Engaging Students Through Social Interaction
If there is one change that you make in your instructional practice, I advocate for more collaborative learning. Just as the highest performing nations give teachers time to work together to reflect upon and improve their practice, students who are given time to work together vastly improve their learning. Harvey and Daniels cite studies that show "When students worked in small groups, taking significant responsibility for planning, undertaking, and reporting on research into subject matter, most scored significantly higher on content-area tests of math, history, literature, science, geography, and reading comprehension" (2009, p. 43). Perhaps one reason that they scored higher was that they were engaged in what they were learning.
The model of students sitting in rows so they don't talk to peers while listening to the teacher impart information is not only obsolete but damaging. Students in such classes report a lack of interest in subject matter and decreased motivation to learn more than is required for a passing grade. Today's students need to be actively working together to find and use information or solve problems. Steven Wolk makes the point that "Telling our students to sit quietly and listen will not turn them into lifelong learners or engaged citizens" (2008, p. 115). Today's students need to be learning with others.
There are two prongs to the concept of engagement through social interaction. One is collaborative learning, which is the natural result of having students solve problems together or engage in inquiry learning, perhaps in the form of web quests or experiments that begin with essential questions. The other is the act itself of social engagement—the wisdom and synergy that comes from being part of a group with a common goal or task.
Think about a time when you went to a meeting or an event because you were mildly interested in the topic. For example, my husband and I went to an organizational meeting of a group that was forming to help with hunger in our area by growing community gardens. My husband is interested in gardening, but it's never been a passion of mine. Now, three years later, I am chair of the public relations committee and co-editor of the group's newsletter. Why? Social engagement. My interest in gardening has not increased, but the people in this group have become like family, and I wouldn't miss a meeting for anything. That is the kind of community that I recommend in classrooms—a place where students might not be fascinated with the content; in fact, they may even struggle with it as I do with gardening, but they show up and continue showing up because, like other social creatures, they enjoy being part of a close-knit group that works together.
It's not just a nice idea. Katherine Wentzel (1998) found that when students' social goals were met in a classroom, they had an increased desire to learn, get good grades, behave acceptably, and pursue academic performance. I have witnessed that such an approach goes a long way toward creating tolerance and reducing bullying in classrooms and schools. It's hard to pick on someone once you truly get to know him—his strengths and differences, aspirations and goals, insecurities and fears. There is really no downside to collaborative learning for students.
How to Create a Sense of Belonging
Students feel that they belong when they have a role or task in a group. Think about teams (or committees in upper grades) you could create in your own discipline. Every student would belong to at least one group in addition to working in other groups on content tasks. Following are examples of some standing committees you could form within classrooms.
Create a current events team that will scour Time, Newsweek, USA Today (online or in print) and bring to class any news they find that relates to the topic of study—or a previous topic of study. For example, when scientists determined that Pluto was not a planet, the science class's current events team was all over that news, providing articles to place on a bulletin board and sharing the new development orally with the class. The same was true for when Osama Bin Laden and Moammar Kadafi were killed—important historical events that won't appear in print textbooks for years.
Form a writing team in upper elementary or middle school that assists students with writing assignments by offering help with introductions, conclusions, or organization. In an English language arts class, for example, this may be specialized to a spelling team (those who are naturally good spellers), a comma team who "gets" the comma rules, or a vocabulary team. In science class, this could be a team that helps students with the scientific method and with the writing of lab reports.
Create a social team at any grade level. These students often make lists of birthdays and remind the class to honor that student on her special day. One high school class selected secret pals to make sure everyone felt special to at least one other person in the class. None of these activities interfered with instructional time but, rather, enhanced the learning through a positive and caring climate.
Devise other special teams that are dependent upon the content or topic of study: art teams, technology teams, book teams, logistics teams (the latter may be for passing out papers or turning on computers).
Once you turn ownership of the class over to its occupants, there are almost no limits to the benefits.
Harvey, S. & Daniels, H. (2009). Comprehension and collaboration: Inquiry circles in collaboration. Portland, NH: Heinemann.
Wentzel, K. (1998). Social relationships and motivation in middle school: The role of parents, teachers, and peers. Journal of Educational Psychology 90(2), 202–209.
Wolk, S. (2008, Oct.). School as inquiry. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(2), 115–122.
From Overcoming Textbook Fatigue: 21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning (pp. 19–21), by R. Lent, 2012, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright: 2012 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission.
ReLeah Cossett Lent is an international education consultant and author in northern Georgia who writes, speaks, and provides workshops on topics ranging from literacy to creating communities of practice within schools and districts.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 4. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.