your balance yay you're doing it! .

Setting the stage:
I then put them into groups of 2 or 3 and told them to see what they could figure out about a brand new function, one they'd never seen before, that is, . That's it. I didn't even say Work together! Talk! Write stuff!

Running with the ball:
What you'll see in this slideshow is kind of a time-lapse sequence. I took snapshots of what emerged in each group, along with the conversations that took place at the same time - which were easy to capture, thanks to the kids using the live chat. As I said, even if you're not a math person, I think you will be able to see elements of collaboration that every teacher would appreciate. Everything you see is in sequence, straight from the class, with a few enlargements and enhancements so you can read it more easily. I take no responsibility for the spelling mistakes, though they do vex me:

Did you see what I saw?
  • every kid participating spontaneously (you probably didn't know that because their names had to be covered up, please trust me on this, everybody did!)
  • kids talking to each other, being polite, having fun, questioning each other, answering each other, correcting each other, showing their strengths, pooling their knowledge, coming to consensus
  • not one kid complaining, being rude, fooling around, letting everyone else do all the work, or doing all the work
  • so many ongoing conversations - every time I came back to a group, there was more chat, and more progress in their work
  • kids participating who had previously done almost nothing, in or out of class. Some who usually keep quiet because they think they don' t know anything, and some who are very strong mathematically, but have never had a reason or inclination to speak up before.
  • two kids in particular who are very strong, and who naturally took on the role of teacher. One was very good at explaining things, and the other needed coaching. (I was able to help a bit via private message. That was REALLY cool for me.) 
  • not everything written was correct, but there was debate, and discussion about many things, and there was progress, via discussion, toward greater accuracy
  • as the conversations progressed, so did the depth. They started comparing this function to others they had studied this year, how were the different, how were they the same
  • for the math people - in two groups, a member used another technology to verify their findings, one used her graphing calculator, and another used geogebra. (Sniff!)
What I think now:
  • I think the hint-troduction got enough critical math mass in each group so that they hit the ground running. They had to make a few connections on their own to get going, like what does this have to do with what we just did, but each group had enough collective ability to do it.
  • this was not a PBL task, not real-life, it didn't come from their own interests, but it worked really well anyway. Imagine what might happen if I had done any of those things.
  • the difference may have been because of the hint-troduction, or it may have been because at this point in the year, they are naturally more at ease with each other, and more likely to be themselves
  • then again, what if I had tried something like this earlier in the year - where would we be now?
  • true, fruitful, meaningful collaboration does need to happen organically, things have to just click, but like any relationship, it needs help, nurturing, and intentional effort to stay alive. In my class, as the teacher, that's where I come in
  • I got many hints for my own journey into teacher collaboration. Maybe the starting point isn't a particular unit, but a common understanding of an issue, or a common problem we're facing in our classes
I need to ask my students what THEY think - is there anything that happens in class that they wouldn't want to miss out on? And did it happen this time? What do you think your students would say?

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